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Roots

Gold-leafed trees rise out of a morning mist along the freeway. I am driving, and my sister is in the passenger seat. When she reaches for a paper sack at her feet, Santiago rises from where he has been slumbering in the back and places his muzzle hopefully between our shoulders. I give him two bites of the pumpkin doughnut she hands to me, after which he settles down to sleep again. We pass an oil refinery–a campus of pipes and spikes and smoke plumes set against a barren horizon, a scene of intricate industrial detail and reach. My sister says, “I remember that. It was eerie at night.” Then the landscape melts again into unfamiliarity.

People are angry about the pandemic. In focus groups, they say that they want to buy cars, but manufacturing and distribution haven’t recovered from global lockdowns, and a backlog of container ships has stalled at the ports. There are no cars to buy. People say that they want to go to restaurants, but restaurants keep short hours or provide service only on patios. The food gets cold on the way home. The people get cold on the patios.

My car is streaked with the rust of eleven years of salted winter roads. My sister is wearing a mask. I took a COVID test, and I crack a window because if I wear a mask my glasses fog. We will be lunching with friends. We are happy.

There are two different places that I refer to as “the farm.” The first is where my father was raised, on land that his family homesteaded in Colorado in the nineteenth century. We used to visit when I was a young child. In the mudroom of the farmhouse, my grandfather kept a silver Newton’s pendulum that glinted as it swung and clicked, swung and clicked, swung and clicked… There was a furnace in the living room as tall and as cozy as a picture-book grizzly bear, and outside there was a cellar door beside which my grandmother taught me how to shuck corn. After my father grew up and went into business–and after his own father died and the family farm passed to cousins–he purchased eighty acres in Minnesota, about half of them arable, and worked them with a partner. We visited that farm regularly on summer weekends throughout the later years of my childhood. In time, Dad sold the land to his farming partners, our friends.

That second farm is where my sister and I are headed. She has not visited since her teenage daughter was in elementary school; I have not been since I myself was in high school. When a limestone bluff rises beside us, we know that we are close, and when the road curves and we recognize a winding ribbon of driveway, we give a little shout of victory. Santiago rises in the back seat. I gaze sideways at a field where, as kids, we took rides in a purple sleigh that glided behind a snowmobile. As I navigate around a chicken coop and grain silos, my sister is waving to her childhood friend–the farmer’s daughter, now a farmer herself–who sits on the front porch of a house that I am seeing for the first time. The original farmhouse burned down when I was still a kid. Another woman exits the front door, walking with a cane. I can sense Santiago behind me rippling with excitement as I park the car.

My sister walks to the porch to greet the friend with whom, as a girl, she shared bubblegum and secrets, with whom she rode horses and dressed cats and cuddled piglets. I release Santi from his seat belt and hold tightly to his leash as he jumps to the ground. A collie ambles over to us. She is larger than Santiago, with a regal calm that contrasts sharply with his mad thrill. After a hasty nuzzle, Santi turns and aims for a pen of chickens who have congregated in speckled and strutting, tufted and gleaming magnificence. They scatter in alarm. He pulls me to an apple tree where I rock uncertainly on the fruit under our feet as he roots around in the grass. Then he darts over to a truck parked on the driveway and pees on one of its tires.

A dozen or more cattle are lined up behind a low, wooden fence, with ponies in a corral behind them where the yard slopes down into a stand of trees. One steer–with slightly curly locks the color of summer sand–watches Santiago intently, and the force of his curiosity makes Santi curious, too. As the farmer approaches in a loader filled with silage, the steer ducks his head through the fence rails. Santiago strains forward on the leash. The steer sticks out a wide, pink tongue and Santiago sniffs it. There is a moment of consideration. And then, at the same instant, both animals leap backward as if having received a shock of electricity. Santi hurries along to the gardens. The cattle all watch him with suspicion.

Time has changed some things. The steps that I climb to the front porch are alongside a snug log house. It was built from the timber and stone of the land that surrounds it, with a large fireplace and a sunlit loft. It replaces a white clapboard house where we slept at the top of narrow stairs as children. In the yard, a pool that once sat naked like a cistern on the soil is flanked by foliage and a wooden deck upon which a slide lies on its side, its season over. I hug the farmer’s wife and the farmer’s daughter, and I see that blond hairs have become white, that figures have softened and the cane is nearby. Still, the faces of mother and daughter are exactly as I remember them. We sit, chatting of snakes and frogs and desperate foxes, and we watch cats prowling at our ankles, and the laughter, too, is familiar.

When the farmer has fed the cattle, he greets us and gets into a car with his daughter. My sister and I follow, the gravel on the road clouding behind the bumper ahead, even on this cool, damp morning. A man in the cab of a passing tractor waves at us. We don’t know him, but we wave back, relieved by this gesture of rural civility. We have worried that we are city slickers, my sister and I, that there is an ignorance in us that is unwelcome here. And it is October; there is work to be done. But the farmer’s daughter says that if she and her family saw friends only when there was no work to be done, they would never see friends. “Anyway,” she says, “it is too wet today to harvest the beans.” So we have come.

The car ahead pulls off the road and stops at a gate. The farmer gets out. He wears a brown cap and a green jacket, and he swings open the gate, ushering us through. Autumn scrub scrapes at the rust on the underside of my car as we slow down and park before a steep wall of rock. This quarry marks the edge of the land my dad once worked. When we were young, my siblings and I and our farming friends climbed here on mountains of gravel. The rock face is farther from the road than it was in those days. It is more beautiful than I remembered. I let Santiago out of the car, and though I leave his leash hitched to his harness, I allow him to drag it. There are no cats to chase, but there are surely deer. I stand staring at this place that is full of both undisclosed wonders and closely held memories, a place both strange and known. Santi squats to poop, and I mutter that I’ve left bags in the car.

“You don’t need a poop bag,” says the farmer’s daughter, and her voice is high as she tries to strangle a laugh coming up from her belly, a courtesy to an ignorant city slicker.

We walk from the quarry into a wood that my father planted. We try to ascertain the age of the red pines by counting their branches–which grow like rungs on a ladder, one for each year–but the canopy is so far up that we lose count at twenty-five. Black walnuts have fallen and loll under our boots in big, round hulls. Santiago has left me and walks beside the farmer, who strolls with an ease that comes of knowing the land. There are no footpaths here. We lift and stomp branches out of our way, bracing ourselves against tree trunks to keep from sliding down slopes. My sister and the farmer’s daughter walk together, and there is something girlish about the way that they hold their bodies, their heads together, quick to smile. We make our way up to a ridge that leads to the top of the quarry. When we arrive, I hang back, afraid of heights. I watch Santi climb a hump of grass and rock at the top of the cliff and look down. I shudder and stifle the impulse to tell him to be careful. He shimmies backward off the perch and resumes grazing at the edge of the wood.

One of my friendships collapsed this year. It was longstanding, with a woman who was smart and liked to laugh. She used to text photos from places where she was traveling: restaurants and street corners and beaches and gardens. The pandemic depressed her. She yearned to experience more of the world but did not accept invitations to get takeout from a new restaurant nearby, or to visit a church or a garden, or to drink coffee in my study with the windows open. Travel meant something different to her than it does to me. She had purchased a car, and it needed repairs. She didn’t want to talk about that. Santi and I once stopped by her house with doughnuts. She was sick of making her own meals, she said. She didn’t come to the door; we left the sack on the front stoop. Work was bad. She didn’t want to talk about that either. It was hard to find something that she wanted to talk about. She peered out a window as we drove off, a phone to her ear, in a meeting. I hardly recognized her.

The farmer is leading us to where our family kept a camper in a clearing among the trees. In those days, I was afraid of sleeping on the bunk bed, but the camper had replaced a tent and provided better shelter from spiders. The truth is that when I was young, my affection for the outdoors was timid. At the farm, I was often to be found in the camper reading a book, or–after their home went up in flames during church one Sunday morning–in our friends’ camper, playing their piano. And as I follow the farmer, with Santiago nosing the earth two feet in front of him, these woods could be anywhere.

But then the farmer stops, and I cease watching my feet in the underbrush, and I see a dry creek bed, and I am filled with emotion. This was the spot. When I was a child here, the summer mornings were sunlit and peaceful. Everything was green. Our family dog roamed in the grass beside the banks, small-boned and long-haired, without a leash, mad thrilled. The farmer would visit, and he and my father would talk and laugh, and when we drove to the farmhouse, a collie would amble over to us on the driveway, and my brother would run off to play with the farmer’s son, and my sister would run off to play with the farmer’s daughter, and in the kitchen, my mother and I would listen to the farmer’s wife tell stories, her eyes merry as she made big meals for us to eat.

The hospital near my home has received record numbers of trauma patients this year. There are more car crashes, more gunshot wounds. And there are the infections. It is not my imagination that I hear ambulance sirens and medical choppers breaking the air hour after hour, day after day, month after month. But over this land–this farm–in this moment, the air is whole. It is quiet. And in that quietude, I remember that my life has been full of love.

Looping back to our cars, we cross a soybean field. My sister and the farmer’s daughter are walking shoulder to shoulder now through the narrow rows of bean stalks, radiating under the flat, gray sky ever more childlike delight in one another’s company.

“Don’t you remember,” I call to my sister, “when we pulled weeds here?”

She remembers pulling weeds but does not remember that it was here, right here. The work made me hot and achy and sulky, but I was proud to be doing something important. From time to time, Santiago disappears. When I call him, he comes to me from where the field meets the wood, his face suffused with rapture: he has been eating deer scat and wildflowers. In the night, his diet will return to haunt us. The farmer asks if I am hungry and holds out his palm. On it, are three, miniscule, yellow beans. I put the biggest one in my mouth. It is chewy. Still too moist for harvesting, he says. Then he is telling me the names of the plants at the edge of the field: mare’s tail and buttonweed and foxtail grass. He hands me a sprig of lamb’s quarters. He is weeding as he walks, and I want to know the things he knows. But Santiago has charged ahead and I jog after him, grabbing the leash to limit his trampling of the crop.

Back at the farmhouse, I give Santi kibble and water, and leave him in the car to rest. The farmer’s daughter has been joined by her husband. He wears a silver, Western belt buckle and shares the family trait of laughing at what might make others curse. We sit down to lunch in the snug log house and the farmer offers grace: a prayer of thanks for food and friendship. We pass around plates of beef burgers and tomato slices; freshly picked sweet corn and creamy orange gelatin; potato chips and tortilla chips. There are cookie bars for dessert. It is the best meal I’ve had in a long while. Every now and again, the collie barks from the front porch and Santi answers her, sleepily. A rooster adds commentary. At the dining table, we reminisce about rafting on the river and sneaking in the woods. Then talk turns to those who are young now, as we once were.

We laugh and laugh.

The wind has ushered in a blue sky with carded cotton clouds. I bring Santi a bit of beef and let him out of the car. We will have one more walk-about–on his leash–before we depart. He has already had a stand-off with a kitten whose milk-white fur had pretty patches of coffee and espresso beans. She stood her ground in the farmyard, her tiny back arched, as Santiago strained at his tether and barked. The farmer asks if I want to see the silage, and Santi and I follow him. The feed is out in the open, under that blue sky. The farmer takes a fistful of it and opens his hand, shows it to me. He talks about how the entire plant–not just the grain–ferments and remains stable without cover of a silo, how the great jumble of it generates heat and provides a warm meal to the cattle throughout the winter.

And then he asks me a question. When he grows corn, he says, he plants seeds at a certain poundage and uses fertilizer at a certain poundage, but the crop yields vastly more pounds than those two figures combined. Where do those pounds, where does that crop come from?

Santiago is pulling. The dirt here must smell of the silage and the apples, the cats and the collie, the cows and the ponies, mice and snakes. It must smell of the foxes who have been making off with hen after hen. I am trying to listen to the farmer provide a gloss on photosynthesis as every few seconds Santi tugs in a different direction. I don’t know the answer to the question.

“A lot of people will say, ‘the soil,'” says the farmer. “But that’s not right. It comes from the atmosphere.”

He pauses.

“It’s a miracle,” he says.

Like my father, the farmer is a scientist. They worked together in business before they became partners in working the land.

“I probably never would have gone back to farming if your dad had remained my boss,” says the farmer. “He was kind. He listened.”

But that wasn’t what happened. The farmer tells me what it was like to work for a large organization as a young man with a family: what compromises were made, and who made them. He tells me what it has been like to work on a small farm: what compromises have been made, and who has made them. We are standing near a grassy knoll beneath which lie the remains of an old barn: the one in which the piglets and puppies of my childhood were born. It was destroyed by a tornado a couple of decades ago. It lies in a puddle on the ground, not much more than a cupola in the midst of weathered gray planks. The farmer remarks that he ought to have taken care of this ruin by now, but it moves me. Its presence reminds me of joys the meaning of which I did not know when I was young. I am glad that it is here.

The farmer’s daughter is standing near the water pump. She is about to broadcast feed for the chickens. The drought seems to have brought around more, hungrier foxes, so the formerly free range of the flock has been curtailed. They are released from a wire enclosure only when minders–the collie, the farmers–are nearby. I put Santiago back in the car. He will sleep richly on the ride home, the sinking sun warm upon his side, his muscles so tired that breathing itself barely lifts his ribs.

