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On Epiphany, Santiago and I walk in a place where we have never been. We have come a long distance. We leave the car and follow a trail beside which a star hangs from a tree. It is made of gingerbread, decorated with icing, and hung with a pipe cleaner. The sky is a faint blue mottled by clouds, and the day is warm: before evening, it will be above freezing. We circle the park twice, walking a paved outer path where women chat with each other as they jog, and a snow-packed inner trail where poplars are nailed with nest boxes and a bench overlooks a silent, silver pond. Every half mile or so, another Christmas ornament dangles from a tree branch.

Santiago is happy. We meet a pit bull pup–a beautiful black and white female with eyes as large and dark as the new moon. The man and woman who attend her are gray-haired and wiry, with backs that bend forward a little stiffly. They smile as Santi pulls toward their girl, barking. “He just wants to say hello!” declares the man, and we are relieved that he has understood us. The dogs still themselves for a moment, paws planted on the pavement, inhaling one another’s scent, their eyes wide and thoughtful. Then the beautiful pup lowers her front paws, wags her tail, and feints back, and Santiago barks with joy, leaping at her with the twisted spine that is his canine cartwheel. When their wrestling tangles our leashes, we unloop them and move on. Santi and I are getting tired. A wooden sign that reads, “The Hug Tree” is tied with brown twine around a coppiced red maple. There are boot prints in the snow beside it. I tug Santiago off the path and press my cheek against the bark. I let the two trunks hold me.

We are in this place because Santiago has a lump. It appeared last year: so small that I thought it might be a swollen tick–dead but not dislodged. It is near the base of his arching tail, nestled beneath fur that makes it discoverable only by caresses. Months ago, I sent photos to Dr. Megan.

“Watch it,” she said.

For weeks at a time, the little nub seemed to be gone, perhaps because my fingers did not wish to find it. But after I turned in my keys to the office in December, my petting hands worried it once more, and it seemed larger, and I wondered if it might be impossible for me to live without restiveness, if ruts in my mind had been permanently worn–by alarm clocks and traffic jams and emails with exclamation points and colleagues practiced in deceit–into paths that led always to anxiety, anger, and fear, if, without those things, I had no idea what to do with my days. I made an appointment for Santiago and me to see Dr. Megan at her clinic.

On the first day of my life without a job, Santiago and I walked in a familiar park. The sky was stuffed with clouds and smelled of vehicle exhaust, and a sudden tantrum of snow fell across our backs as we embarked on the day’s journey. The trails that we followed in warmer months now dead-ended, time and again, into groomed ski trails. Signs indicated that bike paths in the woods were no longer open, but the tread of tires cut deeply into the snow. It was difficult to know which way to go. We exited the park and walked along the railroad tracks. The sun came out.

With no authority to conform to, I wonder when to get out of bed in the morning. I wonder how many meals I should eat in a day. I ask myself what I want to wear, and I remind myself that I am the only person in the audience.

The day that Santiago and I walked along the train route, we ate for the first time at the trailhead shelter. A group of adults sat on benches out front, listening to ski instruction. The snow around the facility was icy and gray. I ordered a BLT with fries from a sliding window in the side of the building, and the clerk gave Santiago a bowl of water after the dog put his paws on the counter and begged for what he could smell. I chose a table at the far end of the patio where we could watch skiers walk slowly up a gentle slope and then come rushing down it. The table had bits of food stuck in the latticework, and I had to keep Santi from licking at frozen ketchup on the concrete beneath it. Fire pits flared around us and, though it was midday, lines strung around the property were dotted with lit bulbs. Santi accepted french fries gracefully but barked with sharp lust each time I shared a bite of bacon. My fingers were cold. There was no need to go home to attend to anything at all.

It was exhilarating.

Santiago loves visiting. He has never been to Dr. Megan’s office. She has mended him at church and in our living room, and he goes to a local clinic for shots. When we arrive at the little building far down the freeway from where we live, he is eager to sniff the pot filled with evergreen branches outside the front door, to wander the perimeter of the waiting room, to interrogate the shelf stacked with toothpaste and treats, and the chairs devoted to guardians of cats. Dr. Megan pulls down her mask when she enters the exam room, showing Santi her face, and he stops barking. She checks his teeth, his heart, his paws. It is hard to find the lump because he is prancing. She takes him away, shaves a bit of fur, and aspirates it.

Daylight in this new year is like a dirty sheet. Every morning there is haze, and most days the clouds never part. I wear a mask to keep from taking grimy air into my asthmatic lungs. The temperature is ten or fifteen degrees above average, barely falling when night comes. It is like my first winter with Santiago, when paths were mostly dry and we rarely got snow in our eyes. We were coming to the end of drought years then.

And yet, the frost is bewitching. When the winter sun shines weakly in a pale blue sky, ice like white down glints fuzzily on curling vines and last year’s berries and wands of mullein and hyssop as Santiago tromps through the snow and pokes his snout into groundhog dens. When clouds stifle light and sound, and all is colorless and quiet, a brittle twig breaks in the wood, and suddenly we see where a whitetail deer is hiding. Inside the house, it is easy to imagine that nothing ever changes, that all paths follow ruts that dead-end at gloom and disappointment. But the same is not true outside. Outside, the world is always new.

When Dr. Megan calls in the evening, her voice is tired.

“It was a long day,” she says.

The news is good: the tissue in the lump was not obviously malignant. But it was a needle biopsy, not a surgical one.

“Watch it,” she says.

And, because she has been working all day, she asks, “What happened at the Capitol?”

The ice on lakes is said to be unpredictable this year: thick enough to bear weight mere inches from where it is not. One day, Santiago picks up a scent at the edge of a lake, and he wants to pursue it across an expanse of ice, to a hillock of cattails. I watch this desiring–the way he holds it in his body and in his eyes, not pulling, but wishing–and I relent. There are sled marks on the snow that covers the surface of the lake, and boot prints, and we are barely five feet from shore, but I move cautiously. Santi is giddy. He heads for the patch of vegetation in the middle of the frozen water. When we arrive, he dives into the amber leaves, burying his muzzle in the snow beneath them.

It is said that muskrats, who build their homes of mud and cattails, weaken the ice. I do not have an ice pick, and Santiago does not know how to swim. When he is satisfied with his tussling, he guides me past trees that overhang the shore. I want to go the other way, where I think the water underneath our feet is less deep. But I acquiesce. The dog climbs a steep bank of slippery snow, anchoring me as I scramble up, and we find ourselves beside an apartment building parking lot. We are pleased.

I quit my job because the familiar path dead-ended, because leaving my house for nine and a half hours each day to do someone else’s work was a rut, an old way of thinking that served only to create anxiety, anger, and fear.

The fog is thick the morning that Santiago and I arrive at a park to find two men training a dog. The men are dressed in wool jackets and hunting caps and mittens. The dog is large and dark and sits hunched in the snow in front of a border of frosted spruce and pines. One of the men makes his way across the expanse to retrieve the pup, who does not appear to respond to calls.

There are spectacular lean-tos in the woods that day, and the frost is beautiful on goldenrod galls. The dumpsters at the zoo are open-lidded and filled with straw and dung, and Santiago investigates them with a fidgeting delight. The sunlight behind gnarled tree branches is shallow and yellow-gray and lovely. On a quiet hillside, a child’s tennis shoe rests on the arm of a bench.

When the man with the big mitts reaches the dog–reeling in a tether as he hikes through the snow–she shakes her shoulders and the form of her body is revealed. She is not a dog at all. She is a golden eagle. The falconer grasps her by her feet and holds her upside down for a moment, to protect himself, and she shakes her wings with discontent. There is brutality and risk in this learning. I tug Santiago to a stop and wait for the bird’s next flight.

Her reach is greater than the height of the falconer. Every day, without fail, the world surprises.

To see photos of a frosty winter and a magnificent bird, visit the gallery.

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Habit

Sunrise holds back now. I lie in bed listening to the whisper of Santiago’s breath in the darkness. The scrape of air entering his nostrils and the silence that follows–the repetition like a chant–constitutes the day’s first prayer. One by one, I invite into my mind the people I love, petitioning for their care as I was taught to do as a child. I name, too, those who trouble me, for this is the hour when my heart is soft. I name the roof that is close above our heads, the walk that we will take after sunrise, the cinnamon rolls that we will share at breakfast, both of us gleeful and gluttonous.

Santi senses my consciousness. His chanting ceases. He lifts his head and releases two, pitiful sobs. I reach my hand out from under the bedclothes and feel for his chest. It is narrow and muscled and covered with fur that is short and velvety. When I find it, I begin to scratch. He lays his jowl against the bed once more and sighs: another prayer.

I get out of bed and throw up a sash. Most years by this time, the windows are sealed with frost, but day after day this December, the temperature is high, as if we lived much farther south. A bit of night blows out of the room and a cardinal sings as I sit in a rocking chair and read scripture. I am trying to establish a new habit. Santiago slumbers once more. He will not rouse himself until I have brushed my teeth and done a few stretches; until I have drawn the living room curtains and rummaged for a hat and gloves; until I have jangled his harness and called his name again and again and opened the front door to entice him. Then, at last, he will blink away his dreams and trot down the stairs, eager to greet the dawn. But not before that time. Winter has its rhythm.

On the third Sunday in Advent, we visit the dam. There is a pearl-gray wash over the landscape, which is unruffled save for those few Sunday morning men who walk alone in flannel shirts and hooded eyes. I point to a beaver swimming in the river, her tail ruddering and leaving a slender wedge of wake, but we are on a distant bank and, though he pauses, I’m not sure that Santiago sees her. We walk for two hours, through the papery remains of the summer prairie and through woods where the dignity of naked trees–with their paunchy trunks and fungi like jewels, their flung skeins of half-sunk roots and branches decorated with buttons of hopeful buds, their furrowed bark and the wounds from which new branches grow as wild as sparklers on the Fourth of July–is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the vaunted green habit of spring.

