Santiago jumps on the bed at 2:00 Thanksgiving morning. He has been sleeping on the couch downstairs, and he greets me with a lick of my lips and a satisfied grunt before settling above my hip to slumber. I try to recapture the dream that I had been having. Lately, I dream of rocky places with no vegetation: bare horizons and beige rooms where I have never been before, places I am trying to leave. I lie in bed, wondering if they are future places. My body is warm between flannel sheets, and I rest, enjoying the darkness and the cool air on my face and the quiet that is torn only by Santi’s breathing–like the last leaf on a branch, fluttering in the wind.
Before midday, my parents, my sister, and her family will be here. In the dining room, plates and bowls and silverware are already laid out, and a cocktail bar in the kitchen has been stocked with liquor and soda, syrup and bitters. I’ve brought out a board game, a puzzle, and playing cards, and I’ve made mental notes about what books to show to whom. I worry that the house will be too crowded, too cold, too stuffy, that the food will not be tasty, that I won’t manage to serve it on time. But I take pleasure in these preparations. On Sunday, I make pizza dough. On Monday, I make applesauce. On Tuesday, I walk with Santi beside trees that are orange in the morning light, then stop at the grocery store for wine and chicken and vanilla ice cream. Wednesday comes, and I bake a pie. I make space for another vehicle on the driveway. I rake the lawn and move Santi’s dog bed from where it will be underfoot. It is a kind of unwinding: these hours of anticipating merriment, of sowing the soil with joy.
In the days before the holiday, there is a snowfall, but it is the sort that melts immediately from the driveway and lingers only briefly on the lawn. A friend comes to help me prune a buckthorn in the backyard. Buckthorn trees are considered invasive here, so I keep this one small, limiting the berries that it can produce. Its shade is a boon to a nearby rhododendron, and its canopy blocks the glare of cars parked in the alley. It is a pretty tree, and I don’t think that much good can come of declaring this being or that to be out of place and of no use. When we’ve completed our work, my friend and I go walking with Santiago. We wander past brick mansions and railroad tracks and little nests hidden among coppery oak leaves, and then we take Santi to eat at a nearby trailhead. We order hot sandwiches and hot drinks, and a young man adds a log to the fire pit beside our patio table. We have been wearing masks which we take off, and we eat with cold fingers stripped of their gloves, sharing our french friends with Santiago, who barks for them with a mad desire. On a whim, we get into the car then and drive downtown to see shop windows decorated for Christmas. They remind us of our childhoods, and of the years when we were first grown-up and working in the city. I stand on the sidewalk taking photos of the sparkling lights and animatronic dolls. I can see myself reflected in the glass. I am smiling.
In the days that follow, I buy Christmas presents for my niece and my grand-niece. My family has long since stopped exchanging gifts among those over the age of eighteen. We have peeled from that glad morning anxiety and worry, and we ring the doorbell on Christmas Day bearing, perhaps, a toy and a plate of cheese, perhaps a book to lend. That is enough. While I am shopping, though, I buy a quilted vest for myself. Fewer and fewer winter days are cold enough for sleeves.
One morning, Santiago and I release three mice at a pond surrounded by frosted cattails. The sunlight is steady in a clear, blue sky, and, beside what was wetland before the drought, willow branches shine like polished gold. I lived near here when I was a child. I played with boys whose house was up the street and who attended the same church that I did. In the winter, I got my tongue stuck to a swingset in this park. I pluck from the ground a handful of tiny tamarack cones to give to my father. He is making memory boxes filled with woodland charms: seed pods and feathers, nuts and twigs, bark and cones. Santi and I walk the streets, ambling from park to park. Bright red cherries hang from bare branches, and lights are strung in graceful loops along a weathered fence. A slight, young tree is hung with great, silver balls while, a couple of houses down, a wooden chair for resting looks as old and tough as the maple at its back. In one of the parks, a huge, yellow digger is creating a huge, brown hole in the ground. Santi wants a look, but I cluck at him to move along. We’ll come another day, in the future, and we will learn what the hole is for. We wind our way past a golf course, groomed and abandoned for the season. We pass a yard where a wishing well has been stuffed with birch and evergreen boughs. There are Thanksgiving preparations to attend to, but they will wait. I follow Santiago’s nose. We are back at the pond when I rummage in a pocket for my cellphone. Santi is motionless. But as I fumble to unlock the camera, he suddenly dashes through the cattails to the edge of the cool, black ice. The white tail of a rabbit bounces like a ping pong ball before him. I shout his name with a soupçon of reprimand, but I am not really concerned. He has tracked down a delight. The rabbit disappears, and Santiago returns to me, eyes shining.
At home, I water the trees. Two garden hoses have been coiled in the basement for a month, but week after week passes with no precipitation, and the temperatures are high, not infrequently twelve degrees above average. I tote a watering can through the yard, trunk to trunk. The nannyberry is surrounded by suckers. For years, I thought that it was my job to cut them down. But observation along streets and trails has revealed to me how deeply mislead I have been about the form of trees. Everywhere, their wounds are visible: the circular scars where limbs were removed in order to satisfy a fancy to walk in the shade or, inexplicably, to gaze at a form as top-heavy as a lollipop. A nannyberry is a natural tangle of stems. Mine is growing beside a fence that has been splintering and losing slats for years. I stop lopping off the suckers. In time, there will be a thicket here. As culture collapses, nature resurges.