The chickens are running about the yard, each to a preferred little plot of ground: in the grass beside a mower or in the garden where purple shamrocks are blooming or underneath the bench where the sweet corn gets shucked. They are the colors of the earth, from chalk to clay, silt to loam, and their eggs–which we are given as a parting gift–are similarly various and lovely. The kitten has climbed a tree and watches the frolicking with her belly pressed to a branch, her eyes wary. We talk about the winter rye going in beside the long driveway: cover crop to nourish depleted soil. A large black rooster–his feathers smart and shiny–strides among the hens with evident pleasure.

When my sister and I extend our farewell hugs, we are told that we don’t have to leave yet. On the drive home, we are a little giddy.

The startling heat that troubled the summer continues into October: for weeks, temperatures are ten or fifteen degrees above average. The potatoes that I’ve stored in the basement are sprouting and the apples are rotting. It does not rain, and every day the water in the bird bath evaporates in the midday sun. I plant bare root spiderwort and angelica, watering the sprouts along with the grass seed that I’ve scattered and the trees that are going into their second winter in a drought. The Kentucky coffee trees have made only a handful of pods this season. I think of my father’s red pines and black walnuts. There is always work to be done.

The sirens trouble me less after the visit to the farm. I sleep better. One afternoon, as I sit on my living room couch, I notice the white cedar outside the front window quaking. I take off my reading glasses and watch as a dozen or more sparrows flutter among its branches, feeding on the seeds in its cones. A month ago, this tree was lying flat on the lawn, its shallow roots having tipped out of the ground after suffering the trauma of a severed limb and a year of excessive heat and aridity. Nearly every day, I gaze on its leaves, wondering if they have enough blue, if I need to get out a watering can, wondering what I can do to encourage those roots to tunnel deep, to rest in what is solid. But here it is, heavy with seed, offering a big meal for the birds.

It’s a miracle.

To see silage, a rooster, autumn in the suburbs, Santiago at the top of a cliff, and at least one scary Halloween display, visit the gallery.

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Change

Twilight nips at the days. On Monday morning when I awake, it is dark outside. The moon at the back of the house is round-faced and amber-eyed behind dusky maple trees, and the whirr of cicadas through an open window is like the sound of stars scratching in a firmament flooded with blue-black ink. I sit down in a rocking chair glazed by lamplight, open a notebook, and begin to write. Santiago stands up on the bed. He stares blankly at the closet, stretches, groans, sighs, and lies back down again. In a couple of hours, when the sun lifts its blanket of shadows from the yard, pale purple asters will be visible among sedum and black-eyed Susans. Big bluestem will be waving its turkey feet in the side garden while little bluestem grows long and icy at the front step. There will be late, solitary blossoms among the columbines and strawberries and violets and prairie smoke, and tomatoes still ripening on heavy stalks will tip the pot despite a tangle of stakes and twine. On the deck, a squirrel will have deposited a red rubber ball lost by neighbor girls in the understory last spring.

Tomorrow, Santiago and I will mark our sixth anniversary. We have already been to the dam, which is our tradition. We went on Friday morning when the sun was wrapped in warm and gentle clouds. To visit on that day was a decision made with sleep still in our eyes, and perhaps that is why our pleasure seemed an enchantment, why we stayed for three hours: we had no accreted expectations of the fun that we would have. But we did have fun. We wandered the long, beach near where the river upstream cascades into its bed below, the sand stubbled with green and gold grasses pointing toward the shifting, silver sky. A heron stood on the shore. She was straight-backed and calm among the driftwood and foam, watching our slow approach and taking her wide-winged flight at last, east across the waves. We roamed within the gates of an empty dog park, where Santi sniffed at holes dug deep in the soil, and I gazed at spruces with black limbs bare of needles. The trees have suffered grievously this summer. I wonder how many will die. We walked the perimeter of a shrunken lake and climbed up on a fishing dock. At the provocation of a splash, Santi rushed to hang his head between the rails, staring at the surface of the water. Whoever swam there remained hidden. But near a picnic shelter, we met members of a wedding party unloading a hatchback full of pink and ivory roses. They were in their sweatshirts –hard at work and ebullient–and Santiago got his jowls and his rump scratched. We walked, then, in cool, green woods, where the soft skin of a mushroom had been scrawled with the message, “LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED.”

Santiago suffered me to take a picture of the two of us, as I do each year. I looked for a stone that I might take home, a memento of our time together, but all of the stones seemed to be lying where they belonged. As we continued tramping downstream, we came to a beach transformed by the drought. It had used to be a narrow strip of sand that a finger of the river coursed past forty feet wide before lapping at an island across the way. Now, it was so broad and full of rock and vegetation, the river such a trickle, that Santiago and I had the same thought at the same instant. As he put his paw carefully into the water, testing the load-bearing of the sand that we could see underneath the stream, I did the same with my booted foot. We waded to the island. Our ankles did not get wet.

That is what I took with me: the memory of walking across the Mississippi River beside my faithful partner.

I have been dreaming, night after night, of rocky places without vegetation. I dream that I am speaking urgently and no one is listening. I dream that I have been placed in a re-education camp. I dream, again and again and again and again, that I am going home and don’t have time to pack my bags, that they are so heavy that the straps break, that the taxi driver makes off with them. Always, it is about the baggage.

I saw my parents this month. We breakfasted outside on a sunny, late summer morning, sat by the river, shopped in the city. It delighted me to be with them. And yet, like a changed river, my mother and my father are no longer mighty in the ways they once were. When I go home, I carry that. It is September, and the neighborhood children resist shifting into the lower gear of the school year. Shouts and calls and screams and cries drift over the house in the evenings and on weekends. A little one knocks at my back door one day to tell me that they have broken glass. I follow her to find three boys dancing in the neighbor’s yard, plucking at the leaves of an elm tree, telling the story of a shattered vase while a girl who did not kick it over cleans it up. They are as wild and anxious as squirrels, and not old enough to be vaccinated. As I tell the boys to help with the sweeping, I stuff into my bag fears of our mingled breath, frustration and exhaustion at the persistence of risk, at the way in which my pleasure in chatting with the people around me is thwarted with an Old Testament ire and severity. I am going soon to a 75th birthday party. My vaccine has reportedly diminished to just 60% efficacy against only the worst infections. One-third of infected people in my state have their shots.

On the roads nearby, ambulance sirens accompany a return to temperatures of ninety degrees Fahrenheit. It is not only trees that are killed in the heat.

When the sky lightens, Santiago and I drive to a park. A man on a riding mower glides across the rugby pitch as we begin our walk, the sun glowing palely above him behind clouds turgid with a rain that is slow to arrive. We cut through a golf course where a couple of players move with Monday morning lassitude. Santi wants to visit the dog park, but I do not allow it. There, the space is already crowded, and he will be hectored and become nervous. I let him take the lead as we keep walking. He chooses an industrial route, over the rail yard that leads to the downtown skyline, past long, low buildings where paper and nuts and ice cream are made, beside fenced utilities where deer browse in the private scrub, past lots lined with painted semi-trailers. We travel the National Route, with the river sometimes visible beside us down a steep bank of trees. I stop to watch a woman on a bicycle who has stopped to watch a gaggle of geese amassed near a baseball field. She wears a magenta jacket and, when she is satisfied, she pedals away, long brown curls pouring from the helmet over her back. We approach a brewery, and Santi is enticed by barrels of mash with hovering bees, lifting his snout to them, rear end wiggling. He gets us invited to visit “anytime!” by a smiling young man with a short beard and a beer belly. We circle a community garden in a glorious state of late harvest. There are black rubber boots stashed on fence posts, folding chairs and ropes and hoses hanging from nearby trees. There are spent patches and small squashes and tenacious tomatoes and kale yet to be plucked. A crabapple has come down in the wind.

We wander for over two hours. The season is changing. There are pinecones littering the gutter in front of a bungalow. A school bus is parked across the street. Grasses along the railroad tracks have gone rust and pumpkin, olive and pink. I make a wish on a white squirrel who is busy gathering her store, and we tread on a sidewalk painted with the words, “The world is yours.” It is a beautiful time of year. As Santiago follows his nose, I clamber up a hillside behind him, hoping that it will afford a shortcut back to the park. We discover that it harbors, not just a lonely and picturesque fire hydrant, but also a kind of burr that we have encountered for the first time and repeatedly this year. I do not know what plant it comes from, but it pricks like needles and adds insult to injury with a sting that lingers after removal. Santi and I are both stuck. He holds up one paw after another, looking back at me with sorrowful eyes, and I pluck the offenders from between the pads on the bottom of his feet.

Near the car, Santiago tugs me toward a conifer on the opposite side of the street. We cross, and he sniffs at the old, gray trunk. I bend to pick up a stone that had been veiled by the grass: a stone that has a fine weight and lies snugly in the palm of my hand. It has been painted in a multitude of bright colors to look like the feathered face of an eagle. Or maybe a chicken. An ostrich? A bird. A bird with a grin.

My dog has given me an anniversary present.

Santiago is the embodiment of the change that I have been courting. From him, I have learned that wonder is no farther than the next block over, that adventure is not a location but a mindset. I have learned that the only barren landscape is one that has not been keenly observed. I’ve learned to rest. I’ve learned that there is always time to walk a little farther and enjoy a little more. I’ve learned that work in the service of someone else’s agenda–say, heeling in silence as another dog approaches–is neither fulfilling nor particularly admirable, while work in the service of one’s soul–say, tracking a deer or sniffing the air behind a pretty pup or gobbling up a rain-soaked chicken breast beneath a park grill–will generate joy that cascades like water over a dam, joy that empowers others.

I walked with Santi this month past an internet repair crew. One man was climbing a telephone pole while two others stood beside a van marked off by orange cones and watched him. One of the men on the street turned to Santiago and stared, unsmiling, as we made our way around the van, watching for traffic. The sun shone–a little uncomfortably. After several long beats, the man raised his eyes to me and announced, “He’s got it goin’ on!”

That is joy at work in the world.

It rains Monday afternoon and evening. The air cools, and Santiago and I sleep well that night. When we awake, it is our anniversary. I dress in darkness and stand at the front door with a leash in my hand. The sun is coming up behind the neighbors’ roof. Santi leaves the bed and trots downstairs but halts beside the freezer, demanding a treat for the road. I acquiesce; it is a special day.

We set off on foot, which is Santiago’s favorite way to take a walk. Summer’s wildfires are at last more contained, and for the first time since spring, I recognize the saturated blue of the sky. We walk for over two hours, making a great loop through parks and urban neighborhoods. We pass a home surrounded by sculpted trees and a square black fountain. In a boulevard garden, a Monarch alights on a nodding yellow cluster of goldenrod. A child wearing a face mask and a backpack climbs down a front stoop and waves at us as he makes his way to a car idling at the curb. There is a little water now in the drainage ditches where Santi hunts for muskrats among the cattails. His search is thorough, but he finds only an abandoned baseball. For a long while, we stand on a boardwalk, watching the sunlight play over lily pads and beach grass.

Tomorrow will be the autumn equinox: this most beautiful time of the year is also the darkest. Near our home, a scooter has been left beside an oak tree whose leaves are not turning; they are dying. They hang wrinkled and brown from the branches. Many of the oaks look like that. The maples are becoming a lovely sherbet-orange, starting at their crowns, but the drought has left bare branches among them, like sudden streaks of white hair on brunettes under terrible stress. In his first letter to early church members in Corinth, Saint Paul addresses concerns about whether they ought to marry or to get circumcised, concerns about how to be righteous.

The present world is passing away, he says. Remain in the circumstance into which God has already called you.

It is not the outward change that matters.

After our walk, I make corn cakes with maple syrup, and a salmon and cream cheese omelet, and I share with Santiago. We nap hard in the afternoon, then take a second walk before picking up our produce share. We visit the elbow of a lake where a rambling brick building had stood for as long as we had known the place. The last time we were there, I noticed that the flower pots were filled with fading Christmas decorations. On this day, the entire structure is gone. In its place are heaps of dust and a locked fence with a sign outlining Covid protocols.

In the coming days, I will dream that my neighbors make me angry. I will dream that my father makes me angry. Morning after morning, I will awaken with a sore jaw, a swollen tongue, an aching neck. For the first time in my life, I am afraid of death, and I can’t seem to set that fear down and leave it behind. My parents, my siblings, my cousins, my friends, we are all more than fifty years old and as fragile as trees, and we can not know what weather is ahead.

But there are buckeye nuts, hard and shiny, in the streets. And scores of American coots, elegant as evening dress, on a lake in the morning sunshine. There will be a day when I scour the beach with my sister and her husband, dipping our toes into pools of river water among the rocks. There will be a girl with pink hair who rides by slowly on a bicycle as I snap a photo of mushrooms growing out of a tree. “That’s so cool!” she will say, and her smile will be a sacrament.

The world will be ours. Santiago and I will walk. We will not hurry.