Santiago tracks, zigzagging back and forth along the trails. I am tugged to piles of brush in search of mice, to fields that smell of deer. We come to a wooden footbridge, and though we know it very well, the dog takes a step or two across its arching frame and sinks into a crouch. His pace slows and he moves fearfully, his body like that of a soldier crawling through enemy territory. The temperature is just below freezing. Beneath us, the wooden planks pop and the metal supports ring, the noises disorienting. What had been familiar and firm suddenly seems eerie and frightful. I watch Santiago, and a rumble of worry echoes inside me, so that with each crack I imagine a plank beneath our feet snapping.

When we get to the other side, on a beach upstream, Santi pads through the soft, dry sand and runs his nose thoughtfully along a freshly gnawed tree surrounded by wood chips. There is more than one way to see.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, I resigned from my job. Like wind shaking fruits from a tree, the convulsions of the year shook loose from what has been ordinary and expected the life that I want to live instead. I have no truck with freeway traffic. The work clothes that I prefer are pocketed overalls and dusty boots. To labor in a cubicle where the sky cannot find me has been to betray a friendship. I have just three more days to office.

I am crossing the wailing bridge. I am eyeball to the gap between the slats, looking at the winter black river and its brittle layer of ice. I am judging the patch of rust on my car, listening to the flutter of the furnace. I am awaiting an insurance card and sitting on a couch whose torn cushions are dressed with laundered blankets. There is no paycheck ahead, no work but what I create for myself.

A couple of weeks ago, Santiago and I walked at a nature preserve: a small, favorite place tucked between apartment buildings and an air field. The morning sun cast orange light across the highest trees in the wood, and where there was grass, it was the beautiful blue that results from an application of frost. We trod the familiar boardwalk, through a dry marsh as alien as a moonscape. In this park where Santi has avidly hunted splashing muskrats, there were, among the bleached stalks of cattails, some patches of gray ice. But the waters had mostly receded, and we looked upon humps of hard soil, bits of formerly submerged vegetation, and dead trees–all sparkling like tinsel. For the first time in two years, we walked parts of the boardwalk that had been flooded. I watched woodpeckers knock at trees. Santiago examined a perfect set of tiny, wet footprints that climbed up one side of the boardwalk and lingered for a stroll before climbing down the other.

The landscape changes and we adjust. Life persists.

It is forty-three degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30 in the morning on December 23rd, when Santiago and I begin our walk. We have left our car near a hockey rink. The ice within the boards gleams with a layer of water, and blades of grass poke through its surface. The sun is not yet entirely over the horizon, and the clouds are as thick as a wool muffler, making the neighborhood’s seasonal decorations blink with a gentle vividness. In a warmly lit room with glass walls, a white tree is hung with glittering ornaments. Beside a back yard dog house, a pup made of yellow bulbs wears an illuminated red cap on his head. There are window boxes dressed in pine and bows, and a Little Free Library offers a dish of peppermint candies. In one plot, every tree and eave is wrapped with lights, and the garden is planted with candy canes. I watch two squirrels run across a telephone wire. The air smells of wood smoke and cedar and fabric softener.

A young man and woman cross the road. They are dressed in scarves and knit caps. They walk at an easy pace. Santiago stops to piss on a fire hydrant and the couple passes us.

“The calm before the storm,” the man says, and he smiles.

When Santi and I return to the hockey rink, two men are grooming the ice, one with a broom, the other with a rake. Santiago watches them for a long time, the water splashing at their feet.

The cold is coming.

At home, I make French toast from old cardamom bread. I smother it with powered sugar and maple syrup and stud it with clementine chunks and sliced almonds, and Santiago and I eat gleefully and gluttonously.

My family has adjusted its holiday traditions. I walked around a garden with my parents this week, watching my father adjust my mother’s mask to clear her fogging glasses. They gave me a thumb drive of family photos to keep me company on Christmas Day. At a wildlife sanctuary with my sister’s family, I laughed when my niece accidentally doused me in feed corn and watched in wonder as a yearling stuck his nose through a chain link fence to lick her hand. I delivered what presents I could and stood in line to ship the rest. Until the day that I turn in my office computer, I don’t need to be anywhere but home.

The snow begins to fall: the first since October. It is wet and heavy. As the temperature drops it will become ice. I put on a sweater and clear what is on the ground, even as colder snow continues to plummet and blow, the landscape now as fluid as a river. By evening, it is ten degrees. On Christmas Eve, it will be below zero.

The weather was warm a couple of days ago, at the winter solstice. People were out in the park where Santi and I were walking. There were families with preschoolers on little bicycles and women jogging in pairs. There were men on fat tires in the woods and a group of four young boys on scooters at the bottom of a slip of pavement. The boys were wheeling themselves, one-footed, up the hill. The smallest one trailed the others, and he looked at me and Santiago as we crossed his path.

“That was really fun!” he said, his face as bright as a comet.

With his hand, he made a diving gesture.

“Shwoop!” he explained.

That day, Santiago and I walked on a high ridge amid towering red pines. We had never been there before, had never imagined that this vista existed in a place so familiar to us. When we got home, I indulged a habit, reaching for a notebook and pen. I wrote about the peeling plates of cinnamon bark on the trees and the ladders of broken branches describing their age; about the tufts of white-tailed deer fur that lay among the milkweed pods and about the dead deer who lay between the freeway and a pile of brush several yards away; about the tents hidden between the horsetail and the railroad tracks, and the graffiti under the bridge by the abandoned plant; about the sky that darkened and the oak leaves that began to whirl and advance like angry spirits; about the dock pushed out from shore to hibernate in ice as pretty as green marble; about the little boy who asked me to watch him on his second descent and about all of the boys who came shwooping down the hill, their stocking caps flying behind them.

Writing is how I see. And I expect that it will hold.

For the joys of the season, including including deer and ornaments and orange-tinted dawns, visit the gallery. Merry Christmas!

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Belief

Santiago’s muscles tense as he spots a Sasquatch crossing the field. The hominin is slouching through dry grass near the marshy ground where cattails sway in the wind beside silver maples that have lost their leaves. The morning sky is a moody blue shot through with sunrise, and underneath it, the Sasquatch is dark and unmoving. Santi has slowed his trot along the trail, and his eyes do not leave the shaggy, broad-chested figure–a cut-out that someone has newly placed here in a park that we frequent. After a long moment, the dog judges that there is no reason that Bigfoot should not be here. He moves on: under a willow and across a short, gray boardwalk, up a hillside dotted with Canada geese as thick as cloves on a spiced orange, to the edge of a pond where hooded mergansers are passing through once more, the males as startling to behold with their bright, white, fright wigs as any cryptid could be.

It is a strange season. On the Saturday after the presidential election, it is more than sixty degrees Fahrenheit when I awake–a dozen degrees above the average high for early November. I dress in darkness, and as daylight begins to press up from the ground, Santiago and I drive to the falls. After months of aridity, the air is heavy and wet and redolent of mud and fallen leaves and organic rot: to breathe it is to be embraced by a friend who has been away and has been missed more deeply than had been expected. Over the rock face, the water that pours into a shallow creek is slender. The day, too, is still slight, and cloudy. There is trash lolling at the overlook, and around the park the grass has thinned to naked soil during this year when people have been forced to carry outside their agitation and unknowingness. Santiago moves eagerly, sniffing at walls and fences, at the brush along the trail, listening for the songs of ancient souls who have lived in and enchanted this place.

We descend several flights of stairs and follow the creek. The woods are quiet. Where a boardwalk is being laid, the trail is closed, so that we cross back and forth over the black rope of water. Its talk is sleepy. On a tree stump beside the trail, someone has draped a checked shirt: the lost-and-found courtesy of hikers. A man in shorts is wading in the water, busy at something. He has gray hair and is frowning. We watch as he grabs at a topple of trees that the creek splashes through, but Santiago tugs, then, toward the light that has pulled open the sky up ahead, where the creek meets the river. We pass a wooden bench that hugs the bluff and has been spray-painted with the word, “PEACE.”

And then we reach the Mississippi.

The sand beneath our feet gives. It is speckled with rocks and I long to beach-comb, but Santi is tracking at an energetic pace, following the scents up to the sandstone cliff where generations of people have carved their initials in what looks like marble: a rumbling deep brown and safflower gold and pale sand, streak upon streak marked with hearts and the hope for eternity. Upstream, water tumbles over a dam that once generated power.

The light is extraordinary: day has come.

When we wander back to the picnic grounds, Santiago rolls on his back in that runty grass, atop a few fallen leaves, and I spy a tick on his belly. I pull it, and it comes with a little blood. In spite of the warmth, everyone is getting ready for winter. Santi and I take the slow route home, along the river. He sits on the back seat, watching the world pass by. Underneath an enormous bridge painted in state university colors, several scullers are out, propelling their boats downstream under what is now a sunny sky. There is no knowing anymore when or whether the river will freeze.

At home in the late morning, I rake leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Though my little plot of land has neither oaks nor maples, those leaves fall ankle deep across my property. They are a gift, more abundant than the slim leaves of my Kentucky coffee trees. They provide warmth for vegetation needing shelter, especially during those cold seasons that refuse to lend a blanket of snow. I rake them gently off the grass and up around the white cedar, the white pine, these leaves of neighboring trees that will room the blessed bugs, the creatures that pollinate our plants and decompose our trash. I spread them over shady soil where violets grow, and ferns, where the earth needs protection from Santiago’s tramping and scraping. I listen to people up and down the block burn the bugs to death with screaming blowers, watch them pack the leaves for transport, leaving deserts of cut stems and bare ground to skirt their houses. In the spring, big trucks will arrive at their curbs to lay poison on the ground where children walk.

We have lost the knowledge of how dirt comes to be, and of what it gives to us.

My parents and I eat apple pie that Saturday, after the presidency is called, four days after election day. It is, by that time, well over seventy degrees: thirty degrees above average. We accept the warmth with thanks, eating on the back deck, for it is too dangerous to breathe the same air indoors. The apples are tart–grown in the soil across the street, delivered by generous neighbors, and mellowed with whisky and dark brown sugar. I’ve used pastry flour in the pie crust, which has given it a fine crumble. Each slice is topped with vanilla bean ice cream and salted caramel sauce. We eat in the knowledge that we will not be gathering for Thanksgiving, not with each other, not with my siblings, not with my nephews, my niece, my great-niece. Where we sit in the warm air and mild sunshine, we can hear the sirens of ambulances hurtling toward a nearby hospital. Medical choppers roar above the trees. In another week, the line of vehicles whose drivers await COVID tests will reach nearly to my back door, eight blocks from the testing site. A nurse will say on the radio that over each shift she treats a person struggling to breathe who says that he cannot have the coronavirus because it is not real.