I left paid employment ten months ago, and I am still learning how to unwind. I can no longer imagine setting an alarm to wake me before I am done sleeping, but I not infrequently wonder if I’ve labored enough in a day. It is true that writing comes of sitting down at a table and clicking the keys, but having something to say comes of walking and visiting and napping and reading, of doing laundry and raking leaves and brushing the dog’s teeth. Having something to say is the mysterious nexus between living life and doing nothing. One cannot work at having something to say. Still, to live a wild life is difficult. We are groomed to be lollipops.
Thanksgiving is the first truly cold day of the season. The wind chill is zero degrees Fahrenheit. It is Santiago’s favorite weather, and we jog to the local dog park while it is still early. He is happy on the hard ground, his hind end sashaying as he sniffs every inch of the rocky enclosure underneath a high, blue sky. I contemplate the quietude and the gelid chill of my thighs. Back at home, I put on music, pour snacks into bowls, and layer a casserole inside a baking dish. Before noon, our family arrives, and the house is warmed by the oven and the bright sunshine and our bodies and our pleasure. There is an exchange of small gifts–things that we saw or saved for one another: a cake pan, a baseball cap, whisky, coffee, books. Gray squirrels join an aviary of sparrows, juncos, and cardinals, all of them putting on a show in the theater of the feeders and the bath and the shrubbery.
It feels risky to have five guests in my home. My brother-in-law checks his phone for messages; his niece and nephew have been infected with COVID. In the coming days, I will learn that my sister-in-law, too, has the virus. She has been caring for her mother, who was bedridden for weeks before having surgery this month. Just before the holiday, I mailed condolence cards to two people whose loved ones had died of what are called “natural causes.” To unwind–say, slowly rolling pizza dough until it is very thin as laughter rises like steam from hot applesauce in the next room–is not to be free from events that startle and concern and hurt. But it is to meet them in the wholeness of a life that is good.
It is good to have guests in my home, to tell them to sit as I cook, to feed them, and to see their eyes shine as they unwind.
When dawn has not yet cleared the darkness on the day after Thanksgiving, Santiago takes a toy outside, to the cold grass beyond the deck. He lies down in the dim light thrown by the lamp at the back door and gnaws the rubber until the kibble and treats inside crumble and fall out the hole at the top. His morning pastry, I call it. I carry the bird bath to its bench; it has been thawing in the kitchen overnight. A slight wind pushes at the white-haired goldenrod stems, bringing back warmer air. I unload the dishwasher as Santi rootles on the lawn.
When the sunrise comes, it casts a pink spotlight on the rooftops across the street. The sky is pale blue with a gathering of lavender-gray clouds. I dress, and Santiago and I drive to a lake where the white froth of waves is frozen along the shore. Private docks have been pulled up onto the banks, patio chairs stacked for the season. Only a few people are on the trails: solitary walkers with downcast eyes and birders with binoculars trained on the water. The beaches are crowded with mallards, and farther out are migrating buffleheads. Flocks of trumpeter swans–some juveniles with dusky gray feathers–paddle and honk and take to the air as if they are flying circuses.
Santi is mousing. He sticks his nose deep into scattered leaves, into bony stands of ironweed and sedge, raising his paw, again and again, his body pointed like an arrow. At the edge of a fishing pier, he scratches at the thin ice, as if to get closer to whatever rodent might be living under the shelter of the boards. We pass a bench on the back of which someone has affixed a bright, red Christmas bow and go west. A footbridge takes us over an outreach of the lake basin that is filling in with cattails. We enter a wood. Tree stumps are furrowed with moss and studded with mushrooms. The understory is still green with ground ivy. It is more quiet here than I can remember my life being in months, maybe longer. We are aimless, following the trail until we find ourselves near a church that we know, one block from a park trail that will lead us back to the car.
Santi buries his snout in a juniper bush at the edge of the church parking lot. He cocks his head and stares, then pounces. After a long pause, he stands up, disappointed, and sneezes. When he falls to the ground to roll with pleasure, I see that a scab on his belly has returned: a little dot of blood around a nipple. I have no explanation for this periodic bleeding. It startles and concerns. We go home, and I make an appointment with Dr. Megan.
The first Christmas card arrives in the mail, and on the first Sunday of Advent, Santiago jumps on the bed at 5:30 a.m. He smells like pizza. I scratch his chest, and he stills himself, and I realize that he has eaten the oregano growing near the back door. His breathing relaxes. Later in the morning, we will go walking. We will loop through the neighborhood on a route that we have never taken before, and we will be gone for two and a half hours. We will meet a family standing before a newly acquired food truck emblazoned with giant bumblebees. We will watch children in toboggans being pushed down little moguls of manufactured snow. We will encounter fluffy backyard chickens and a sparkling lake and, here and there, lost gloves placed over fence posts and tree branches to be reunited with their owners. We will walk into the season of hope.
That night, I will dream that I am in a beige room. Outside its windows, beige waves will crash onto beige rocks under a white sky. There will be no vegetation. I will be summoned down a long, white hallway to receive a phone call from an actor I admire. Suddenly, he will appear in the room, wearing rumpled pink clothing. There will be gray in his beard. He will be more vulnerable and real than I had imagined. He will want to produce my screenplay. The one about living a life.
This month in the gallery, photos of things humans do to sow joy and unwind.