To see scenes of Santiago at the most beautiful time of the year, visit the gallery.

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Unearthed

It is Sunday morning, and ours is the only car on the road. After months of extraordinary heat, I am wearing a jacket and jeans, and tall boots instead of walking shoes. When Santiago and I arrive at the parkland that is our destination, it is stretched beneath a blue sky filled with scudding, white clouds, and the dawning light shines with angelic clarity on wide hills cloaked in olive green trees about to turn. “It’s like a movie,” my sister texts when I send her a photo. And it is: it is lovely like a location scouted and filmed with great patience, with crews waiting out damp and dingy weather and the hours when the light was too streaky and the hours when the shadows were too broad and the hours when the wind was too tetchy, and it is underscored with the sound of whispering wildflowers and the call of an unknown bird, and it gives rest to the eyes, and that rest seeps down into the heart, and the heart remembers that all is and always has been and always will be well.

Santiago heads for a trail where he has encountered deer in the past. The woods back up to a suburban cul de sac where young turkeys are chasing each other around a back lawn, gobbling with a sabbatical gentleness. We glimpse dark green squashes hanging from a trellis and a worn array of colored balls and water pistols placed beside a curb and labelled, “FREE.” A man and a woman enter the trail. He is burly and riding a low bike. He wears dark sunglasses beneath a baseball cap that covers most of his gray hair. She is slender, and her sandy, white hair is cut into a page that bounces as she jogs, high-kneed, beside him. They greet us with the joviality of early risers. Santiago lifts his snout toward the tree canopy and inhales, hoping for information. My heels click to a pause against the paved trail, and it is like the sound of rosary beads being shifted on a table. The sunlight plays against white poplars and makes the red bunches of sumac berries vivid against the azure sky. In a patch of goldenrod, a garter snake is looped around blooming yellow stems, her body lifted to the sun like a music fan crowd-surfing toward the stage. We walk, and it is cool, and my throat tightens, and my face crumples.

It is all so beautiful. It undoes me.

When rain came at the end of August, our yard was drenched with over three inches in one day, and the struggling white cedar, its leaves heavy with water, tipped out of the soil beside the house and lay face down in the front yard. I texted a friend who is a landscaper, and he came on his lunch hour with stakes. But the tree was heavy. I had been watering its shallow roots through the drought, and it was green and laden with ripening cones. The stakes were too skinny to hold it upright on their own. I walked across the street and solicited my neighbors for scrap lumber, which they provided, and one of them joined us to heave the two main trunks onto our makeshift braces. My friend got stung by a bee, and I applied some baking soda paste to the bite, after which I watched a trailing vine of pollinators disappear into a tiny hole at the edge of the roof. Santiago got caresses amid the excitement. It was a sunny afternoon.

If I dig deep within myself, carefully brushing the dirt from fossilized layers of wounds to understand what hurts today, it is not the drought or the changing climate or the pandemic. It is that there seem to be, in human society now, too few moments like this one, in which calamity is met with a generous communion.

In the park, it is quiet but for the sleepy whirr of cicadas and the rustling of squirrels over fallen cottonwood leaves. For the first time since May, my boots are wet with dew as we cross from bike trail to grassy woodland, and where a lean-to of dark, brown branches has been built in dense shade, dozens of little white mushrooms gleam on the ground. The drought has not broken. The leaves on the trees are wan and limp, and if the ponds hold an inch of water, the creeks that feed them remain troughs of mud. But the land looks familiar again. Tiny, white asters bloom on tall, green stems beside Santiago and me–just as they do in our yard, where the orb weavers, too, have returned, building their beguiling webs around the deck and the front stoop.

Last autumn, I was calling a mortgage company on my breaks to ask how to pay off my loan–a query to which I received three different answers. I was calculating how much money I spend each month and waiting uneasily for this year’s insurance enrollment period to open. I was uprooting myself, not just from a job, but from a way of living that provided almost no nourishment, in order to do my work: seeking the spiritual scaffolding that holds up the world. I was puzzling over how to bury my roots more deeply in the garden of my family and friends without being able to share the air that they breathe. For more than a year, I have tended to a tight web, to the place where I live and the people whom I live with, while the world has slowly tipped forward until it seems now entirely out of place, face down on the ground, in need of support.

Autumn makes the scaffolding more visible. That is why the cool air makes me cry: because despite my efforts in a troubled time, I, too, have been tipping, and the generosity of the mushrooms and the asters and the dew, the wide blue sky and the playful turkeys and the love of two old people for the morning and for each other are the stakes that I need to hold me up.

Before the neighborhood children start school, I unearth the squashes growing in my front garden, cutting away the leaves and freeing the fruits. They are not pumpkins, and not even a master gardener at the local extension office could identify them. They are hard and green and shaped like teardrops, with patches of orange or yellow that might have spread had I allowed them to lie in the sun a month longer. I was ready to plant some coneflowers in that soil. It does not disappoint the children that the harvest is not of pumpkins. The squashes are light enough for even the littlest ones to lift onto a bathroom scale, which is its own thrill. Each child guessed in July how big the biggest one might become, and each child gets a bag filled with candy and trinkets. They run off to play with loud shouts of thanks. They are strongly rooted. They move with the wind and are happy.

Santiago and I come upon a swimming beach dotted with red and blue umbrellas. We have not been in this part of the park before. The sand is groomed, and a worker is testing the shallow water. It is Labor Day weekend: only two swimming afternoons left here. The sun is warming the day and geese are flying in formation overhead and Santi is grazing on the grass surrounding the beach. Clutches of Queen Anne’s lace–so lovely as it dries–are smaller this year, like the fists of the smallest infants. We spy a bicycle abandoned on a grassy slope, and not far away a sticker on a bike pump station reads “WAGE HOPE.”

My friend the landscaper likes the messages that I find on my walks. They are a pandemic phenomenon: genial exhortations painted on rocks, chalked on sidewalks, sprayed on signs, tacked on trees. One day it drizzles until three in the afternoon, and it remains cool when Santiago and I walk at that hour. We go to a dainty suburban park where a squirrel has left a half-eaten tomato on top of a backyard fence. At a crosswalk, a telephone pole has been hung with a piece of fabric onto which have been stitched the words, “Do more of what makes you happy.” I send a photo of it to my friend. He comes to the house with a hazelnut bush for me to plant and with stronger stakes and stronger rope, and with a saw that he uses to cut the braces for the cedar so that they do not slice into the branches but cup them. The eastern white cedar is known as the tree of life: arbor vitae. We are doing our best to support life.

Santiago and I met a friend in a river town a week ago. We drove into the sunrise to get there. Long, low clouds at the horizon shone silver and gold, impossibly resplendent, and as we arrived, they lifted, so that over the marina with its red roofs the sun was a whirling, glittering, white-gold ball. Santi and I strolled past downtown shops before they opened: windows arrayed with soap and bourbon, jelly beans and yarn, tarot cards and Christmas decorations. We breakfasted with our friend in front of candy cane-colored paddleboats under a blue sky framed by sunflowers. He has suffered tragedy in his family, our friend. We moved to a coffee shop, and I listened to him tell his stories while customer after customer stopped to smile at Santiago and scratch him about the ears as he sat tied to our table, longing for the treats he knew were in the shop’s white paper bags.

I might be wrong about human society. Maybe the scaffolding is sturdier than I thought.

Santi pouts when I won’t let him visit the playground on Sunday morning. He can hear the voices of children, and he likes children. I am thinking about my niece, who is a sophomore just starting in-person high school, about how she had been aching for a new friend and how, on the first day of classes, she met another girl who had been aching for a new friend. The past year has been long and isolating. We have entered the woods again, and I can tell from the way that Santiago holds his body that he is hunting deer. I have an instinct to indulge in the satisfaction of a fall schedule, to join a board or volunteer, to make myself busy again. But I have planted seeds; I have begun to write. In time, this writing will require trellises so that it does not topple. It will require watering and pruning and harvesting. It will require rootedness. As we round a curve, Santi and I see a doe in the middle of the footpath. She looks over her amber shoulder at us, her ears tall and attentive, before leaping into the woods, white tail flipped. Santi picks up his pace, and I allow it. Two hundred feet ahead he stops on the opposite side of the path and points. There is another doe there, still and staring at me with large eyes among the dark stripes of hardwood trees. Santiago has found the spirit in the woods.

There is a lump on one of his hind feet. In just a week, it changes from a pale pink pin-head to a puffy, oozing, blood-red sore. We visit Dr. Megan. It takes two days to get a pathology report. In the evening, the sky slowly clouds; a beam of light on a couple of peaches ripening on the stovetop sinks away. Santiago is stretched out on the couch, and I sit down beside him. He lifts a leg to entreat me to scratch his belly, and he stares half-slumbering into the distance as my fingers ruffle his fur. The air through an open window is crisp, and I gaze at an end table upon which candles are burning beside a jar of acorns gathered on one of our walks. Earlier in the evening, we had strolled beside a creek and met a man with a red parrot on his left shoulder and a green one on his right forearm. We had shared watermelon and sweet corn and biscuits for supper. As Santi closes his eyes and the candles flicker, a cricket is chirping in the yard. It amazes me that this is my life.

Before we know that the lump is not cancerous, we go walking in one of our favorite parks. There is sunshine, and a strong wind blows waves to the shore and leaves foam on the beach. Where the lake meets the land, a stick with a crook in it has been planted in a mound of sand. Santiago and I wander for hours, past pure white egrets in a swamp that is blue and green and gold in the morning light; past towering cottonwood trees and pretty, pink smartweed and vivid, gold sneezeweed with its seedheads like round rubber noses. There are grasses of every width and tuft bending in the breeze, and Santi ambles, dragging his leash behind him as I take photographs.

It is on our walks that I find both the peace of the natural world and evidence of quiet communion, of human generosity, not just toward friends, but for the benefit of strangers. In a dilapidated park, volunteers have unearthed a stone picnic table built in the last century, the latest in a series of gifts revealed by patient diggers. In a wood, a slight, worn statue of the Virgin Mary has been erected. There is a space cleared before it for prayer–the work, not of a park board but a neighbor, a lover of people and a venerator of God. On an elbow of public road, someone keeps two planters stocked with flowers.

Before Santiago and I head home, we return to the beach. Resting between the forks of the stick at the water’s edge is now a black cane. There are flip-flops on the sand, patterned with yellow smiley faces. It is after Labor Day. It is chilly. Though buoys outline a swimming area, there is no lifeguard on duty. Santi stops and watches the arms of a man butterflying through the waves, goggles bobbing.

The truth is that we are not really rooted in this life. We are buffeted by circumstances that we do not control, and our bodies fail. The cold comes, over and over again, year in and year out. Snow buries our foundations and our supports. Darkness falls. Ice forms. But in the meantime, we swim in the chop, without anyone but God watching over us. We do what makes us happy. We look for the spirit in the waves.

For photos of a season–and a dog–so beautiful that they will make you cry, visit the gallery.

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Without

As Santiago and I walk the streets and alleys and park trails of our neighborhood, rodents are at work. It is late August, early morning, and chipmunks stuffing their cheeks with acorns are joined by red squirrels whose tails flounce around them like flags on convertibles, and by gray squirrels, too, who chase each other around the trunks of trees, the scratch of their claws on dry bark amplified by the quietude of the half-awakened suburbs. There are rabbits nibbling their breakfasts and bounding across lawns, and one dark-haired bunny no bigger than a softball wriggles between fence posts just ahead of Santi’s snout. Their industry and good cheer is an antidote to the land itself, which seems to look on human life with a chastening eye, as if having concluded that it could no longer rally to the cause of supporting it.

Santiago has been taking me on long walks. One morning, he leads me on a sunrise expedition that lasts three-and-a-half hours, and this feels, not extended and triumphant like a marathon, but quotidian and delightful, like a stroll to the corner ice cream shop. We weave in and out of parkland, avoiding police tape around roads with new asphalt and concrete curbs, doubling back over railroad tracks, repeating these moves like we are tugging at a stuck zipper–up and down, up and down. It is a kind of letting go, this lack of clarity about where we are going and how we will make our loop home. Santi prowls for some time at a drainage ditch. It is ringed with rock and shaded by switchgrass now blowsy with pink seeds. We have been here when egrets waded in the water, watching us warily, but on this day there is no water and there are no egrets. Santi sniffs the ground and looks over the mud with a kind of confusion and longing and disappointment. We keep wandering. We pass purple coneflowers beside a wall where the street comes to a surprising end, and houses graced by statuary on long, wide lawns, and a low lake clogged with lily pads, and a child’s adobe play village, and a man who wishes us a good morning, and a small roll of staked fencing at the edge of a yard, with a painted sign that reads, “Caution snapping turtle egg.”

What makes Santiago a fine guide is that when I am out with him, I am reassured that life persists and that an unseen hand cares for each least, fragile thing.