It has always been dangerous to be inside our houses, where our own thoughts grow, unchecked, like a cancer.

By Wednesday, there is snow again: three or four inches weighted with water. It is impossible to know what story the landscape intends to tell this year. When I open my blinds to the day, I see that someone has plowed the sidewalk in front of my house and the end of my driveway: the heaviest snow. I try to thank one neighbor and then another, but neither of them is responsible. Someone whose name I do not know has visited this kindness upon all of us, in the dark of morning, without desire for recognition.

It is Armistice Day. I leave my office laptop on the kitchen bar late in the morning while Santiago and I go to the war memorial. There are always people there at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to remember when, a century ago, soldiers stopped fighting and believed with glad and weary hearts that war would never trouble the world again.

Santi is wearing boots for the first time. I am trying to save him from the de-icing salt that has been scattered on sidewalks and streets, that irritates his paws until he chews holes in them for relief. I do not want the pads of his feet to become like the barren, gray ruts beside the sidewalks where once grass and other plants thrived. The boots are too big, but the next smallest size caused Santiago to lick sorrowfully at his trotters after he tried them in the house. And so he walks like a circus clown, heels slapping at the slush as the rounded, red toes point up at the air, half empty. He makes a go of it, in spite of this awkward attire, gleefully tugging toward garbage cans and alleys, toward backyard dogs and corner shops. When we reach the memorial, we watch a man steer a white-haired woman in a wheelchair to the flag pole. She is covered with a blanket and wears dark sunglasses. We watch small children in bright coats gambol noisily upon granite benches. We watch a young woman with a pom at the tip of her knit cap silently snap a photograph.

The virus comes closer. People I know have it. People I know are putting in graves the bodies of people whom they have loved. There is crying in office meetings held on hard screens, far from arms that once might have widened with welcome and comfort. I have learned to walk away from the screens, to go to other rooms, to get down on my knees and sigh, and then to pray.

I exit my front door with Santiago one morning and see a rabbit, bunched and motionless, in the side garden. She will wait out the winter under my front stoop and back deck, decorating the snow with her tracks and leaving pellets for Santi to eat like holiday chocolates. In the evenings, I will beg him from the back door to resist that indulgence, my breath wreathing under the lamplight in the chilly air, and after he has gobbled what he wants, he will run up the stairs to the house, smiling, and beg for a treat before coming inside. He doesn’t see the rabbit this morning as he aims with impatient strength toward the driveway, toward the dawning of the new day.

Santiago is the color of winter. He is white and black like a birch tree, gray like a frozen pond. He is brown like a bare-armed forest, and the silver on his eyebrow is like a flake of falling snow. His joy is never-ending. He is emblematic of this time of hiddenness and quiet in the northern hemisphere, this time of muted colors and cold temperatures and stillness that are celebrated with lighted candy canes along a front walk and glittering balls hanging from a neighborhood pine; with blow-up snowmen and toy trains beneath a window box; with sparkling, white reindeer and Santas with black faces: this season of Advent, of good things coming.

We have never before gone all the way around our favorite lake in one jaunt, Santiago and I, but on a Saturday in November we do so. The mileage and how long it will take us are unknown to me at the start. I know that if we follow the bike trail, we will head too far west, away from the water, that there are places where we should travel the sidewalk and places where we should cut through the parks, that the lake, from time to time, will disappear behind plots of tall houses or lots of thick trees, and it will be difficult to know which trail hews closest to the shore. But when I park the car under a cloudy sky, Santiago leaps out and heads east, onto a segment of trail we’ve never walked before, precisely the segment we need to tramp in order to make our loop. We discovered it–this last three blocks–a couple of weeks ago. Santi has been purring in the back seat and now strains against the cold wind as I stop and lock the car doors. He is confident that the way will open before us.

The temperature hovers at freezing, and the docks are covered with snow. Goldfinches and sparrows flit and titter in tangles of woodbine and dormant grass among frosted silver milkweed pods, and creamy puffs of goldenrod. A handsome chickadee perches on a poplar whose buds are pretty beads against the white collar of the sky. On a boardwalk at the edge of the lake where cattails grow thick, someone has planted a pinwheel in the weathered, wooden railing. It is red, white, and blue. It spins in the wind.

I become warm as we walk, pulling off my hat and loosening my scarf. My head aches a little. We have not eaten breakfast, and I am hungry. And while Santiago finds a restroom at every turn, I am longing for one.

When we have walked for over an hour and are about as far away from our car as we will be, Santi peers down at the water around a painted red gate hung with a wreath. Below the banks of upturned canoes and snow-limned summer tables are choppy waves and bobbing waterfowl. Among them, all around the shoreline, are trumpeter swans. I have never seen them here before and do not recognize them at first. To me it looks as if hunks of icy snow are floating among the geese and the ducks and the gulls. But those fat, feathered rumps tip down from the act of underwater grazing to reveal long, curved necks at the other end and beaks as black and shiny as polished river stones. The swans are stoic as the geese occasionally raise their chests and flap their wings and call out warnings. I stare at the trumpeters, at these large, white birds and their pearly gray youth, not quite grown. It has taken a hundred and fifty years to restore them to these waters. To a grateful heart, they are like unicorns.

It is too late when I recall why we don’t enter the park woods by the short cut. The footpath is harrowingly steep and studded with roots and rocks, impossible to navigate as a biped with a hurrying, sure-footed dog. And on this day, it is covered with slippery snow. I let go of Santiago’s leash. He jogs down the hill and turns around to wait for me. The safest way to get to the bottom of the slope is to do as he has done: to run. Hesitancy can only result in a heel going out in front of me. I suck in my breath and aim for a tree that might hold me if momentum wants to hurl me to the ground. It is awkward. The slush moves me and the tree stops me, my palms against it, elbows splayed.

And then we are there: in the snow-covered woods, not far from where we left the car. I breathe in the beings all around us: the hardwoods and conifers, the shy birds in their branches, the frozen earth beneath our feet, the smell of wood smoke, the unseen lake. I pick up Santiago’s leash and we move on. It takes us two hours and twenty minutes to complete the loop: 6.2 miles. When we stand beside the car once more, Santi’s legs and belly are spattered with dirt and snowmelt.

I lay in the passenger seat two sprigs of spruce I found lying beside the trail . I believe that they will look nice in a vase. Christmas is coming.

To see Bigfoot, and other beings who fill the heart with wonder and gratitude, visit the gallery. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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Fright

The autumn rains fall as snow this year. In the middle of October, I bring in from the deck little pots of thyme and lemon verbena and fruiting wild strawberries. Flurries have already begun, and the forecast is for three inches of snow in the coming days, which changes to five inches, then six, then eight. I wrap a boxwood shrub in burlap, turn off the water to the outdoor spigot, and carry the mower to the basement. The afternoon air is soft, and the garden beds are filled with golden stars that are the fallen leaves from a neighbor’s silver maple tree. There are warty pumpkins and purple-green heads of kale on the front stoop, and I stick some old magnolia leaves–hard and shiny as lacquered wood–into backyard planters beside curly willow and dogwood branches, a bird house, and some pine cones. I wonder if the soil is fixing to freeze for the year, if I’ll be able to festoon evergreen boughs in these tubs in a month’s time.

Day after day the unexpected asserts itself, a forgotten principle of creation.

On a Tuesday morning, Santiago and I rise in darkness and drive to the auto shop. We leave the car for fresh oil and new tires, and walk home. The day is awakening, and the sidewalks are the cold, pale gray of the clouds overhead, tumid with snowflakes waiting to be loosed. In the yards we pass, people rake and bag leaves or push mowers that crackle and roar to make mulch. There is a shocked haste to their movements. Not even the trees are prepared for snow. Gingkos lining a boulevard have shimmied out of lemon-lime gowns overnight, while the spreading branches of oaks hold stubbornly to copper leaves burnished by the morning light. Santi and I walk beside a creek whose smooth, black surface reflects the shivering, dark-green droop of a weeping willow. Closer to home, at the edge of a wood surrounded by suburban bungalows, Santiago stops to sniff a fire hydrant. He does not see the red fox who emerges atop a steep slope to watch us with lifted ears, whose bushy tail disappears among the trees when Santi, after an idle piss, senses her presence at last.

Where will she shelter when the clouds open?

Working in my kitchen, I am online for a meeting. In the sidebar, people begin to type about the snow, about the way in which it has begun to flutter and tumble outside our windows. There is child-like excitement. There is nervousness and frowning. After an hour, the ground is white. The morning’s whine of leaf-blowers has ceased. Across the street, workers putting new siding on a house have left. Only Santiago’s snoring troubles the walls.

When the mechanic arrives in my car, the roads are covered with an icy slush and the wiper blades are sweeping wet flakes from the windshield. Accidents spin and clatter and mount along the freeways. We drive back to the shop on suburban streets. He talks about the Halloween snow of 1991, when he drove a snowmobile through the streets to meet at a bar the woman who would become his wife. He says that he is worried about the election, about the violence that he thinks will take place, no matter who wins.

It is the earliest, heaviest snowfall ever recorded for the month. The cold stays for two weeks, additional flurries flirting with gentle sunshine. Varieties of snow people begin to appear in parks and yards–tall and hunched, short and paunchy, carrot-nosed and stocking-capped–and the tracks of animals become visible: pale blue shadows on the bright white earth. Santiago walks in the footprints of a fox now: trotting, nose down, beside frozen cattails. The tiny toes of house finches and juncos make lacy patterns on the deck railing, and the wide, webbed feet of Canada geese are pressed into the snow at the golf course. We are assured of the presence of beings all around us, even when they are not seen.