Nuts that have not been gathered by the fauna crunch beneath our feet. We are on a suburban street, and every now and again fallen apples, too, appear along the curb. We have already traversed nearly the length of a wooded park, but Santi eschews every opportunity to nip back into it and take a short cut home. It is a warm morning, and he walks slowly but with intent. We pass a house with beautiful garden beds. They are stocked with well-watered flowers, tall and glossy, in summer pinks and purples, in oranges, reds, and yellows, and with tidy stones piled underneath green shrubbery, and they curve gracefully around the corners of the building and the sweep of the driveway, so that the effect is like that of a pretty paisley. I love these gardens. And it troubles me, too, to see them as the Mississippi River drops and drops and drops and drops.

And drops.

A block down, a woman and a dog on the opposite side of the street are climbing the hill that Santiago and I are descending. The dogs greet each other, and the woman and I greet each other, and the woman says that she has arrived home. She waves an arm over her lawn.

“Brown!” she decries.

Most of the lawns on the street are brown. She tells me that it is worse up north, on the lake where she has a cabin. The lake that she names is one that my family visited when I was a child–it might, in fact, be our mother lake, the one that gave birth to all of our seasons on shores and in boats. I have a photograph of myself and my siblings and our friends beside that lake: children standing in a row on the sandy beach, hair wet from swimming, smiles young and full of gaps. When I think of that lake, I can smell propane and toasted marshmallows and what we used to call “suntan lotion,” and to know that it, too, is suffering in the drought is a blow that lands on a bruise that surrounds an unhealed wound.

Friends come one evening to sit on the deck. Without rain, it has been a summer without mosquitos–I have encountered only two–but as we chat, a yellow jacket lands on the rim of a wine glass. The wasps have enjoyed the arid heat; there has been little chance of ground nests being flooded. I lure the hard, bright thing to a napkin and encourage it to fly away. It obliges. My friends say that where they visit up north, the river is dotted with exposed stones. They imagine that they could walk across it now: the Mighty Mississippi.

We have arrived at Santiago’s destination: a small lake with a boardwalk stretching over it. Unlike the area ponds–where Canada geese and great blue herons appear to be walking on water, their feet on the muck beneath the thinnest veneer of surface wave–this lake has a bit of depth. A measuring stick beside the boardwalk puts it at fourteen inches–a thing to celebrate. Santi stops again and again to hang his nose between the rails and sniff. There are bumblebees on the purple loosestrife that grows among the cattails, and there is duck weed, and algae. But the red-winged blackbirds have gone. There are no mallards or wood ducks. It is quiet. If there is a muskrat among the reeds, we fail to find him. At the edge of the lake, we cross a footbridge over a creek bed that holds nothing but a few puddles. A gnarled tree with a large knot stands against the sooty blue sky. Gold beggarticks–sunflowers–rise up around it.

To walk and walk is to whittle one’s life to its essence.

Santiago and I go home. We eat, and we nap. I have stopped watering the gardens with a hose. In the morning or in the evening, I bring a watering can to plants that are flowering and to those that are young, to tomatoes that are ripening and to the white cedar with its shallow roots. All others I give to God, who is not without plans. In the afternoon, I write. The cow parsnip that never truly bloomed becomes a wooden stake. The ferns fall to the ground. They will not come back this year. When darkness comes, I read books that remind me that people survive loss.

One afternoon, Santiago comes with me to pick up our produce share. It is ninety degrees outside, and I am surprised by the humidity. The journey is just seven or eight miles roundtrip, but Santi lags and pants. When we reach the house where goods are stacked in boxes, each labeled with a name, we wait in the shade while another woman packs her share into bags. It is a heavy load this week. When it is my turn, I carefully place a watermelon in the bottom of my backpack, braced by zucchinis, with tomatoes on top. In one hand, I carry a sack with spaghetti squash and banana peppers, and in the other, I hold Santi’s leash. I am masked against the air, which remains smoky from undoused wildfires. I am sweating. As we head for home, Santi moves at the pace of a toddler learning to walk, and because I am uncomfortable, I snap at him. He looks up at me, and his eyes are mournful and apologetic. His sides heave–in and out, in and out–as he tries to breathe the hot, damp, dirty air. I see how small he is, how fragile. There is a bench nearby, and a bowl of water for passing dogs. We stop. I put the sack down. I let the backpack slide off my shoulders.

I was pleased in the spring to purchase a pair of leather walking shoes, sturdy and impervious to morning dew. But there has been no morning dew this summer. I watch gulls drinking from puddles in a parking lot after a warm drizzle of rain; it is the cleanest water available to them. I watch time and again as men on riding mowers roar through parks and preserves where the grass has gone dormant, clouds of dust billowing up behind big, black wheels. I watch neighbors forcing lawns to grow with sprinklers and fertilizer, then razing them when the blades are as high as a grasshopper’s back. On weekends, I watch city people pack their cars and go camping. They escape to where the land is wild.

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

One day, I stop on my basement stairs to watch a gray squirrel. She is outside a ground level window, spinning an acorn in her hands, gnawing at its green shell. She pauses and bends at the waist, still clutching it within its woody cap. She is near the foundation, six inches from my eye. Turning her back to me, she plunges the nut into the soil, pats grass back over the hole, and disappears into a thicket of hostas.

A friend of mine once complained about squirrels. They were burying winter stores in her pots, she said, uprooting flowers and herbs, and her displeasure was a bonfire of rage. The tinder to that fire was willful ignorance of the purpose of squirrels; for, who is a squirrel but a planter of trees? It was mad, her wrath. I expect that it was born elsewhere: a sorrow tamped down and unexamined, the fumes of some hardship over which human beings are entirely without power.

Squirrels have begun to dig up my pots. All the rocks that had served as a defense in years past have been placed in a border around the transplanted spirea. It is all right. I am trying to let others act with the wisdom endowed upon them at their creation. I have laid down my gardening hose in the knowledge that the dazzling transition between summer and autumn, when wildflowers are lithe and vibrant and lovely, will not dazzle in the same way this year. Santiago and I have walked through fields where the goldenrod was not even a foot tall, spindly as thread and barren of blooms. I am trying to live without the certainty that what pleases me is what is best.

At a swimming beach one morning, Santi and I hike across shoreline that before the drought had been under water. Nearby, a woman with white hair pulls a blue caftan over her head and places it on a picnic table. She is wearing a black bathing suit. Her round face is luminous as she smiles and greets us and heads into the lake, her warmth and openness so complete that I wonder if she notices the sharp stones, the litter, the stagnant water. Above the empty lifeguard station, where sand gives way to trees, Santiago catches wind of a chipmunk. He gives chase underneath a trailing length of woodbine, but his paws lose traction and skitter across the powdery soil. Above our heads, the red cedars appear limp and rusty. But they have often looked that way–like uncombed beards decorated with the crumbs of forgotten meals. They are tolerant of the dry ground. They do not need much.

I am thinking about the swimmer: about how buoyant she was on the wave of what the day had brought, how utterly without rancor.

When Santiago and I return home, I take off his harness and he trots to his water dish. The air conditioner is puffing and Santi is lapping, and it takes some time for me to realize that a toilet in the basement is flushing itself over and over and over again. It is a problem that I had tried to fix a day earlier. It is worse now. When the question of how many gallons of unused water have been flushed down the drain rises in my mind, I tamp it down, unexamined, and call a plumber.

In the afternoon, the cowbirds come. They number about a dozen, black-winged and brown-headed, browsing for insects and eating the seed on offer. Under the shade of spruce boughs, two of them sit in a hanging feeder like lovers on a swing. Two stand in the bird bath, preening, sunlight opalescent on their feathers. The rest strut the yard, poking their beaks into the earth among the brittle remains of grass and moss and violets. They are not alone. The cowbirds are joined by a pair of goldfinches and a robin, by a handful of cardinals and a few chickadees, by a solitary woodpecker and some social sparrows, each bird chirping and squawking and pecking and pounding, fluttering across the yard from branch to branch, swooping to the feeders and alighting on the edge of the bath, more birds than I have ever seen in my yard, their flights knitting in the air an invisible tapestry of avian life.

When they have gone, I empty the bath and refill it with a pitcher of tap water. If they return for supper tomorrow, I don’t want them to go without.

You can find pictures of the end of summer in the gallery, and video of Santiago “Tracking Joy”at HitRecord.

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Smoke

Smoke sidles in on the north wind. Wildfires are raging west of us, in the U.S., and north, in Canada. I am asthmatic. I begin masking against the outdoor air. Without protection, my lungs seize, my sinuses clog, my throat burns, my head aches. It can take days for the inflammation in my body to diminish, so crossing the yard with a watering can counts. I worry about Santiago, who has an enlarged heart and an appetite for long walks. The windows of the house have already been closed for weeks against angry heat, and the indoor air, too, accretes into something unpleasant and unhealthy. In the mornings, if the smoke is merely grimy and not assaultive, I put a fan in a single bedroom window and blow out the stale air while I dress. Then I push down the sash and wonder about those who live where the fires are actually burning.

The ash endows a paradoxical mercy: it filters the sunlight and keeps temperatures from continuing to soar. We are well above the state average for days in the nineties. Spasms of rain fall, but the drought deepens. In the back yard, ferns flop and violets lie with their cheeks to the ground the way they usually do at the end of September. The firmament is more white than gray–like very old dirt–and sometimes the smoke sits like mist over the horizon, softening the rooftops and trees, and the sky then is an uneasy gold, a smoldering thing, a warning to those who can see.

The plants in the yard are doing their best. The grass, of course, is dormant, like broom straw; it hasn’t required mowing since spring. Even dandelions and clover have ceased growing in it. On alternate mornings, I move through the gardens with a hose, watering everything except the turf: the bent cedar, brown-edged hostas and wild ginger, brand new clumps of little bluestem, an old black spruce. It takes an hour or two. Each plant gets only a little water, but everyone is alive. The prairie plot is still bright with color, though the butterfly weed is now forming slender, green pods. I’ve removed fencing from around hazelnut shrubs and wood phlox and columbine. When the browsers come, I pray that they will be restrained. White snake root is blooming among Joe-Pye-weed and goldenrod, and a towering pink anemone has unfurled her petals. All these tall, unruly stems dance with each other when the wind blows, and their wild tangle is what I hoped my yard would look like.

I can smell through my mask a neighbor smoking cigarettes two houses down. It’s the same every morning. Occasionally, there is coughing. Beside the retaining wall and in the seam that meets the sidewalk, horseweed has sprung up. It is a native aster, but it has never been here before. It is growing in direct sunlight without any water and is as high as I am and about to burst with small flowers. I leave the stalks lined up like soldiers to strain runoff, should rain ever come again. As I approach with water, dragonflies and grasshoppers and moths flutter up from the gardens. A lone cricket sings.

It does me good to see them.

One morning, Santi takes me on a two-hour walk. Our movements are slow against the brutalities of the air, but we are cheerful as we wend our way through one park after another. We pass the boardwalk from which we have watched catfish mouth at the surface of the water, but they are elsewhere on this day, the lake low and murky and still. We stop at the edge of a road construction site where upturned earth abounds with scent. We walk above a hillside where the black-eyed Susans are small and defiant amidst the other withered wildflowers. Hardly a milkweed plant has bloomed all year.

It is the weekend. Here and there, a front stoop is occupied by a person bent quietly over a book or a mug. We watch a man lay a sprinkler down beside a patch of purple coneflowers, then stand back, contemplating the arc of the spray, before returning to adjust it. We encounter stone lions guarding a doorway, whirligig flowers in a garden plot, an eagle painted across a garage. They touch me, these facsimiles of plants and animals, in a season in which beings with blood and chlorophyll struggle to find food and water and clean air. Santiago and I see white-tailed deer everywhere this month: a calf on a suburban street; a doe with a gamboling fawn in a wood; three young bucks on the grounds of a power plant. I read that they are getting coronavirus infections, the deer.

A man walking toward Santiago and I with a preschooler says to the boy, “Do you know how to get your sillies out?” The boy looks at him from under hair that is like blossoming goatsbeard. The man shakes all of his limbs.

There are things that I need to shake out. I had my peeling cast iron bathtub refinished, and afterward the drain didn’t seal. It took me two days to figure out that the technician had installed a rubber washer upside down. The heat brought mice into the house, looking for a better place to live. The smell of their bodies decomposing led me to forgotten traps–one a live box, so that the thought of the mouse’s slow perishing cracked my heart. The washing machine is leaking again, a result of hard water barnacles. My drains are slow, and the toilets behave strangely; I pour enzymes and plunge sinks and puzzle over which of the pipes on the roof vents the sewer. I invite a bid on replacing half-broken rope and pulley windows, and a man arrives without even a face mask in his pocket and with body odor that I need to clear from two levels after he leaves. I open the windows for ten minutes. My breathing becomes labored.

As Santiago and I continue walking, there is a gentle scratching on the sidewalk behind us, and suddenly we are joined by a tawny gray pit bull. He is more squat than Santi, bull-headed and merry. He wears no collar. Santiago does not know how to react. He makes a few, hesitant communications. He prefers female company–and wrestling, which this dog is not interested in. But the pit accompanies us for blocks. When he wanders up into a yard to piddle, Santi is jealous. I wonder if I should call someone, but the dog doesn’t appear to be mistreated. It is not hard to imagine Santiago sneaking off for a walkabout. He would not be lost. He would know how to get home if that was where he wanted to be. So the three of us walk together until the pit spots a squirrel. We last see the dog near the side of a stuccoed bungalow, the squirrel twisting in the air at the top of a downspout.