It is a tired time. Work is slow. Santiago and I visit a sundial in a snowfall, its wisdom withheld. Darkness compresses the days, and often, at lunch hour, I climb the stairs to my bed, set an alarm, and fall asleep. One day, Santi finds a dead buck in a railroad corridor: his bones, just south of the tracks, are picked clean but for a scrap of fur at his cheek, his antlers broken. Another morning, we encounter a lifeless possum at the edge of a suburban street. She is lying on her side, her black eyes open, blood at her nose and soaking her pink front paws. I say a prayer over her silver fur, as lovely as winter, while Santi tugs me toward the lake. One night as I ready for slumber, I find a ladybird beetle on my bed pillow. On the dresser eight inches away is an equally small ceramic insect with red wings and black polka dots placed among family photos. In a sing-song Swedish accent, my great-grandmother–who lived in a cottage in Colorado and coaxed irises as high as her shoulders out of the arid ground–referred to herself as “Ladybug.”

The dead are never as remote as we imagine they are.

The squirrels are busy planting. They hollow out two pumpkins on my front stoop after the snow falls. I gaze on them, their bellies bulging, urgently feasting on pulp and nuts, leaving seed hulls beside shallow bowls that once were globes. They can not know if the soil is fixing to freeze for good. I move the slick pulp and the spent seeds and the pumpkins that have not yet been gnawed to the compost pile. What goes uneaten will be buried by the squirrels. I will watch for unexpected pumpkin vines in the spring.

When Santiago and I walk now, it is past Tudors wreathed with creeping vines that have turned amber or burgundy, past balls of hydrangea blossoms dried to the color of walnuts. Lawns are pocked with political signs. In the gardens, dropped leaves and wilted vegetation reveal the statuary that lush foliage conceals: the seated Buddhas and the Marys with open palms; the clapping crickets and smiling frogs, the gnomes with their pointed caps; the St. Francises and butterflies, the chickens and goats and angels and ravens, all of them noiselessly present day after day, humbled by the weather, the structure upon which summer twines and blooms.

A witch has taken up residence a few blocks away. She is hardly three feet tall and her face has a strange pallor. She is standing, round-shouldered, beside a corner shrub that is one of Santiago’s favorites: a spreading juniper that he always sniffs and sometimes marks when I am looking at the sky. The witch has never been here before. The lift in Santi’s step depresses. His pace slows. His eyes do not leave her figure. When we pass her, she speaks suddenly in a tremulous voice, and Santiago bolts, looking over his shoulder at the witch with alarm, and then at me, imploring me not to linger here, as I am doing, giggling.

We all have fears. I have mercy, and we run.

On Halloween, I drive to the church cemetery for worship. Clouds crowd out the blue sky as evening falls. It is forty degrees Fahrenheit, and there is a lake across the street. The wind is full of spooks, gusting to forty miles per hour over the waves. It is cold. I bring hot cocoa but forget it in the car.

The graveyard is small. There are low, heartbreaking headstones for unnamed children and an obelisk for a man who died on Christmas Eve. There is a marker for a woman whose dog has preceded her in death and a marker so old that grass is growing between two, split halves. The priest wears a long, black cloak, and stands near a fire pit the warmth of which cannot be felt by those of us six feet away. The unrest of the waves and the rattling of the oaks in the wind obscure the words of the scripture, make of a dozen voices in prayer a timid noise, like that of an animal outmatched by a train or a car.

But it is good to be with the dead, who know what we do not know.

Earlier that day, Santiago and I walked. We walked for two hours among tamaracks with golden needles and little nut-like cones; beside driftwood plashing quietly at the edge of a lake; across hillsides scuffed with oak leaves. I did not expect to see the buck. He was nearly invisible: his fur the color of the dying grasses but for the white rump that mimicked the unmelted snow in the forest glade. We watched each other, the three of us, assessing our fright and our desire.

Nor did I lose Santiago right away. It was not until the buck had disappeared from my view, not until I had held Santi fast as the dog leapt at the reach of his leash, standing on his hind legs, flattening his ears and emitting a strangled cry; it was not until I had kept him on a restrained jog in the wake of the buck, soothing the dog with words of congratulations, “You found it!” that I let down my guard and then watched in panic as Santiago jerked from my grip and raced after a deer who was, after all, still present, his antlers floating through the wood.

But there are always saints among us. I ran. I saw nothing. I called Santiago’s name again and again, my voice agitated and winded, the sunny day gone dark with private fears. After a time, an unseen voice cried out, “We have him here!”

Again, I ran, this time calling out my thanks.

They had gray hair. He wore a mask; she smiled. Santiago was nosing about the glade. They called him handsome, asked his breed. They said that they had been in my shoes. They said that Santi was having the time of his life, and he ran to me with shining eyes, trailing his leash along the sunlit grass.

“He told us that he lost you,” they said to me.

But I was there all along.

To track early snowfall, visit the gallery.

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Peace

On Sunday morning, I wake before five and crack open a bedroom window. Outside, it is cool and dark and quiet. Santiago is on the couch downstairs, where he sleeps when he requires a rest undisturbed by my tugging at quilts, my twitching in dreams. I crawl back into bed and close my eyes. I listen to the wind chuffing the leaves. It is breathy and low, like the murmuration that Santi makes when he wants his chest scratched. It is the only sound I hear. All around me, I feel the weight of slumber: in my body, in the houses on the block, in the roots of trees, in the air itself, as if it rushes to reach its bed before sunrise. The street where the leaves gather in the gutter will not be illuminated for two more hours. I fall back to sleep.

Halloween decorations have begun to appear in the neighborhood. Santiago and I encounter skeletons reclining on Adirondack chairs, spiders engulfing mailboxes, enormous yellow cat eyes glowing in a front window, and wraiths and ghouls in purple and gray hanging from crabapple trees. There are pumpkins on stoops and smiling scarecrows, and real crows cawing at the dawn. Here and there, late-blooming dandelions with perfectly round seed heads spring up from dry lawns. Along the parkway, I reach up one morning to touch the soft needles of a red pine and notice a broken twig from which a trickle of clear sap hangs frozen like a teardrop.

Winter is biding its time.

I text a photo of the skeletons to my niece. She loves the spooky season.

My sister and her husband pull up to the curb outside the house one weekend. They unload the electric fireplace that they purchased for me–as Santiago wiggles his hips and prances around the living room, pressing his black nose into palms and thighs. He misses people. We plug in the fireplace and clap at the flickering orange flames, the facsimile of charred logs, the purr of warm air. I am reminded of a tortoiseshell cat I loved before I loved Santi. Her name was Inez, and she slept on the electric radiators in the condo we shared. During those winters, when I smelled singed fur, I would find her crouched on the metal conduit behind the futon, her eyes wide and defiant, her tiny, almost fleshless bones warm in a way that her luxurious coat could never manage. She is buried in the back yard here, along with her sister.

We drive to the farmer’s market, the three of us, while Santiago stays behind, mournful. We wear our masks and roll down the car windows. We park in a handicapped space because there is a cane among us, and a fragile heart. It isn’t just the pandemic that makes us do things differently: we have aged. We do not walk all the avenues of the market or visit each of the stalls. We move slowly, letting the crowd flow around us, and we know what we want. It is our changing that gives us peace. My sister buys leeks and potatoes and beans to make a soup, and I buy a lop-sided pumpkin to put beside a pot of mums in the garden. When we are weary, we head to an unhurried suburban street and eat doughnuts on the square before finding our feet again. We shop, and my brother-in-law buys a book; my sister, a mug; and I, a shawl. They are not things that we need. They are mementos of our exhilaration. We are with each other, out in the world, and we do not take our giddiness for granted.

After they go home, Santiago lies on the deck in muted sunshine and gnaws a beef bone that I bought him at the market. Rain is predicted, but it doesn’t come. Long before sunset, we fall asleep together on the couch, the fireplace purring at our feet.

The days bounce like a kid on a pogo stick between startling cold and exceptional heat. Early one morning, Santiago and I go to a park where the frost on an acre of blue-green cattails surrounded by turning oaks and maples is so beautiful that it makes me hold my breath. Santi trots with glee in the cold. We love this weather. But his pace is no longer the frenetic one of the two-and-a-half-year-old pup I met, the one who had lived his entire life in a cage. When we come to a rocky slope that we must descend–the trail narrow between saplings and brush–I let go of his leash to avoid losing my balance. Santi clambers down but stops a few feet ahead of me and looks back from beneath silvered eyebrows. He waits for me to reach him and to grab the leather strap draped over his back. He is not as interested as he once was in venturing out alone.

As the sun shines upon the frosted earth and vegetation begins to gleam wetly all around us, I watch swamp swallows hop the lily pads in a pond. Santiago sniffs at rushes along the edge of the water until half a dozen wood ducks take flight. Behind the crown of conifers in the woods, the waning moon is crisp and white in a glad blue sky.

Two days later, it is 80ºF. I can’t remember the last time it rained. When we go walking, Santi’s hind legs kick up puffs of concerning, gray dust. Migrating Canada geese settle on wrinkled mud flats that once were running creeks. In the yard, the rhododendron leaves are curling and the white cedar has developed droopy, copper foliage. Every other day, my throat burns, and I wonder if I have developed an autumn allergy or caught the coronavirus. Then I note once more the beige film that coats the clouds: the wildfire debris that blows in and out of town on the shifting winds.

But in the side garden, delicate asters are blooming beside pretty, pink sedum, and on the boulevard, zinnias as high as my shoulders unfurl in a profusion of fuchsia and orange, lilac and crimson. I’ve planted native seeds beneath them, in the ground where the zinnias will die and to which they will not return. I haul a hose around the yard after supper one evening and water everything: the trees, the gardens, the lawns where I’ve scattered fescue and clover seed. A neighbor wanders home from an autumn walk. The sun is sinking behind the house. We stand in the street and talk about God, about making peace with uncertainty.

One afternoon, as I sit at the office laptop in my kitchen, working listlessly, with anxiety about the chores to be done on that little screen and the chores to be done in my home and yard, with worry about the future, which is presented, hour by hour, as a problem to be solved, there is a sudden movement in the sunshine outside my glass door. A white dove lands on the railing of my deck and looks at me. My eyes widen. She flies away.

This past Saturday, my brother texted that he has watched his first Christmas movie of the season. Our family has understood, of course, that, for the first time in our lives, we will not be together for the holidays. We have fragile hearts, burning throats, and cold bones to take care of and, for now, that is best done in our own households. And so there is a need to find solace, to reconsider where joy and meaning reside if not in the places where we boxed them up and stored them last year.