My outlook has become as smudgy and sour as the smoke-filled air; so, for two weeks, I vacate obligations. One day, Santiago leads me from a park that we know to one that we have never seen, where a swallowtail butterfly flits among coneflowers and a pavilion rests above the river. Nearby, youth with shy smiles are amassed on a ball field and planters are draped with vines and squash blossoms. As I take a photograph, Santi stares at the wooded shoreline–then takes off in the opposite direction after a rabbit. I chase him, and a few moments later he emerges, panting and happy, from around the side of an old, brick apartment building. It has wrought-iron fencing and yellow lilies and flourishes cut into wooden stairs and diamond tiling at the roof line. It is beautiful. We are hot, then, and we walk to the water’s edge and sit for a while. The cityscape pokes the hazy sky across the river that plashes at our feet. There is graffiti on the lookout beside us and a shiny bit of trash under the rippling water and wood ducks near the opposite shore. A breeze blows across our faces.

My birthday comes, and my favorite bookstore reopens. I have never had to wriggle past so many people as I browsed. I dine with my parents, and with my godparents, and I go to a spa, and all of these actions are complicated by infection rates, which are rising. I mask whenever I can, suffering nastiness upon occasion. On an afternoon when the air is bad and we cannot walk outdoors, I take Santiago with me to the hardware store. There are odors in every corner of a building that has been eyeing humanity for a century, and Santi shows his appreciation by pulling me to the end of every aisle, rear end swinging. He meets a young girl carrying a doughnut in a sack and strains for it, wagging his tail. She caresses him and calls him sweet. The cashier gives him dog treats.

It has become a labor to claim joy, but we do it. There is no other way forward.

I rein Santiago to a stop in front of a Little Free Library. It is a lucky day: I find two books that I want to read. A young man–thin and muscled and wearing tawny gray shorts and a tee-shirt–pedals by on a bicycle and asks if we’ve seen a dog. I tell him where to find his pit bull. There are acorns on the sidewalk, and I feel contented, outside the walls of my worries, watching life in motion.

There was a day this past month when I wasn’t sure whether or not the three, red leaves that Santiago trotted through were poison ivy. There were evenings when we picked up our produce share and the neighborhood was filled with people doing yoga in the dry grass or running in teams after a Frisbee, with dogs and strollers and children in pink fairy wings, and I wondered whether anyone noticed the sky with its dingy teeth bared, its breath stinking. I slept through afternoons of enervating heat then laid awake thinking about the rattling spindles of saplings left unwatered where a parking lot replaced mature conifers. Up the street, an oak collapsed: it fell on a house, crushing the front awning, the fourth oak death in two years. One morning, I pulled Santiago home, block after anxious block, as he turned and yelped at the pain inflicted by a bee.

At the edge of a park, we come upon a man with a shaggy black dog. They are wary of us, but the man allows Santiago to approach his female, which makes Santi glad.

“She was just attacked by a pit,” the man says.

As Santiago circles her, the man shows me a knife that he has tucked into his waistband. He didn’t know what to do when the other dog bolted at them from a yard. He kicked it, and a man came out of the house and yelled at him. So now he carries a knife.

When we are back at home, the kids on the street knock at our door. I have instituted a contest, and they have come to present me with their guesses–sealed in an envelope–of the October weight of the first pumpkin to appear in my garden. They are crowded on the stoop. They have an electric guitar and are taking turns strumming it. Santiago slips out the door and stands among them, wagging his tail against their chests and faces.

“Why is it foggy?”

That is what they ask me later that day, when I am snipping errant trees in the yard. I want to tell them that the fog is why I blow my nose into cloth handkerchiefs, why I don’t buy fruit in plastic packaging, why I take sponge baths instead of showers and do not send the autumn leaves away. I want to explain and deflect blame and enlist their help and tell them that I am scared and I am sorry. But I say simply that the fog is smoke from wildfires, that when the wind comes from their direction–I point–smoke settles over the land. They watch me as I speak. Then they resume their play.

On the day that I drive to my brother’s house, road signs glow with a message that reads, “AIR QUALITY ALERT. CONSIDER REDUCING TRIPS.” My car windows are rolled down because I do not have air-conditioning, and I am masked because I cannot breathe the air. Day after day, it is hard to know what to do. But, that afternoon, for the first time since Christmas eighteen months ago, I am with my family: everyone who lives in the state. I watch the newest baby toddle along the deck of a swimming pool, floats on her arms, her grandmother beside her, to be tossed from the diving board into her father’s embrace. I watch the previous baby, now a high-schooler, lounge in the water like a mermaid in a chic, red bathing suit. We eat ribs and beans, tuna salad and ice cream sandwiches, and, after the sunning and swimming and lunching, the whole house starts singing “Hakuna Matata”–no worries–as the new little one watches The Lion King, her eyes liquid with enchantment.

The next day, I take Santiago to the pet market. The outdoor air remains sickening. The parkway is closed for construction, so we drive through the urban heat island, contributing to the pollution. Stopped at a traffic light, windows rolled down, mask on, I hear a church organ noodling over someone else’s radio.

A voice booms, “And I know it doesn’t feel good right now!”

The intersection is colorless, all asphalt and white glare. It is sweltering, and it smells of exhaust, and there is nothing but garbage to look at.

“But we take solace,” says the voice. “We know that all will be well.”

I start to cry.

We leave the market with puppy pastries in a sack. Overhead, the sky has become blue. I check the air quality index. It is improving. I drive Santi to a park and give him a cupcake in the grass.

Several days later, the rain comes. The clouds are in motion for four days over our house, often in the night, so that I awaken to their release, to the patter and snap and bellowing of the rain, and I thank God for its confidence. The tomatoes in the front garden become heavy with fruit and their pot topples in the wind. I put stakes in the ground and tie up the stalks with twine while a friend moves a spirea from beneath the aging cedar to a bright corner of the yard. We go to a whiskey distillery that evening, sipping cocktails and crunching pretzels on a terrace facing the churning clouds. We pay our tab when the rain starts to reach under our umbrella.

I hear from a cousin, a neighbor, my CSA farmer about close calls with the virus. I make dates to see my friends, knowing that they will be both the first and the last for months.

And on mornings when rain has scrubbed the air, Santiago takes me on long walks. Though the drought has not broken, the footpaths in the woods are just damp enough to ease the dust, to give us sure footing. Santi sniffs out a muskrat gliding through lime green duckweed on a refreshed pond. The needled branches of tamaracks wave with cones and blue-beaded junipers smell like Christmas and a park bench is mottled with wet, yellow cottonwood leaves. Rows of crabapple trees bear fruits blighted with monstrous orange fingers. The rain does not fix everything.

But the parkway opens again. And Canada geese begin to appear in great flocks on hillsides and golf courses. A crowd pours from a rugby pitch, boisterous and unmasked. Everyone will find their way home.

In the garden, there are new pumpkins. At least, I think that they are pumpkins.

We’ll see.

To see Santiago at the height of a hot, dry summer, visit the gallery.

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Dependence

On a warm, Sunday morning, a gray sedan stops in the middle of a suburban street. A man exits the driver’s side, takes a few steps, then lobs a folded newspaper onto the walk in front of a two-story house with a garden etched into a hillock above the curb. As the man gets back behind the steering wheel, Santiago heads for the paper as if he has been invited to a game of fetch.

Santi is alert to men in cars. He has attempted to board city buses, mail delivery trucks, contractor vans. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t wag his tail at a guy getting into or out of a pick-up. He once leapt into the passenger seat beside a stranger eating take-out with the car door open; the man laughed and gave him chicken and waffles. In Mississippi, Santiago was picked up twice as a stray. He was reclaimed twice. Finally, he was deposited at a local shelter. He was skinny. He had bloodshot eyes and pressure sores and a yet-to-be-discovered case of heartworm disease. He is a dog who has been dependent upon the good will of the universe. He has believed in it fiercely–and courted it–and more than once it has revealed itself in the form of a man in a van. On the day that I brought Santi home from the animal shelter here in Minnesota, I had to cajole him out of the trunk of my car. When I popped the lid to deposit a bag of dog food, he jumped inside. He sat there with his eyes gleaming, waiting for the adventure to begin.

It is Independence Day, and we are wandering together in our neighborhood. It is already hot. We leave the newspaper behind. A strong south wind makes the leaves overhead flutter and sough, and where red, white, and blue flags have been hoisted, they are wrapped around poles. At a tennis court, a woman with silver hair and a man with a gently protruding belly chase a ball with lassitude as they chat. Parents and toddlers stand under streams of water at a splash pad near picnic tables scattered with firecracker remnants. Santiago and I take our places in the summer tableau, sitting for a spell on a street corner, our faces to the wind. Several blocks away, a church carillon plays, “Morning Has Broken.”

Never is there a day without glory.

We head home through a field of dormant grass and bindweed. The latter is also known as wild morning glory and is considered noxious. It requires other plants for stability, vining and generating great carpets of its own kind. There is little for it to clutch here, only stunted stalks of purple clover. Still, it blooms with pretty, white flowers in this parkland that over-mowing and a scalding sun have stripped of most other vegetation.

What tiny, blooming thing will we miss when the plants that are left on Earth no longer have the strength to pull rain down from the sky?

Beside our house, Joe-Pye weed is high and readying its flowers. Sprawling red sedum has pink blossoms. Every day now, I pick raspberries. In the absence of rain, these plants depend on me to slake their thirst. I have potted plants, too: hibiscus, ficus, and lemon trees and a purple shamrock, all of whom have wintered in the house for years, such that a priest I know referred to them plainly and truthfully as my friends. They are glossy and blooming, while this year’s tomato plant has rooted itself into the soil beneath its pot and dangles three, tiny beads of green fruit. The pumpkin plants salvaged from the neighbors’ compost have great, gold blossoms, and I begin to wonder whether they may, in fact, be zucchinis. The universe will provide. I worry about the water table, which, like the plants, depends on me. As one bleats for generosity, the other pleads for restraint. And yet, the ways in which the soil is distinct from the water, the water from the clouds, the clouds from me are very slight. We are amalgamations of dust and spirit. I extend care. I don’t know of a better approach.

A week ago, it rained. On Saturday, there were drops that whispered faintly like children at a slumber party, so gossamer that it took them hours to dampen the sidewalks. For all their shyness, they were a mercy: a thing prayed for and delivered. The next morning, gray sky persisted. Santiago and I walked around a lake. Near the shore, stalks of water dock had gone orange from dehydration, their seeds like rusty nail heads. Where the lake had receded, a rocky beach grinned. A fish jumped, breaking the quiet as he slapped back through the surface of the water.

The rain that came then was unpredicted. It started ten minutes after Santiago and I left home and lasted for thirty minutes, soaking my shirt and pouring off the brim of my cap. The air became cool, and we were the only people outside. The shower shook blossoms from catalpa trees and ruffled the feathers of two crows who sat on a telephone wire, a church steeple piercing the sky behind them. At the edge of a prairie restoration, I photographed black-eyed Susans and foxtail barley grass and young oak trees sprung up amid the Canada rye. When I turned around, Santiago was eating goldenrod. He loves goldenrod. The clouds exhausted themselves and drifted away. Wet linden trees filled our nostrils with the scent of their wrung-out sprays, and rabbits appeared on lawns. A skateboarder wiggled down the street like a garter snake. From the lampposts and eaves, drops of gratitude lingered, falling from my fingertips and from Santiago’s slick fur with a kind of effervescent music.

We’ve always liked walking in the rain.

The farm from which I purchased a CSA share has had a downpour, but my neighbor’s CSA farm has not. I pass on a head of buttercrunch lettuce. I learn how to make kale chips, and Santi trots into the kitchen when they come out of the oven, begging. I learn how to make kohlrabi fritters, and after I’ve plated them with plain yogurt and freshly cut basil, he sits beside my chair with long strings of drool hanging from his jaws. I share these things, but I keep the sugar snap peas–plump and crunchy in a bowl of ramen–for myself. Santiago got an extra walk the afternoon that we picked them up, and a bite of the peach-pecan-maple scones left on the porch with a cheerful note.

This plentitude of food and the pleasure that it brings co-exists with ostrich ferns beside the front stoop that have turned a sickly green from the heat and the drought. It co-exists with a customer at the grocery store who tells me–after I have sanitized my hands and ladled mashed potatoes from a buffet into a paper container–that I ought to have worn plastic gloves. I wonder if she knows that when the rain comes, it is speckled with plastic. My father is hospitalized for three days. His phone is not charged, and there is a time when my family is keenly aware of our vulnerabilities: the ways in which we depend upon technology and strangers, our bodies and each other. One morning, Santiago and I walk past a small, stone angel placed beneath a lush and towering white pine over which the sun is rising red from Canadian wildfires. That is what this summer is like: lavish and kind and terrifying.

I have learned that there is a third way when I am troubled, that when confronted with things that I wish were otherwise, I do not have to choose between resignation or resistance, that there is always, in every circumstance, much that is right, that I can, instead, choose joy. And so I sit under the shade of a sour cherry tree on a hot night and watch Santiago play with a puppy named Juniper. Her big paws and the soft, gray mask across her face make her look like his own, little lass. On a walk, I marvel at a spider web catching the light and a picnic table placed in the blue water of the lake. At a farmers’ market, I smile as a couple with ropy, old necks and dark sunglasses takes a selfie sharing a root beer float. When a doe lifts her head beside a dog park that is empty but for Santi and me, it is a gift; though he cannot clear the fence, Santiago chases her without tether and is happy. I buy ice cream for the neighborhood kids who have stayed out of my gardens–even when losing their balls amid the plants–and I visit their lemonade stand, buying a cup each for me and for Santi. In the mornings, we squash mulberries on the city sidewalks, and, in the evenings, we lie on our deck, the day’s warmth coming into our bones, watching tiger swallowtails flit through the leaves high above our faces.

Never is there a day without grace.

A chilling rain falls, and Santiago and I sleep with the windows open. At dawn, we drive to a park we haven’t visited for a while. Santi snoozes in the car, his chin on the arm rest, but he opens his eyes and purrs when I exit the freeway. At the park, in the cool, morning air, he runs. The sky is gray, and, for the first time in many weeks, I am wearing a jacket. Herons and egrets and cormorants are roosting in the swamp among dead trees and prickly wands of rattlesnake master. Green frogs call, their voices like the pluck of strings. On a path through the woods, a bicycle lies on its side, and nearby two people are gathering wild raspberries. The first acorns have fallen beneath the oaks. Over a hillside covered with wildflowers, a transmission tower climbs up and disappears into a fog.

We walk to the swimming beach. Foam is scattered across the sand, and buoys bob in the water. A mist rises from the waves. On the dock, someone has left a fishing cap. A woman watching the wind blow the mist toward the shore turns to us.

“It’s so beautiful,” she says.

When my father is home again, I sit at the piano and sing a hymn of thanks. A friend emails to say that her teenaged son needs heart surgery. I wish it would be otherwise. But, of course, we are all dependent upon others for the well-being of our hearts. I go to a nursery and buy some coneflowers and coreopsis, pots of little bluestem and hen and chicks, a burning bush. I spend a morning digging out the ferns who will never again be contented in a landscape stripped of the oak trees that they depended upon for shade. Things change. But this is what joy engenders: the love needed to minister in the face of change.

Sunset comes now before nine p.m. Santiago and I learn to sleep through the fireworks that shoot off every night, despite the holiday having passed. On a Saturday morning, we go to the Mississippi River. Smoke from over the border gives the sky a dirty tint and triggers my asthma. The river is so shallow that a man and a child are fishing in the middle of its half-mile expanse. They have crossed from shore to sandbar to rock bed to stand in the sun-sparkle and cast a line. Every beach is a moonscape of previously submerged stones and emergent vegetation, the latter more vivid growing in the mud than the trees higher up the banks, which are a faded olive and dun. I pick up a mollusk shell that is nearly as large as my cupped hands. At the water’s edge, a bald eagle is surrounded by crows cawing with excitement, and when we walk to the prairie, swallows lift and loop over our heads like they are writing cursive messages in the sky. Santi catches sight of a white squirrel and stalks her, suspicious that she is a cat, and a paddling of ducks advances slowly before a boat being launched into the water.

Never is there a day without beauty.

To see Santiago and Juniper, and other joys of a hot, dry summer, visit the gallery.

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Comfort

For ten, straight days, the temperature is fifteen degrees above average. The sun shines without respite. Evenings approach one hundred degrees, and, overnight, heat lounges by the exit but refuses to leave. In the mornings, there is no dew on the grass, which becomes more and more like its namesake: flinty blades that stab at Santiago’s paws. Icons predicting rain pop up on my weather app then disappear hour after hour, day after day, like mirages in a desert. The atmosphere toggles between uncomfortable and debilitating.

Santi and I go walking at sunrise. One morning, as we crest a hill between a church and a wood, clear sky above us and the day warming, we see a hen and her chicks, foraging. I tug Santiago closer to me. The hen hurries for the cover of trees, and the poults follow, but two stragglers circle in confusion at the sunny edge of the wood, vibrating like wind-up toys. That is when a tom bolts from the shady understory beside us and charges.

“No!” I shout as ferociously as I can, and it comes out like a scream because my voice is high. I scatter mental files, looking for instructions on what to do when attacked by a turkey, but I cannot find anything. Santi is quiet. He does not bark and does not chase, but he spins and watches the turkey each time it advances, standing his ground.

And so we dance, the three of us. My shouts are a kind of ululation, and each time the tom rushes, Santi and I pirouette to face him, thrusting our own chests forward until he halts, beginning, then, again, in a kind of cha cha cha, all of us progressing, retreating, sidling, twirling, in time, together. When the turkey is satisfied with the performance, he wanders back to the wood. Santiago and I remain strolling across a hillside of dormant grass and bright, magenta clover. I look down at the dog.

“You had fun, didn’t you?” I say, and I smile.

That old tom was probably just cranky from the heat.

I sleep fitfully. The day’s warmth collects in the master bed room, under the roof, pressing from every side as if the walls were moving in. I try the guest bedroom in the basement, but the air conditioner roars and the room becomes too cold. Some evenings, I open windows, hoping that the moon’s breath will offer respite from the swelter, but summer sounds distract me–sirens and firecrackers and late-night traffic–so that I fidget atop the bedspread, punching my pillow, trying to get comfortable. One night, I lie down on the floor of the study in front of the wan breath of a vent. I dream of gardens. Night after night, I dream of tending gardens.

Every other day, I water the yard. It takes an hour or two. I have never had to water so much. Plants that were, until spring, housed in profound shade are wilted, crimped and yellowed. They miss the oak next door that, like two others that used to overhang my yard, was taken down for disease. Rotting branches no longer clatter down upon my car, but in the mornings, when the sun knocks at it, my front door is blistering to the touch. That same, hot sun, coupled with a creeping drought, has caused the white cedar that veils the living room windows to develop a hunch, its lower branches drooping to the ground, its upper branches folded down across the top of it, like strands of hair combed over a balding pate. The potted herbs on the deck are thirsty every day, the ferns are browning, and the violets have gone limp. The rhododendrons show hints of fall color. It is not yet the middle of June.

And yet, the prairie that I planted in a small plot of unfettered sunshine is blooming. There are vivid orange butterfly weed blossoms and wands of purple prairie clover and coreopsis like bouquets of yellow smiley faces. The pumpkin sprouts, too, have become fistfuls of large, happy leaves. I have been trying to grow pumpkins on my tiny acreage since I moved here more than a decade ago. I have not yet succeeded.

The weather is a reminder that expectations are not always fulfilled, that what is within our control is very slight, that it amounts mainly to the ability, in all circumstances, to welcome present joy and to hope for good to come.

On the hottest days, I pack water for Santiago and me. I watch for his tongue: for how quickly it parts his muzzle and how low it dangles in search of a cooling breeze. We hike in the woods and are favored with shade but challenged by steep hills and biting flies. At a pond, we encounter a painted turtle nesting in the sand, as still as a stone, and squirrels fighting so fiercely in the underbrush that one comes flying onto the footpath, squealing. The heat is hard on everyone. When Santi stops to roll in the grass–when he refuses to walk any farther but refuses, also, to head for the car–I join him. I lie down on that spiky carpet–ever drier and more decrepit–and watch dragonflies with striped wings dashing in every direction in the blue sky above my face. The dog lies on his belly, legs stretched before him, and pants. He rolls again. There is a loud squawking, and both of us turn our heads as a dozen mallard drakes rise from a stream, an eagle flying behind them like a collie herding sheep. We watch the flurry; we watch the settling. Joggers pass, smiling at us. I close my eyes. Santi rolls.

We do not need to walk. We are in the presence of all that is alive.

The heat does what it does. On the roads, drivers speed, pass in turn lanes, shout swear words out their open windows. Parks are profusely littered. I, too, am bad-tempered and muddled and tired. I can no longer walk from the beginning to the end of an idea without wanting to lie down and sleep. For two days, I turn off my phone. I do not consult it about the temperature or news of the world or what my friends are doing. I read a book. I do a crossword puzzle. I thumb a little, leather atlas and look up a word in a clothbound dictionary. I speak only to Santiago.

And for hours, I sit under a ceiling fan, pasting photos into a family scrapbook. Its genealogy begins in the eighteenth century. As I sort and cut and glue and caption, I think on famines escaped, oceans crossed, taunts rejoindered, on war and poverty, innovation and love. I remember craggy faces and rosy cheeks and laughs that burbled from the mouths of old aunties and uncles and grandparents, remember hugs that I enjoyed against those bosoms, pennies that I received for no good reason, meals of pancakes and shucked corn and cold milk that we shared, often in the summer, in a dusty land, under a hot sun.

To endure–to understand that one’s own life arises from and will be carried on in the bodies of other beings–is a great comfort.

When the heat breaks, Santiago and I park early in the morning beside railroad tracks. The sun is rising. Crows stand in the rail yard as black tank cars filled with oil trundle past. The cool, dry air feels like fall, like the start of something new. We are giddy. We run. The land along the trail is covered with June whites–ox-eye daisy and yarrow and tall stands of clover–and rabbits are grazing around every bend. A breeze blows, and the cottonwood leaves scintillate in the sun. On one side of a hill, a baseball field has been watered overnight. On the other, a stagnant pond shows a ragged hem of soil around its banks. There is smog over the city skyline: a pale, gray filth like dirt on a window that I ache to wipe away. The pandemic doesn’t seem to have changed us.

One morning, as I stand in the front yard with a trickling hose, I watch a robin pecking among the prairie smoke in the garden. She hops around, neck bobbing, then flies off with a bit of grub in her beak, landing in a small elm above a maidenhair fern. As I work, she does, too, flying back and forth, feeding her young. In the back yard, a house finch is standing in the bird bath. She cheeps at me. The water has evaporated overnight–or been drunk by alley cats and squirrels; the bath welcomes all comers. I spray the tray clean and refill it. I am gentle. In the bowl underneath the bath, a spider is tending two egg sacks.

They comfort me: the birds and the spider–and the rabbits who continue to knock over my fencing and eat the wood phlox. I have created this place for them and they have found it.

Others find this place, too. The heat has tempered, and Santi and I sit on the deck with friends we’ve not seen for a year and a half, sharing a bottle of rosé and a plate of cheese and a semifreddo that won’t thaw. A mosquito makes an appearance. We watch the sun sink behind maples and pines and chimney stacks. One day, my parents come for lunch. I put a tape recorder in front of them and ask them to tell me stories. Another farmers’ market opens for the season, a friend and I dine out, and prickly lawns are spread with wedding receptions and graduation parties. Santiago runs across the street to see Sweetie and is invited inside the fence to play.

Bare faces everywhere: it lifts the spirit to see them.

Seventeen days after the heat wave began and twenty-four days since the last measurable rain, the sky is filled with clouds. They are gray like pewter, and the air is soft and weighted. Santiago and I are walking beside a lake filled with lily pads when the rain begins. Droplets splash atop the surface with a sound like a hush, creating thin circles that spread toward a stand of cattails, toward the open water, toward us. We stand on the bank and watch. The soil at our feet becomes freckled with dark, wet spots.

It is a tremulous rain. We walk with it for an hour, but our skin is not damp beneath our clothes, our fur. It is hard not to be anxious. But this morning rain is like a greeting card on a gift wrapped in paper and bows. In the afternoon, more is revealed: a second downpour wets everything, even under the trees. And in the evening, it comes again, rain, this time, with thunder, and water pours down the trunks of the trees, leaving thick, black streaks along the bark.

Santiago leaves the bed, where he has been sleeping. He is troubled by the rattling of the heavens. He comes to sit beside me and be comforted.

To see photos of joy in a dry land, visit the gallery.

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Abundance

A week before the end of May, summer begins. In the late morning, it is nearly 70ºF, and the air is damp and heavy, weighted with the scent of blossoming crabapples and lilacs and a sharp, green note of mown grass. For the first time in months, my legs don’t itch. Santiago and I are at a large suburban park. As we follow lakeshore and tramp through woods on a wiggling loop of a trail, warm weather motifs present themselves. I see my first hummingbird of the season, darting across a sundial planted in the ground then shooting up into a just-leafed sapling. On a narrow path, Santi tugs me past branches that wet my shirt with lingering overnight rain as a chipmunk scurries in the understory. When I bend to retrieve poop that the dog has deposited, I encounter a toad as black and brown as the weathered leaves upon which he rests, nearly invisible. Beside a dock, a great blue heron stands as still as an anchor in the water then lifts into the sky as we pass, her hunched back and snaking neck like something ancient and sacred.

Humans, too, are in their summer poses. Two men are unpacking fishing gear on a bridge. As Santiago and I cross, making our way to a wishbone of land in the middle of the lake, one of the men–gray-haired and burly–turns from his bags and buckets and squints at Santi. When we near, he bends over and takes the dog by the jowls.