Santiago and I walk. We walk in the magnificent, cool mornings when the sun rises behind wisps of lavender clouds, and in the warm, happy evenings that smell of wood smoke and toasted marshmallows. We take in hillsides burnished with golden light and unearthly purple asters and rabbits grazing in the shadows. We marvel at red squirrels twining themselves around neighborhood trees and deer who stop to watch us, unafraid, and we amble across empty, river beaches and sigh to see the scores of passing waterfowl. Now and again we tussle, as I stop to photograph yellow cottonwood leaves floating in a beam of sunshine or a blue heron posed in a naked tree and Santiago stops to munch on grass or nose at piles of leaves beside the trail. The splendor overwhelms us. We walk for hours when we can, visiting prairies where the switchgrass has gone blond and blowsy and still ponds that reflect the colors of the trees like jeweled necklaces.

Christmas has come early this year.

If you need to unwrap spectacular solace, you can find photos of Santiago and autumn in Minnesota in the gallery.

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Judgement

We walk in the morning before breakfast, and Santiago grazes. As I am bent low at the waist, looking into the mostly hidden eyes of a painted turtle whose shell is wet with dew, Santi crunches with startlingly loud satisfaction at goldenrod and sunflower leaves, at blades of grass grown tall along the edge of the park trail beside the river. Every autumn stroll includes these moments: I gaze up at maple leaves mottled as they turn a vivid red or at crabapples hanging pinkly from a branch, and when I look down again, seed heads are draped over Santi’s eager snout or a slim sheath juts from his jowls like a toothpick as he chomps. Day after day, at keyboards across the internet, people type, “Why do dogs eat grass?” Day after day, Santiago harvests the salad.

In a corner of our front stoop, an orb weaver has strung a large web. She sits in the center of it, tawny and long-legged and serene. Each time I leave or enter the house, I stop and tilt my head to catch the sunlight shimmering along the rectangles and triangles and trapezoids of her home, the silken threads stitched together in a design that has the magnificent imperfection of a patchwork quilt.

One evening, a man knocks at the door. He sports a blue uniform and a cap with the prefix “eco.” I lower the glass a few inches so that I can hear him through the screen; the door remains closed. It is the hour of supper, of retiring from decisions. The man names people I’ve never heard of and gestures vaguely up the street, saying that he is working with my neighbors to manage mice and spiders and wasps. I ask if he proposes poisoning these creatures, who are also neighbors, and he replies that his company uses an all-natural product made from chrysanthemums.

The high carriage of his shoulders, the way that they are squared, suggests that he is confident that he has answered my question, that a thing made from flowers cannot be poison. I point at the web beside his head, where the long-legged beauty sits listening, and when I say that I don’t mind living with spiders, the man repeats my words–“You don’t mind living with spiders?”–then turns abruptly on his heel and leaves. I am sorry, because I did not have the opportunity to say to him, “Don’t you see how making this judgement, as if the life and death of others were a matter of personal taste, harms us all?”

Under his blue cap, he had brown skin, brown eyes, black hair.

One weekday morning, Santiago and I watch the sun rise over a lake. Though no one else is in the park, I wear a mask: at least a thousand miles from uncontained fires, the air is chalky with ash. Ducks and geese have gathered on the gray water at dawn, bobbing occasionally beneath the surface, their upturned rumps sleek and placid as the lake ripples around them. I stand at the shore among trees whose leafy branches frame the scene like wrought iron in the darkness and watch the flame-red wildfire sun lift itself slowly, like the wary eye of a painted turtle, over the still black canopy on the other side of the lake. Santi is patient. He sniffs at the sandy soil and waits, never tugging on the leash, as if he, too, needs this prayer, this incremental assertion of life painted in the very colors of death, needs, as I do, the hope of the east staring down the despair of the west. As it rises over the treetops, the sun casts a finger of light across the water. A candle has been lit. Day has begun. Nothing has stopped it.

We walk the beach. Gulls seem to fill every inch of the sky, and the sand is littered with their white feathers. Sailboats are huddled sleepily around docks, their season narrowing to a close. The sky is now pink and blue, but those hues are muted by the dust of forests and bungalows and those who dwelt in them, their souls drifting across the heavens. Santiago and I stop to watch three deer cross a trail in front of us. They move with the laziness of morning, turning their faces to ours atop long necks, their eyes wide and wondering. For a long while, Santiago is silent. When at last he wails with desire and leaps to the end of his leash, the deer take lightly to the woods on prancing haunches.

There is a police chase that morning. Far across the lake, blue and red lights spin on their own axes and speed through the semi-darkness of early day as sirens sob. It is something to behold in this place designed for sitting soundlessly beside the waves, and I watch with wide and wondering eyes. Santi and I walk back to our car among shy purple blooms of clover and gnarled old oaks. The sumac leaves have gone brilliantly red. The scuff of the earth beneath our feet is dry and autumnal, but the air that was cold in our noses and a little smoky has warmed and greened. At home, I hear on the radio that a police chase has resulted in the capture of a murder suspect.

How does one judge the goodness of a morning?

I’ve been reading the woolly bear caterpillars wrong. It is the black bands that are said to predict the length and ferocity of winter, not the rusty red around the middle. It is hard to find two woolly bears who agree, in any case; they are various and splendid in their creeping. There is an early cold snap. I spend a weekend sealing drafty windows that have been sealed before and are gaping anew. I bring inside the house the ficus and the hibiscus and the lemon tree that I’ve been growing from a seed plucked from a rind destined for the compost pile. I move the furniture to make room for the plants at the windows. I fold the yellow and blue seaside quilt of summer into the armoire and drape the couch with the orange and brown leafy quilt of autumn. My neighbor delivers a box of apples from her tree, and I make galettes and a crisp. The evenings descend earlier. There is pleasure in the light and scent of a candle burning as Santiago snores and the world outside settles.

Autumn is not a time of dying. It is a time of bringing life in close.

On a Saturday, Santiago and I greet the day at a farmer’s market. I wrestle the first pumpkins of the season into a sack, along with maple-walnut biscotti for me and ginger-peanut-butter biscuits for him. We have put on weight, but we are not managing that today. We are adventuring. We drive to two parks that we have never visited before. One has hanging bridges, a fungus like a cocktail apron wrapped around a tree, and a young man looking under the hood of a car in a driveway off an alley. Santi watches the man with interest. He is slim and handsome, and he doesn’t move as he considers the engine. When he turns at last to Santiago’s fixed eyes and the tail held high in hopes of being noticed, the man asks if the dog would like to help. The second park has a winding boardwalk flecked with yellow cottonwood leaves, cattail fluff that makes Santiago sputter, and a rock painted with the letters, “Be You tiful,” and left in the crook of a tree.

A week earlier, we met a woman. She was small and had white hair. She walked between two shepherd dogs, so large that they seemed like horses to her chariot. When she saw Santiago and me on the opposite side of the street, she reined them to a stop. There they stood, the three of them, motionless and staring, until Santi lifted his nose from the ground he’d been happily sniffing, whined nervously, and then barked.

“Geez!” said the woman with distaste, in a voice meant to be heard.

Santiago and I have been together five years this month. We have experienced this too many times. I never say anything. I am tired.

“It’s not all right for him to be scared of your dogs?” I ask.

To anyone who has walked down the street minding her own business and seen from the corner of her eye two men coming from the opposite direction who slow their pace and then stop, who lean against a wall and watch her; to anyone who has felt a coldness in her stomach, knowing that the men are rolling around in their mouths the words that they are going to spit at her when she passes; to anyone who has experienced the black silence in their eyes that will lurch out and grab her when there is no where to escape to, it is clear what is happening with dogs who are taught to stop and stare at other dogs.

“He’s aggressive!” shouts the woman.

I cannot abide this. “Nope. He’s not. I know multiple vets who will tell you different.”

We are walking. The woman continues to stand with her dogs, holding her ground.

“He’s reactive!”

It’s a slur–reactive–a word used by people who control the animals whom they live with as if those animals had no right to respond to the stimuli around them.

What makes a woman think that she requires two military guard dogs, each nearly as large as she is, in order to walk in the world on a sunlit morning? What makes her so sure that she is under attack?

Santiago is calm. We have continued to amble, and he lost interest in the shepherds immediately after we passed them. He is leading me down a hillside to a lake ringed with false asters.

“You might want to try being friendly!” I shout to the woman.

It may not have been my best moment. I recuse myself from judging.

The traditional five-year anniversary gift is wood, and that suits us. On Sunday morning, we walk in the woods around a lake basin. The weather is warming again, and it is dry. Wind rustles the cottonwood leaves and the acres of cattails where once there was water. Fallen ash tree leaves are slivered like bits of gold along the wood chip trail, and woodpeckers and nuthatches hop up and down the trunks of trees. A stand of purple loosestrife is growing, illicit and lovely.

It is after we have been walking for fifty minutes, when we are nearly back to the little lot in which we have parked the car, that we follow a trail that I have always believed to lead to a suburban street: a dead end. I have judged wrong. We walk for almost two more hours on trails that follow a shallow creek to a pond filled with wood ducks. We listen to the ping of an aluminum bat hitting a ball as a man pitches to a small boy in a back yard. Santiago sashays off the path and finds a dog park with a steep, grassy slope glowing in the September sunshine, and nobody inside. He explores the scents along its wooden fence posts, charging me occasionally to express his joy, and then repeatedly rolls on his back when a Border Collie arrives, trying to interest her in what he has to offer.

She is cool. It is still a fine day.

On our anniversary, I buy an electric fireplace. The window seals may not hold. We are older than we once were, Santiago and I, and, despite our extra pounds, the cold gets to us. Workers at the store put the box into my back seat because it won’t fit in my trunk, and when I get home I have to flag down a man in a city truck to help me get it out. I haul the fireplace inside, unpack it, put it together, and spend an hour trying to figure out if it really doesn’t work or if I haven’t understood how to operate it. I put it back in the box, tape it shut, and put it in the trunk, which can’t be closed while I drive it slowly back to the store.

I react with tears. I call my sister and leave her a message. I am frustrated by my own anxious need.

Santiago and I go walking. It is Monday, and I’ve taken the day off from work. We go to the dam, where we go each year to celebrate the great luck and profound delight of our friendship. The woods are quiet. The oaks are turning orange and red. The lindens drop yellow leaves as wide as my palm and, now and then, a chipmunk crosses our path. Where the sun shines down into the foliage, Virginia creeper is lipstick red or drunken burgundy. Pale purple asters are crawling with bees in a field before a ring of birches. Like many of the parks we have visited this year, there are places where the short, dry grass has been over-trampled, leaving little but soil and pebbles at picnic grounds or fishing promontories.

A man and a woman sit on a bench overlooking the river. They wear masks and dark sunglasses. They are old. The woman claps when she sees Santiago. She leans forward and smiles. Santi runs into her lap and she rears back a little, unsure, then strokes his head and laughs as he wags his tail. “Have a good day!” she says to us in accented English.

The world forms around us. We create the peace and joy that we expect to find.

Santiago’s nose is quivering. We have come to a sunny glade and he is sniffing the air. For a long while, he does this, until I tug him back to the dappled woods, to where the ancient oaks cling to the riverbank that has fallen away beneath them. Santi begins to run. We are on the trail of something, probably a deer. He diverts onto a footpath through dense woods. I watch my feet to avoid tripping over a tree root and crouch to keep from being slapped by branches.

Suddenly, Santiago stops. He has gulped something from the forest floor.

“Leave it!” I demand.

He does.

It’s a hot dog bun. There is a pile of them and, nearby, a pile of unblemished apples.

This is what we were hunting. This is what someone judges to be food for animals.

When we get home, there is a text from my sister. Her husband is going to buy me an electric fireplace and put it together. I am to choose the color. I will sit beside it in winter, with my beloved at my side. The flames will glow and our bodies will be warm and the good life will be very close.

To see a giant spider and other fall pics, visit the gallery.

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Seeds

On the first morning of September, I float slowly up from dreams and stretch in the bed, eyes closed. After a week during which the air was hot and thick, even when whispered upon the nighttime stars, it is at last cool. And for the first time in months, instead of sleeping atop the bedclothes, I am between the sheets. Two quilts cover me, and Santiago is breathing softly at my side. The upper story windows are raised to the darkness. Cicadas are making their soft, bug rattle among the snakeroot and white doll’s daisy that are blooming around the house. One day soon, it will occur to me that I no longer hear them, and I will wonder when the last one made his music.

I wiggle my feet. Though it never stopped bearing weight, my left ankle still aches when I swirl it. I sprained it in mid-July, and the long, residual pain is a reminder that healing is never as reckless as harm. Nonetheless, there is great, desultory pleasure in these prefatory moments of the day: in arching my back and feeling the muscles and the spine tug and click into alignment; in those smooth sheets against yawning legs; in reaching my arms out from underneath the covers to flex my shoulders and my wrists, and then in grabbing a pillow, turning to my side, and burying my cheek into slumber once more. It occurs to me that this ritual is not unlike the one that Santiago performs when he does not wish to leave a park: stopping at the end of his leash, he flops down onto his side, then rolls on his back in the grass, head in contact with the earth, legs lolling, jowls hanging back into a smile.

The dog, too, has come to the surface of consciousness. He sighs, and the faint rumble that follows at the back of his throat is a greeting to me. By that noise, I find him in the bed, my eyes still shuttered. I reach out a fingertip and stroke his snout where the fur is thin and soft. Now I sigh. We have left our dreams but have not yet entered the world. Where we are there is only this: our breathing and our companionship.

It is a gray morning. We drive to a wildlife area behind a municipal airfield. The pale, gold sunrise falls lightly on hangars that are painted like Swedish cottages in yellows and reds. After rising above the gnarled oaks in the east, the great star disappears once more into the clouds. It is early and quiet. Acorns in their cupules crunch underfoot in the woods. At home, they fall sharply on the roof, especially on windy days, though not as abundantly as last year when I gathered countless, shiny handfuls into a heavy sack. Among the cattails that ring the marsh here, a hummingbird is moving–marvelously fast and light, her wings blurred, her coloring impossible to detect.

The cattails are going to seed. Where the flowers are still whole, they are smooth and brown like Pronto Pups on a stick; where aging has begun to change them, they are tufted like uncarded wool. I think on the end of summer two years ago, when I guided my parents around the state fair, just as they had done for me when I was a child. We met in the cool morning and walked the grounds with hot coffee and warm chocolate chip cookies. We cast our votes for the tastiest city tap water and the most impressive fine art. We watched dogs of all kinds bumble their way through an obstacle course and fish parade their fins in the still water of the DNR pond and Clydesdale horses make wagons look magnificent. We drank provincial wine, examined a Linotype machine, toured the seed art, ate Pronto Pups with mustard.

I pocketed a slug from the Linotype machine, like I do every year. I know it’s not right. These shiny metal chunks of cheery text–“a wonderful place to have bees” a typo that delights–are seeds that I have tucked away for a time of need. We are older now, my parents and I; our bodies are not without pain. There are few places to go as the virus hops the globe. That day at the fair was full of honey and apple pie, freshly shorn sheep and furry, lop-eared rabbits, candy-colored aerial cable cars and the murmur of crowds. To remember it is to be happy.

Santiago loves the boardwalk on the north side of the park. It is low to the water, which is home to muskrats. He leads me along a wood chip trail to the weathering planks that bridge the open marsh, and for a very long time we do not leave. I pace back and forth with him as he gazes out over the duckweed. He stops to inhale the scent that blooms up between the boards from the water beneath and scratches at them, hoping to remove this impediment to his hunting. I watch a woodpecker take her beak to the smallest twig of a dead tree in the middle of the water. Geese in formation fly over our heads, their honking just this side of ghostly. We mistake this season for one of decay. Spirits are all around us.

It was a hot summer. At a popular park, I am confused by cars parking on what used to be picnic grounds. Straw covers seeds laid down where vegetation has been trampled. A beach head that once flickered with grass and is now as hard and naked as a callous. It is the same everywhere. A kitchen cabinet in our house is stuffed with plastic bags I’ve been forced to accept from grocers who no longer pack in the cloth sacks I present. I bring the plastic bags with me when I walk with Santi. There is more trash than ever in the parks. On little sod trails, we find beer cans and juice bottles, batteries and stove coils, backpacks and paper masks. One morning, we watch the sun rise over a tiny lake stocked with river trout. The water ripples in silvery circles where there is otherwise unseen movement. The sand is wet and tender beneath our feet. The sun’s up-reaching rays cast warm yellow light on the tops of fading green trees. I pick up a plastic water bottle and put it in a plastic bag. I pick up its lid a few steps down the beach.

Murders are up. They go up when it is hot.

We are the problem we are trying to solve.

In the new front garden, the butterfly weed is nearly spent of its little, orange flowers. In their place are long, slender seed pods that point to the sky. On the front stoop and back deck, orb weaver spiders have taken up residence, their webs among the beauties of the season. In my wooded yard, tomatoes like teardrops hang green from their potted stalks, promising, still, to ripen. The sedum is flowering in shades of blush.

And the yard is full of holes. Squirrels are at their autumn work. The mulch in the new garden is scattered. Every day, I tamp down the soil around a pink begonia that the rodents have uprooted from its pot on the deck. One evening, I find a gray squirrel hanging from his belly in plastic fencing I’ve put around a nascent hazelnut bush. His tail switches. He has misjudged his girth against the netting. He is still as I lay the cold blade of a garden scissor against his back three times. He cries once. When I free him, he runs across the garden and up a far tree as quickly as a leopard, watching me as he clings to the trunk, waving his tail.

He is part of my landscape.

As the days begin to compress, it is for Santiago and me a season of sunrises. We wake each day between 5:30 and 6:00, and by the time we get outside with shoes and harness, the sky is slow-dancing in orange and pink silk skirts. Over Labor Day weekend, we visit the Indian burial mounds that sit atop the bluffs of the Mississippi River. They are blooming with goldenrod and aster and a last gasp of pink vetch, and in the distance, the capitol city skyline is fizzy with tangerine light. Nearby, the stone statue of a Native woman has been garlanded with flowers that have dried. In her lap, someone has laid a bouquet of sunflowers, still bright yellow with wide, black eyes. She is loved.

We walk in the woods above the river where Santi’s white legs become pocked with dark lopseed, where his collar becomes dotted with stickseed, where his tail comes to sport a burdock burr like the jingle bell at the tip of an elf’s stocking cap. He is alert: sniffing at the soil and running his nose along the undergrowth and stilling himself from time to time to look hard into the morning shadows. When two deer at last become nervous and step gently away from us, white tails flouncing between the trees, he does not see them. He is, perhaps, staring at their motionless companions, the other spirits in the woods.

A sign points us to a sanctuary where we have never been, at the bottom of the bluffs. A sandwich board has been placed at the start of the trail recruiting volunteers to re-seed the prairie in ten days’ time. It is warm, now, in the way of a September morning. We walk a gravel path through switchgrass and goldenrod, with cottonwoods rustling beside the railroad tracks that flank the river. Grassland birds and Monarchs alight on the waving fields, and butterflies as pale yellow as a lone stand of toadflax at a curve of the path flutter under the sun. Behind a thin creek is the entrance to a cave in the sandstone bluff. In front of it are black bars. In the mid-nineteenth century, ice was stored here to support a booming brewery business. Before that, it was sacred: Wakan Tipi. Spirit Cave. It is still sacred.

The sanctuary was once a dumping ground. It is now named after a deceased US Congressman who labored to clean up the messes we’ve made in the place where we live. This is what I think about as I pull petals from the zinnias that have been drying on my kitchen counter. They are the flowers that a friend saved and planted in my new garden in the spring, flowers that have towered and bloomed in almost crazy profusion. They have provided joy as the shy native plants at their feet–the butterfly weed and purple prairie clover, the prairie coreopsis and prairie smoke–grow roots and ready themselves to burgeon next year. The zinnias won’t come back; they are annuals. At the end of each drying petal is a seed shaped like a tiny spade for making its way into the earth. I sort them by color, keep a box for myself, and deliver another to a neighbor.