“Nobody gives you love, do they? No, they don’t. They don’t love you enough. It’s terrible,” he says.

The man baby-talks and scratches Santi about the ears, and Santi sashays and wags his tail.

On the island, near the shore where lake breezes will cool them, two women in yoga clothes are doing downward dog. They are mirroring each other, their rumps in the air forming a miniature mountain range. A recording narrates their next moves. We follow two mothers pushing strollers to the end of the island. As Santiago noses for ducks among the reeds, high, childish voices can be heard wondering aloud if they are wearing the right kind of underwear. Moments later, squeals of delight skip across the ripples formed around chubby legs wading in the water. We pass women talking softly in the shade of a picnic shelter and a man nestled in beach grass, a pole in the water. When we return to the mainland, the fisherman’s companion–wearing dark sunglasses under an ice cream whip of white hair–roots around in a sack and gives Santiago a treat. Santi lies down on the bridge, then, and refuses to leave, begging for more. I have to pull him away with both hands.

It is hot. The humidity makes it so. Santi’s tongue hangs from his mouth, and my skin is sticky with perspiration. I want to stop walking–earlier than we would if it were cool–to take Santiago to the car, to ease into this warm weather activity. I want to leave him with the windows rolled down and go into the park building and order an iced coffee and a cup of water. But Santi has more enthusiasm than caution. He has not yet smelled all the smells that are capering in this place, and he resists moving toward the parking lot. So we stroll up to the building and sit outside on a bench beneath an awning and breathe the air.

The world is filled with pairs of women, and two more approach us. One uses a walker. Her hair is ashen, and she seems uncertain behind her glasses. The other has a ponytail that bounces and eyes that crinkle into smiles. They are both wearing masks. They sit down on a bench next to ours. Santiago stands up and greets them, heedlessly weaving himself around the walker, searching for hands to lick and faces to sniff. The woman with the ponytail crinkles her eyes. She encourages the woman with the walker to pet the dog. The woman does, and her shoulders fall. We exchange names, and the women offer to sit with Santiago and breathe the air while I buy cold drinks. When I return with a cup in each hand, Santi licks the condensation from the lid of my coffee. I hurry him to the car to pour his water into a bowl. The women thank me for sharing him.

Summer is like this: a season in which we become visible to one another, and shed our uncertainty, and share.

The yard seems to have flourished overnight. Tiny shoots are suddenly six inches tall and elbowing at their neighbors. Another oak tree on the street has come down, and the morning sun is now ardent with plants accustomed to more gentle love-making; their leaves go limp until the shade touches them in the afternoon. The Kentucky coffee trees–such late-bloomers that a previous neighbor mistook them one spring for dead–leaf out at last, and monarchs begin visiting the prairie garden, flitting from butterfly weed to butterfly weed. The nannyberry blooms with little, white bridal bouquets, and bumblebees buzz loudly as they tuck into purple poms of Virginia waterleaf. Star of Bethlehem that appeared along the garden walk several years ago twinkles in the sunlit mornings, and the first yellow blooms of wood sorrel appear beside tiny, clover-like leaves.

With abundance comes duty. Though Santiago harried from under the front stoop a nesting rabbit some weeks ago, young bunnies nonetheless make their way to the yard. They eat first through slender arms of columbine, then, after I wrap those plants with plastic fencing, through flowering lavender-hued wood phlox. I wrap those, too, until I run out of fencing. It is all right. I am not planting gardens. I am creating habitat: a place for rabbits to live with bees and butterflies.

The honeysuckle has grown, as it does every year, into a small asteroid that threatens to roll through the house. I prune it and sweep up yellow strings of oak catkins that make me sneeze. Meanwhile, samaras fall from a neighboring silver maple like a plague of locusts. They litter the lawn. They are in every pot of herbs and jammed between the slats of the deck. They are under the windshield wipers of my car, in my hair and in my bra, and lying in a fat layer on top of the roof and gutters. They crunch beneath my feet. When I cross the yard or sit on the deck, I am pelted on the head, the back, the arm with seeds. Trees attempt to generate themselves in bowls of yogurt, in glasses of wine. The sweeping will continue for a month. It is a fair price to pay for shade.

Santiago lies in the sun as I work. He is limp like the plants, eyes closed, black back heating like coals, happy. A friend who is a landscaper texts that he is dead-heading flowers at a private residence. With his hands, with his sweat, he sees what others have acquired. I collect branches, pods, winged seeds, catkins–all the gifts of my shadowy places–and offer them to neighbors whose yard is gifted mainly with light. They add the mixture to their compost bin and give me pumpkin sprouts that have come up there. I plant the sprouts among my prairie clover, and water them, and hope. In the evening, I open my front door to find a bottle of blooming peonies left for me on the stoop.

For a short time, summer runs away. I gather all the herbs to the sunniest side of the deck and drape them with a shower curtain each night. The tetchy plants get hauled back into the house: the lemon tree, the ficus, the hibiscus, the tomato plant. I get a worried email from the farmer who manages my CSA, sharing with subscribers the plan to cover crops as, for three nights, temperatures fall into the thirties.

They are beautiful days. In the mornings, the electric fireplace makes quick work of the chill. In the afternoons, open windows let in air that is as light and sweet as cotton candy. I eat my meals on the deck, in slippers or bare feet, watching finches at the bird feeder. Santiago and I take long walks. The milkweed is already high and beginning to form beads of flowers. Beaches that were submerged in the spring sport soft, dry sand and are scattered with smooth driftwood. Salsify and wild rose and wood lupine are blooming, and grackles swoop from tree to tree in a green, young wood, their iridescent plumage glinting. We wander city streets, too, looking at smokestacks and steeples and old, brick libraries, and buying spicy burritos and licorice chip ice cream. In the nights, I get leg cramps.

And then an all-day rain falls, as generous as summer.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I am at my sister’s house, with my parents. It is cool. June bugs and caterpillars sidle across the sidewalks. There are six of us, and a pan full of brats, and for hours our laughter carries out the windows and into the corn fields. It has been nearly a year since I have seen so many people I love in one place.

Not long afterward, summer returns. She is visible on the horizon for several days, walking toward us, whistling. I water the yard to prepare for her arrival. That night, I turn on the air conditioning, and the next morning, Santiago and I are walking beside a lake. It will not be this cool again for a week, not even overnight. Where a road is blocked for construction, an eagle circles a motionless yellow crane that reaches above the trees. Joggers and bikers pass silently, as if fearful of the impending heat. Mallards sun themselves on boat docks, and a deer watches us from a little stand of trees, and the fleabane along the path is the same shade of pink as the sunlight icing the far shore. Wood ducklings skitter across a pond, peeping, as Santiago catches sight of them and lunges. At the beach, the wind off the waves is as pleasant as a dream, and a child’s toy lies abandoned in the sand.

It is perfect morning.

We hit a record high that day: 97º F. I draw every shade in the house. I turn on fans. By evening, the AC can no longer maintain the programmed temperature. Santiago and I sleep on top of the bed, without blankets. Every hour, I awake and blink at the clock, uncomfortable. I cry into my pillow, regretful about the world that I am sharing with generations to come.

In the days ahead, the temperatures will be even more punishing. Summer will unpack her humidity. And when Santiago lingers on a boardwalk, sniffing at a muskrat in the duckweed beneath; when a stranger in a convertible brakes to introduce us to the mutt on the passenger seat, ears to the wind; when the spiderwort blooms its ethereal purple and tiger swallowtails flutter in the sunshine; when Santi rolls in the grass while I watch a snapping turtle creep to a stream; and when I share news of that turtle, as if I have just seen in the next town a man who heals the sick, I will wonder if it is possible for the world to be any more beautiful.

To remind yourself of the staggering beauty of the world–and the bliss of dogs–visit the gallery.

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Place

On the day before Santiago’s eighth birthday, we get on the road early and head north. The sun has risen, but it is not yet forty degrees. We pass through the city and the suburbs and the exurbs, through orange-coned construction zones, past brightly painted outlet malls, beside sleepy distribution centers. I use one hand to unwrap a slice of pound cake that I’ve laid on the passenger seat. Santi awakens behind me and puts his chin on the arm rest, his nose bunching as he inhales the butter-and-marmalade scent. I tear off a sticky chunk and share. From time to time, wind gusts shoulder the car closer to a field of grazing cattle or to a roadside flower mart or to a parked truck advertising a rodeo. The date for the rodeo provides no year, and I wonder, as the sun gleams on clapboard houses behind little stands of trees, whether it expresses an event that is to come or one that might have been had there not been a pandemic.

After ninety minutes, we pull in at a dairy. We get out of the car and stretch our legs. Though we have not been here for three and a half years, Santiago knows this place. He sniffs at the trees in the pet station, lifts his leg, then tugs me through the parking lot, toward where the asphalt disappears and the air smells of hay and sweet grass and horses. I bring him back to the car and enter the shop. I order a hot sandwich with egg and ham. I buy provisions and gifts: cheese, crackers, liquor, candy. The last purchase is a “puppy cup” for Santi: a few, generous mouthfuls of vanilla soft serve. It is for celebrating the strange joy of living in a body, year after year, on this little, blue planet, spinning in a galaxy made of dust and gas and darkness and stars.

We eat outside. Santiago guzzles the ice cream like it’s cold water on a steaming day, after which he begs for my sandwich. I share. We are in Wisconsin now, heading east. Our destination is the small town where my parents had a home for nineteen years. On weekends, it slept children and spouses and grandchildren, nieces and cousins and life-long friends. The living room windows looked out across low ferns and conifers, past the trunks of tall, skinny hardwoods to a lake that jogged like a jigsaw puzzle, with hollows for swans and wild rice. The kitchen windows took in the morning sun across a rock garden planted with roses and geraniums and coneflowers. At the end of a long driveway, my father built a wishing well, and the beds in the house were laid with quilts hand-stitched by my mother.

For twenty years before they moved to that house, my parents owned a cabin nearby. It was small and smelled of mold, and it faced a shoreline with soft, clean sand. There were mosquitoes and bats, bunk beds and a hammock, and a trail that led through the woods to an old gangster hideout. This lake country is where my family’s roots are deepest. It is where we smoked meat and toasted marshmallows and played lawn games; where we drank gin-and-tonics on a slow-trolling pontoon boat, searching for eagles among the trees; where we watched the sun set over the water and listened to loon calls in the cool, black night. In this place, teenage crushes were confessed and Sasquatch tales were told. This town is where we shopped after Thanksgiving, convening for lattés, splitting up to purchase gifts, bumping into each other at the candy store, year after year after year. It is where we marched in a Christmas parade, bells jingling on our elf hats, tossing candy as we accompanied a seaworthy tugboat formed by my father’s hammer and strung with lights.

Here, I swam in gray, September waters. Here, for the first time, Santiago played in snow.

The Earth spun. We aged. My parents moved closer to me, closer to my brother and sister. But I did not leave that place. Each memory is a story, and the stories are stacked in my mind like books on a shelf, piled top to side in a helter-skelter of delight, and when I pull them down for a look, the spines flop open to favorite passages and vivid illustrations, and the books smell of sunblock and wood smoke and cocktail peanuts and pine needles and roasted turkey, and score sheets from old board games fall from the pages, and my heart remembers, and I am not discontented, for I have lived.

I give Santiago some kibble, and he settles into the back seat. He understands where we are going; it will take us another ninety minutes to get there. Familiar landmarks–rivers and cemeteries and bars, a golf course, a fire station–grow large as we approach, then vanish in an instant behind us. When we pass the county sign–the last significant marker before we reach town–I swallow a few upstart tears. We cannot, of course, go to the house that my parents sold to others. We pull up, instead, at the library. Behind it is a park. My dad and his friends designed it. They cleared the paths, built the bridge and the benches, erected the kiosks. After a tornado touched down, they did much of the work a second time. They cared for this place as if it were their home.

The spring air is warming, and the sun shines in a blue sky through which the wind pushes fat, white clouds. Santiago knows the trail. He puts his nose to a statue just outside the woods and then, pissing, begins the extended process of greeting this ground after our long time away. The path is mulched and clear. Red pines tower above us, and small markers staked in the soil name the plants in the understory. Throughout the park, child-size podiums display the pages of a picture book: a tale of animals who live in this place and how they survive the winter. We linger over sites that we have remembered with fondness: the footbridge over a pond from which water lilies are rising to the surface; the preserved cross-section of a century-old oak; the forest pocket from which an entire flock of foraging grouse once took flight. In a glade, in front of an old row of benches, we encounter a new, open-air stage. Santiago crosses the boards and stops, as if a spotlight shone upon him and he were about to deliver a tender monologue.

In the gardens at home, I have been snipping the hollow stems of last year’s perennials. The bees who might have slumbered within them, warm in the snow, are now at the dandelions, which have already bloomed and gone to seed and are standing naked and reedy in the lawn. I don’t uproot them; I like their sunny faces and bitter leaves and the blowzy way they depart when it is time. I trim the grass around the beds and prune Virginia waterleaf where it hangs over the other vegetation like a poncho. I fill the bird feeders and scrub the bird bath. There are twigs to rake and catkins to sweep, and these duties assert themselves day after day. The air smells of lilac and lily-of-the-valley, but there has been no rain for weeks, only the cloud spittle that makes the car in the driveway even dirtier. I get out the watering can. I sprinkle the potted herbs and the plants that are blooming: the Jacob’s ladder, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, the maidenhair fern sprung up suddenly high and gangly. I do not want to waste water. But the rain doesn’t come. I get out the hose. I am not sure of the right way to provide nurture.