The next day, I drive to my parents’ house for brunch. Dad toasts cranberry walnut bread and cooks scrambled eggs and hash browns while Mom and I sit in the living room and talk. Outside, the sky is gray and the wind blows at the trees like they are being dried inside a carwash. We pour wine at the table, and our dessert is red grapes and the last of the sweet strawberries of summer. I tell them about the friend who visited to repair my stone wall, about how Santiago was so excited to see him that he ran through the screen door. The memory of Santi’s ecstasy, of the chastising I offered that he shook off like light rain, of the laughter that my friend and I shared is a seed that I have tucked in my heart, knowing how vital it is, along with the one that will sprout, when I need it, of a September brunch in a small house at a lonely time where two or three were gathered.

In the gallery, late summer sunrises, seed packets, and a yawning dog.

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Smaller

Santiago wakes me at five on a Wednesday morning, a soft plea pulsing in his throat. The bedroom windows are open to the smudgy, suburban darkness. In the new front garden, spindly stems of prairie clover stick out of red-hewed mulch, their flowering heads gone. In the backyard, ponds of deep green violet leaves, broad and shaped liked hearts, are shrinking day by day. In the darkness that ekes out ever longer, late summer rabbits, small-boned and hungry, are breaking their fast.

I dress and take Santi to the dam. We are on the walkway at sunrise. The morning is still. The water above the dam reflects the pink cheek of the sky and clouds like the thinning, white eyebrows of a wise one. Gold light that will be gone in an instant shimmers on the surface of the river. A small flock of cedar waxwings leads us across the deck, resting first upon the northern railing and then upon the southern, flying back and forth before us as the river cascades into a foam below, their rusty heads and yellow chests little beacons of morning light. At the end of the bridge, gulls circle and laugh in the blue sky.

We walk in the quiet woods. Beneath our feet are burr acorns and yellow cottonwood leaves. The lower trunks of the young cottonwoods have developed mature, gray furrows while up above they tower still smooth and white as birch, their leaves glinting in the daylight that rises up to meet them. The air is not yet hot. From time to time, Santiago stops and aims his black nose, quivering, into the understory. The world moves in, then, to embrace us on this foot-wide patch of pebbled soil. I stand with Santi under the canopy, and we breathe. On the water nearby, Canada geese have gathered, honking, and goldenrod has bloomed on arid banks, its flowers joyful where the sun has shone ruthlessly, stripping the late summer landscape of its color. Old maples with gnarled limbs and exposed roots lend expression to a weary time.

It has been eleven days since there was rain at our house. Day after day, there is bruised sunshine. Clouds pout but never sob; drops of rain freckle the deck so sparsely that I can count them, but they do not reach the ground beneath the trees. Thumbing at my weather app hour by hour, I watch predictions of relief evaporate.

In the days before we walk at the dam, Santiago and I wander a nature preserve planted within the cloverleaf interchange of two freeways. The sky is as heavy and unforgiving as lead, and, though it is early in the morning, we are hot. But at the center of the vast, concrete metropolis–so busy and so tense and so proud–the preserve is a tiny diorama of spiny, green milkweed pods and hummingbirds fluttering among the dogwoods; of ruddy bluestem waving in a warm wind and weathered bird boxes overlooking resting egrets; of white bindweed blossoms beside a muddy creek bed and badly decapitated apple trees still heavy with blushing, green fruit.

We arrive on a Saturday, when the rush of traffic is a soft tenor harmony to the soprano pitch of the cicadas. I sit on a bench with Santiago beside me in the mown stubble around it. His tongue hangs from his mouth, facing the uncertain breeze. I close my eyes and listen to a mallard quack. Goldfinches flit about the pallid prairie, and the air moves through cattails and pine trees and side-oats grama dripping with miniscule seeds. A red squirrel crosses the path and disappears into exhausted stalks of wildflowers. We breathe.

When we walk again, we encounter a dead possum at rest on the through street and a potted rubber tree abandoned in the scrub near the parking lot of a large company. We walk until our limbs are soft like taffy from the heat and the exercise and then drive to a bakery that we haven’t been to in months. No one is allowed to sit inside its walls anymore. I buy a scone and a baguette, and we drive home with the windows down–past Orthodox Jewish men in black suits strolling the Sabbath, past families bicycling, past a birder setting up a camera in the tallgrass beside the parkway.

This is how we start each day: with trees and bread, with life on the ground. The remembrance of it, the knowledge when we wake that on this day we will see and touch and hear and smell and taste the world around us, is enough to provoke a smile after the first kerfuffled yawn.

When Santiago and I arrive home from the dam mid-week, it begins, at last, to rain. It rains all day. I make hot cocoa and add three marshmallows because one is small. I work in the kitchen, watching the yard drink. In the evening, I go to the basement and cut six inches off my hair. Relieved of weight, it bounces in waves around my face.

I am trying to make my life smaller. I send fewer texts, take fewer photos. I sleep more. I get my news from a half-size weekly stuffed into my mailbox, and I haven’t watched a television show for a week. One day, I exchange garden flowers with my neighbor, chatting in the open air on the street between our houses, and the conversation–as light as a seed on the summer wind–grounds me. In the evenings, Santiago lays his jowls over his tail and breathes softly, eyes closed, in the middle of the bed. I squeeze in beside him and read a novel as night falls.

On a Friday morning, we go to a large park, one with multiple long trails that wind through woods and around a lake. Santiago is content, for the most part, to circle a single pond. We walk on a narrow dirt path in the young forest that surrounds it. The day is hot and humid, and the air off the water in the shade of the slender trees cools my sweating face. There is a lean-to here, and I want to sit in its shelter. We climb off the path and up a slight slope. Both of us see the turkeys at the same moment. They are marching in a straight line through high grass, only their bald heads visible. When Santiago lunges to the end of his leash, they take off into the air, a heavy-bodied miracle of squawking and flight, brown feathers and flapping, the clear vision of a turkey at the top of a sweet, green tree–and then they are gone. For all their heft, they disappear entirely, this flock of big birds, as if they had never been here. I crawl into the lean-to. A smooth board has been laid on the ground for a bench. Santiago stands outside, muscles motionless and alert, watching. We breathe.

For a short time, we exit the park trail and wander near a church. A prayer box posted in the ground beside the street is a miniature version of the historic chapel fifty feet away, with white clapboard and a modest gray steeple. I stop. I have no paper, but I leave a prayer. It is a request that I might know how to carry small slights, or how to leave them behind lest the accumulated weight of them crush me.

When we return to the path around the pond, I become aware of the painted rocks. They are inexpertly artful: the colors dull, the pictures childish, the writing bordering on sloppy. They are clichéd. They have been placed on the ground beside the trail at regular intervals.

“Live, laugh, love.”

“Be the rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”

“Begin today.”

They are the answer to a prayer.

The rains come again. This time they come from a sky that turns a sickly black yellow just before the phone that I do not keep at my side gives out a cry like a prehistoric bird and posts a message telling me to take cover. I reach for dog snacks and call Santiago to the basement. The next morning, a branch from one of the Kentucky coffee trees, heavy with seed pods, lies in the backyard. In our city and in the cities around us, trees have been snapped and uprooted. God makes the wind. On my little plot of land, I tend to the violets and the prairie clover, trying to grow enough to satisfy both my eye and a rabbit’s stomach, trying to grow enough to heal the accumulated slights that weigh upon the Earth.

Santiago and I walk our neighborhood streets most weekdays, zigzagging through alleys and sidewalks and park trails. It is a season, now, of hawks posed on garden fences and curbed sedans, a season of squirrels carrying the green hulls of freshly fallen black walnuts in their jaws, tails twitching as they scamper. Santi and I still find ourselves surprised, on occasion, by a backyard pavilion that we have never seen or a silver dragon as tall as an apple tree guarding a front door. We walk this provincial landscape as in a labyrinth, making tight turns, doubling back, circling, our souls steering with intention, journeying to the ground in which we are rooted, to the center of ourselves, the place where we are flourishing, the source of all joy.

Visit the gallery for rock wisdom, waving bluestem, and other late summer scenes.

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Forward

On the fifth day of my vacation, I awake feeling rested. The days before that are spent disengaging from my ordinary way of doing things, from the inculcation of schedule and chore, expectation and productivity, such that I move in an increasing state of spiritual undress, casting off garments that bind, one by one. Santiago is beside me on the bed. The windows are draped against the dawn but open to fresh air and the chatter of cardinal and robin, to car engines that rev and zip and fade, to the soothing, warm-weather whirr of dogday cicadas. I find the winged bugs with their Frankenstein heads on the deck, the front stoop, the garden walk. One day I pick up what I assume to be a lifeless husk, and a small cry–desperate and angry–forces me to see that there are two cicadas in my hand, mating. I set them back down in the grass. Soon they will be dead. They’ve come up from the soil for this. On the mattress in the morning, I rouse from a dream and shift my weight, and Santi moves his muscles, too, lying on his side, stretching his legs. He inhales expansively through his snout, then exhales and smacks his lips. Neither of us opens our eyes. There are just four mornings left.

I do not, in common parlance, go anywhere for my vacation. To travel is not necessarily to rest. And, in fact, Santiago and I go many places. We start at the dam on a day when the temperature is 81º F when we arise, early, on a Saturday morning. Clouds that brood about raining don’t do it, so that by evening, I must water the gasping yard. But it is peaceful along the river, where people are fishing on decks and piers and beaches. Moths flutter, gold and orange, around the wild bergamot with its aging strands of lavender blossoms. On a tall stalk of mullein spent of flower, a woodpecker sways. We walk a sliver of beach around an inland lake, uncovered for the first time in our memory as the dry summer allows swollen waters to shrink. Everywhere, the daisy fleabane blooms cheerfully among black-eyed Susans. I sit for a little while on a bench of petrified wood, its layers of rusty red and buff rock as beautiful and august as the river below. I let go of Santi’s leash, and he scrambles down to a sandy beach and leaps into a green tuft of grass, hunting.