We come to the edge of the park and Santiago starts across the road. I hold him back. We have never been here before. But a footpath is visible on the other side of the asphalt and, beside it, a sign with faded print. I release my hold, and Santi leads us to another set of trails where spring azure butterflies flit across the forest floor. It is impossibly quiet. Trees have not yet leafed in the north, and only the thinnest blades of grass poke out from straw-like patches beneath our feet. We follow the shoreline of a lake that is blue-gray and shining as the wind ruffles it. Pine cones loll in the shade.

This is the state where my great-grandparents met and married, where they built a house and raised sheep and children. With its lakes and hills and woods, it reminded my great-grandmother of her birthplace in Sweden. The railroad stopped bringing their sheep to market, and they moved to Colorado. The land was dry, and Grandma called the fencing poor, no good for shepherding. She never took to the place. When she was very old, she labored in a garden behind her cottage, growing irises that reached her hips and made her smile. She lost her wedding band in that garden. It wasn’t found until after she had been laid in the ground. Every morning, I slip it on my finger.

When we have walked for hours, Santiago and I make our way back to the car. I open all the doors and give him water and kibble. He waits patiently on Main Street while I buy a latté, and as we head southwest, he sleeps. The sun is hot on his back. Signs along the road warn residents and passers-by that fire danger is high. Near the place where, on a cloudy morning years ago, a deer stepped on graceful legs into the road before my front bumper, disappearing into the trees as I crushed my brakes and my heart beat against my eyes, we pass acres where the woods have been removed. Half a dozen yellow trucks lumber over the bare earth.

The road trip wasn’t for Santiago. It was for me. I was thirsty. I needed a latté.

The next morning, it is Santi’s birthday. We leave the house on foot, before breakfast. It is his favorite way of waking up. He chooses an excellent route, one that loops through five parks, crossing back and forth over train tracks on sneaky trails whose stories he remembers. We watch a woodpecker knocking at a fallen snag, and swans floating in a marsh below a transmission tower. In the afternoon, I give him cheese. In the evening, I climb onto the couch beside him, facing him like a lover, my hip hanging off the cushion, breathing his breath, scratching his chest as he purrs.

We met a man on the trails in Wisconsin. He was young. He wore shorts and a tee-shirt and sunglasses. He rode a fat tire bike and approached–almost without sound in the impossibly quiet woods– from behind us. After he had passed, he turned his head and called into his wake.

“That’s a handsome dog!”

A short while later, at the library park, we met a gray-haired couple, both tall and rangy. They wore faded sweatshirts and walked with their grandchildren. They let Santiago jump on them.

“He’s like ours,” they said. “We just lost him. Ten years old. In bed. Didn’t wake up. We weren’t ready.”

This is the place where Santiago and I live: between our handsome youth and the death that will come too soon. I have been happy, and the consequence of my happiness is that time is moving faster than I have ever known it to move. I water the bare ground where–as the planet spins–the slimmest shoots of prairie clover and butterfly weed will emerge. I wash dishes and fix toilets, shake out rugs and turn the compost, hang out laundry and sweep the floors. These cares assert themselves day after day. And day after day, I walk with my companion in the peace of the morning until we are spent. In attending to this place, I am satisfied.

My parents, too, have birthdays in May. One afternoon, they take me to a park near their home in the suburbs. The trees in the wood reach toward the light–poplars and ironwoods and red oaks, and flowering shrubs that we touch and try to name. They have leafed and arch over us, and moss grows on the rotting logs scattered in the brush, so that to walk here is like walking the wide aisle of a great cathedral in which the stained glass windows are all in shades of green. We encounter turkeys on a hillside and a tiny, white-haired woman who walks briskly, stocking-footed. When we come to a sun-bathed bridge, we stand in the middle of it, watching the minnows swimming in the water below until we notice the eagles flying among the trees.

To see Santiago treading the boards, and the green cathedral of spring in other places, visit the gallery.

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Protection

For a week, the sky is gray like the inside of an old shoe. Rains arrive in all their demeanors and stay for a while. Santiago invites a Labrador to wrestle, and while the other dog declines, Santi’s own wagging and feinting and jouncing cause him to walk away with a limp that persists for days. I am early to an appointment to get the vaccine. The list of reactions that I’ve had to food and drugs, plants and insects, adhesives and ointments is long, and I am nervous. The nurses require me to wait thirty minutes after the shot is administered before I may leave. I sit facing a large, digital clock and read a page in the book I’ve brought over and over again.

When I am released to the parking lot, my mood is fizzy, like I’ve shaken from my tailpipe the car that has been following me, like I’ve been married at the court house, like I have fireflies under my hat. I want to celebrate. I drive home and pick up Santiago. We go to the river, where a cold drizzle falls on fresh green horsetails that have sprung up along the path. Over the dam, the Mississippi is pouring muddy, and the water is high. It laps at stone benches on the banks, the giving sand of the beach where we tramped in the fall visible beneath the ripples. I watch minute raindrops splash on the sleeves of my coat. Their glister in the dull light makes me feel warm and dry inside my clothes: protected.

For a day, I compelled Santiago to rest his leg. The energy within him now seems to pound at his chest; he tugs as if seeking double the encounter with the world. He leads me to a dog enclosure, and I take off his leash and let him inside. He wanders in the rain alone, engrossed, sniffing out departed spirits. We cross a field, then, and follow a bike trail, past the silver-wooded remnants of a split-rail fence, past junipers and growing grass. In a hidden glade, we find newly appointed bird feeders, and cardinals and blue jays who swoop from branch to branch. The sky holds its water.

The paths around the park are mostly empty. A man with two little girls tells them that they mustn’t wander too far from the car because more rain is coming. He points Santiago and me to an osprey nest that has been erected nearby. We walk to it, past white birches and gnarled pines and oak leaves that lift off the forest floor and settle again. A mallard tucks his beak beneath a wing on the shoreline below us. The shallow nesting box rests upon a tall beam staked among the trees, the entire vista an inky silhouette against the sky. The insulating scraps inside the box overtop it and flutter in the wind. Two ospreys stand guard, one at each end of the nest. They eye me sharply as I gaze up at them in wonder. Santiago starts munching the grass, the first of the season, dressed with raindrops.

This is the paradox of scowling clouds and swollen rivers, of wind that bites and rain that spits: that we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and it sustains us.

I was vaccinated in a city that had been looted the night before, where a police officer killed a man on a Sunday afternoon. I live pressed between that city and one where a trial is being staged for the death of another man at the hands of another officer. For more than a week, my phone erupts with stabbing, curfew alarms. I learn to turn it off at 9:00 p.m., at 7:00, at 6:00, so that the last sound that I hear before closing my eyes at night is not panic. The vaccine injected into my body is banned the morning after I receive it as doctors review the hospitalizations and death that it has caused. I begin to dream about charging animals and murderous men and severed limbs, waking with jaws that are stiff and temples that ache from nights of clenching against the expectation of harm. In the daytime, I cannot draw a full breath. It is unclear whether this is due to my asthma–to the damp and the cold and the pollen–or to the anxiety that fills me like a taut balloon. Santiago’s limp returns.

All of the forces of protection appear to have failed.

Several times each day, I massage Santi’s leg. I cannot see an injury, but when I caress his shoulder and his elbow, he is motionless and thoughtful. When I stop, he looks at me pleadingly. He prefers this method of healing to eschewing the adventure of a daily walk. I remember that for the first two and a half years of his life, he was confined to a cage. The risk of lameness seems not to trouble him as much as the certain death of remaining folded in upon himself.

So we go outside. We walk in a wood where a sunbeam shines upon a single daffodil as tiny balls of spring snow tumble from the clouds. We watch bufflehead ducks glide across a pond, their blacks and whites like flecks of a fine tweed billowing over a loch. We greet the loons who have returned to our neighborhood lake, and we begin, again, to be startled by great blue herons, as inconspicuous as shadows, who rise suddenly from the banks of creeks and take flight, their large wings loping across the firmament.

The verdict in the murder trial is coming, but I cannot bear to listen to the radio. For days, the same deadly stories air over and over again, on every program, hour after hour after hour, a poison poured into the ear and running down the neck. I think of a literature student who once asked me, bewildered, if our syllabus included any happy stories. I have come to wonder whether it is true, as I was taught, that a good story must include conflict. Santiago and I stroll past a house on an elegant parkway, and it takes a long moment for me to recognize that the cardboard images placed in the front windows are of people shooting at passers-by. At an intersection, we happen upon a man slunk down in the driver’s seat of his car, giving the middle finger to everyone he passes, his eyes squinting, his mouth set.

Early on a Sunday morning, Santiago and I drive to a nature preserve. The temperature has barely breached freezing, but the day is bright and warming. For over an hour, we walk on hills that are covered with faded wildflowers and flagged with a tree or two, hills that dip down into woods green with moss, with understory beginning to leaf, and to lakes where ducks rest on the water and snail shells litter the grass. The birds and the wind speak in chapel whispers. Horses are welcome here, and each time we run across fresh manure, Santiago stops to examine it, nosing at the mound with curiosity then touching it with the tip of his tongue and drawing its full scent up into his nostrils.

There is more than one way to respond to what life lays on our path.

When we complete the loop, we eat. It is Santiago’s first picnic. I choose a table in the shade, and he sits on the ground beside me. I’ve brought kibble, which I feed to him bit by bit, but as I unpack more food he places his front paws on the bench and quivers with excitement. I share with him a hard-boiled egg and some challah stuffed with feta cheese and garlic salt. I pour him cold water, and I drink hot tea from a thermos. The sweet things are saved for later: an orange, a cookie, dog treats. Other people are beginning to arrive at the park: a man with a camera, a couple with children. I slide the pack onto my back, and we begin walking again.

We hike another trail. Birches and sumacs lead to a rushing rivulet where chorus frogs are croaking. Santiago wants to race ahead, but I ask him to stop and to listen, to digest his meal as the day gleams. We walk slowly through cool woods and out into the sunshine, where the ground that horses have trod has become as soft as powder. I do not tell Santi when riders on two, white steeds pass behind us, at a distance, but I watch the way the bristles of last year’s meadow seem to brush at their stirrups. The prairie sky is wide and blue above the worn, gold curve of the earth. Dark-winged swallows amass in a solitary tree. As I stare at the horizon, tears rise in my throat and fill my eyes. I breathe and take into my body the beauty of the landscape and the animating force within it. I receive them, not like a vaccine that teaches the cells what to resist, but like a lover embracing what is real and imperishable, with a heart at peace in the expectation of tenderness.

In the yard at home, bloodroot petals open at last to the sun, and tiny blossoms of spring beauty follow. Trimming raspberry canes, I see my first bee. I sit on the front stoop in the sunshine with Santiago at my feet, and I watch the neighborhood children wheel up and down the street on bicycles and tricycles, in wagons and on scooters. A mother stands at the door of her house and calls to a girl to put on her helmet.

Jury deliberation takes two days, and when the verdict comes, I stream it live. With people around the world, I watch the face of a man as he is convicted of murder. I do not know the name for the emotion that I feel. The over-stretched balloon of my anxiety deflates, but there is no relief. I weep alone in my house, my satisfaction unprotected from profound sadness.

When Santiago and I walk in this season, it is sometimes beside grassland black with soot or forest hacked and piled with brush. Death is present. But it is not separate from life, a thing to be resisted. Life and death are lovers, vulnerable to one another. Sunlight will reach the forest floor; it will grow greener, and the prairie will grow taller. Use of the vaccine injected into my arm will resume. After a slow wait, I will enjoy the sweetness of talking with neighbors in my yard.

On a windy day, Santiago finds a fairy house in a wood. When I open the door hinged to the hollow at the base of the tree, I find a rock upon which someone has painted the words, “Ice Cream Solves Everything.” On a warm day, Santi pulls me up a county road and down to an island park, where a man gathering trash smiles and says, “Happy Earth Day!” On a day when we are stalking groundhogs, a truck slows beside us, and I clench, expecting harm. It stops, and an old man with a ruined eye calls out the window, “I didn’t mean to scare you. My dog likes to see other dogs.” She is auburn, and her name is Wrinkles. She sits on the passenger seat and shimmers in the sunlight, and Santi embraces her with his barking.

On a cold day, he pulls me to a dead end on a suburban street. Before us, a lake backs up to private property: modest yards with shy gardens, and chairs set up to watch the sunrise over the water. A barred owl is calling. Its voice is low and summery underneath the riotous chirping of red-winged blackbirds. A woodpecker provides percussion. Canada geese begin to honk. We desire no protection from the life that we find here.

To see Santiago at his first picnic, and other scenes from a vulnerable life, visit the gallery.