After we’ve walked for 75 minutes, Santiago, too, needs to recover himself. He lies down suddenly on a path of dirt worn smooth by the feet of park-goers under a canopy of basswood leaves. For five minutes, he pants, and both of us watch the burgeoning crowds pass with their bicycles and their sun hats, their dogs and their people. When he stands again, we walk the bridge over the river and enjoy the mist of falling water on our faces. At the other side, there are turkeys foraging: ancient adults with wrinkled wattles and small-bodied jakes and jennies who emerge from dusty foliage when they see that we won’t come closer. Santiago doesn’t want to go home.

The week before my vacation was hard. Out walking with Santi, I stepped into an unforeseen dip in the middle of an intersection and twisted my ankle. Several days later, a wasp stung my leg as we traversed a suburban sidewalk. The reaction reached from calf to ankle, so that both of my legs were puffy and painful, and I worked with them elevated and wrapped with ice. It was a week in which I recognized how imperfectly my values were expressed by my paid employment and one in which harassment made its way into the private chat function of a Zoom meeting.

I wanted to turn back when I rose slowly from the pavement in the middle of the road and my ankle ached. But Santiago and I had only just begun our walk; so, I kept on. I wanted to turn back after I pulled my legging from my shin and the wasp flew away, cackling. But we had only just begun our walk; so I kept on. Santiago was glad, and the pain was not fatal.

The pandemic poses this question: Do I want to push forward or turn back? On my birthday–the day before my vacation begins–I go to the office. The temperature is 93ºF, with humidity that makes it feel like more than 100. I sit at stoplights on blackened pavement, the car windows rolled down to an atmosphere that remains stubbornly motionless, and sweat. Alone at my desk, I wear a mask against the air conditioning that has always given me asthma, and I conclude my work efficiently.

What is it about an office building that is necessary? How much meat should a person eat? What is the purpose of lipstick? Is it too difficult to make our own coffee? Why do churches meet inside walls that house neither the poor nor the sick nor the imprisoned? What do sports distract us from? How much shopping brings a person peace?

What change is being asked of us?

I am unsettled. The naps that I take as the days slowly cool are healing. But I consider moving. I shop for cities and for houses. The children next door bring tomatoes and the bag of picture books that I’ve loaned to them. I pack up another bag and deliver it. I touch up the paint on the front steps and get vent duct from the hardware store to repair a jerry-built dryer in the basement. I send emails and texts, and pay bills, and the world seems noisy. What would it be like to live in a house nearly two centuries old on the river? One evening as I water my lawn, a man across the street with very red eyes calls Santiago over and, when I go to retrieve the dog, propositions me.

I celebrate my birthday. My parents come and we eat Italian take-out and cupcakes on the deck, washing down our food with bottles of beer. It is cloudy and temperate, and I admire the trees that I’ve trimmed. Zinnias and butterfly weed are blooming in the new front garden where Monarchs have begun to visit. In the south garden, there are bumble bees on the Joe-Pye-Weed, and the anemone is arching its stems, about to unfurl pale pink petals. We are relaxed. There is hand sanitizer on our outdoor dining table, and, while we eat, our masks hang from the backs of our chairs.

I celebrate with my sister and my niece, too. We meet at a winery. Though its courtyard is large and the tables are well-spaced, we are the only people there for an hour as we lunch. Swallows dive around trellises hung with grapes, and grasshoppers vault across a dry lawn. We eat pizza and pretzels, and drink wine and soda, and dance to the Rolling Stones in front of a fountain that splashes in the sunlight. My niece says that she would like to have pet crows. I say that I dreamed that St. Christopher was attending us through the pandemic, that when I woke, I had to look up who St. Christopher was. To wake without an alarm is to remember one’s visions. I take photographs of wine barrels and sow thistle and an old pick-up truck parked under a blue sky. I wish that I could hug my sister. It is a wonderful day.

Santiago and I go to our favorite places. Some mornings, we walk out our front door and make gigantic loops through the neighborhood, stitching together still, morning sidewalks, rustling woods, dappled parks, breezy lakesides. Some days, we get in the car. We wander new trails in familiar landscapes, amid prickly, white spheres of rattlesnake master and bright red cardinal flowers, on mown grass so tender that it seems we are the only creatures ever to walk on it. In quiet waters, we meet snowy egrets and blue herons, one redhead duck, and what appears to be a cormorant who takes flight with throaty squawking as we pass. Everywhere, young rabbits nibble at the edges of paths then disappear into fields of waving bluestem and milkweed cupping spiky, green pods.

One day, we go to the zoo. It will open soon, for the first time since the virus closed it months ago. On the sidewalks outside the gates, animals have been painted six feet apart: a sloth here, a tiger there. Inside, a man is testing the kiddie rides. He sends a plastic chair molded into the shape of an eagle up a cable and smiles at Santiago, tells me he can’t bring his dog here because there are too many chipmunks to chase. We have chased those chipmunks. A woman passes, hoping to see the giraffes being fed. Santi presses his snout eagerly between the bars of the fence, where it smells like manure.

We walk the nearby park. Bluebirds flock the empty picnic grounds, flying from maple to oak. In the outdoor classroom, the blond chimney of a brick oven towers above a pretty patch of yellow coneflowers. Santiago pees beside the stream in the Japanese garden, where a woman sits, reading, on a bench in the shade. I ask him to walk the labyrinth on the hill, but after a couple of hairpin turns, he loses what interest he had mustered for the game. We make our way to the conservatory and watch a woman in waders tending to the water lilies.

Santiago is hunting muskrats at the edge of the lake when a man approaches with a small dog on a long leash. The man heads straight for us, thumbing at a phone, oblivious to the low-hanging tree branches that I will have to walk through to avoid him and the fact that his moppy, black canine is straining toward Santi. When my boy feels the other dog’s glare, he turns from the foliage at the shore and barks as I brush leaves from my face and move on, pulling him with me. A woman with stiff, gray hair approaches. She scowls at Santiago and weaves uncertainly across the path. It is clear that she fears him. He can’t tell where she is going and moves back and forth along with her.

“Keep your dog to yourself!” she shouts.

She is not the man behind her who grins into the sunshine and wishes us a good morning.

She is not the small girl in the stroller who reaches out a hand to Santiago as he passes.

She is not the young woman who smiles indulgently as Santi scouts ducks at the beach head, and smiles again, on the other side of the lake, as I pick up his poop.

The gray-haired woman is the voice of turning back. She is uncertainty met with rage. She is neglect of love and beauty all around.

“Hey!” I shout.

And then, more quietly, I speak the truth: “He’s friendly.”

The day that I turn off my phone is the day that I settle into my soul like I have found at last a comfortable chair. It has taken seven days. The phone is, in fact, plugged into the wall–like the phones of my youth–so that I can be reached by a ring tone if necessary. But a vacation poses the question: What is necessary?

I re-pot the sage and mint whose shrinking leaves signal that they ache to stretch their roots. I place them in a sunny spot on the deck. I wash the rag rugs from the kitchen, the quilts from the couch. I make my great-grandmother’s pancakes and eat them with lemon curd and cranberries. I take from the shelf a book that I loved thirty-five years ago, and I lie on the bed in the afternoon, reading until I fall asleep.

On Sunday, the last day of my vacation, I awake to cool air through the open windows. It is early. Santiago and I drive to a local boat launch. Wind ruffles the lake, and clouds shift fitfully underneath the sun. It is a lovely morning. We walk for almost two hours, past big-leafed catalpa trees with long, thin pods and drooping willows surrounding a shallow pond; past peeping wood ducklings that scutter along the top of the water and a single cricket calling among wands of white clover; past stately spruces twined with woodbine and sumacs considering a change of color. Santi stops and buries his nose in a patch of plantain. He lifts it and buries it again. The day expands. He comes up chomping, and I stick my hand into his mouth, batting out what is left of a little gray rodent. I cry a little, but Santiago is happy. We walk on.

When we get home, Santi eats breakfast, and I drink coffee on the deck. I consider the two mulberry trees coming up in the yard and wonder whether they will bear fruit. I think about leaving this habitat–this tiny backyard woodland and the tinier prairie out front, both so arduously nurtured from a state of bare dirt, struggling bluegrass and abandoned concrete–and I cannot imagine the person who would love the plants like I do, the white snakeroot and Jack-in-the-pulpits, the wild ginger and blue violets and wafts of prairie smoke. I am rooted here, and, like a tree, my forward movement is slow. But it persists.

Fall is coming. I’ve already shed my heavy garments. I don’t intend to put them back on again.

Pics from summer vacation in the gallery.

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Freedom

These are the dark days of summer. For two weeks, the temperature is six or seven degrees above average, with nights that simmer. I move through the house like I am praying the hours, flipping blinds and draping shutters, following the migration of the sun from east to west, dimming the radiance in order to slow the stifling build-up of heat.

It is a liturgy allowed by the pandemic. When I work at the office, I am encased in a cubicle that admits no interaction with the unbridled world. I cannot see blue sky. I cannot see gathering clouds. I cannot see snow that has accumulated in the parking lot, nor tire tracks that waver nervously through the colorless depth as flakes continue to fall blurrily across the scene, like scratches on an old photograph. I can see only my coworker at her desk, and a dark hallway with a waxed floor that shines under the hard light, and photographs of Santiago, in the tallgrass and at the shore, pinned to my wall.

Now that the old oak is gone, the metal and glass doors from which Santi and I exit for our morning walk are white hot by the time we return. A bare-skinned hand or hip is liable to receive a welt if it lingers too long. In the wee, wooded yard behind the house, mushrooms grow on the back door mat in the stubborn humidity. I take sponge baths, unable to stand the steam of a shower or a soaking in the tub. I sleep on top of the blankets of the bed, next to Santiago, who stretches out in torpor as if he cannot cool himself, who laps lavishly from the old cat bowl that I keep for him under the night stand. I wake to fireworks, to sirens, to the resentful bawl of speeding cars without mufflers, to the fights that people have in the early morning hours on the street: the sounds of summer darkness.

My sister and her family arrive Independence Day weekend. We have not seen each other since Christmas. We wear masks, and we meet outside the house, on the deck in the back yard. Santiago joins us. His antics are a physical expression of the giddiness that we, too, feel in our gathering. He dashes across the length of the deck and then stops so suddenly that his claws scrape the paint on the wooden planks. He holds his body in a low crouch, looking up at us. He feints to the right, tossing his snout. He feints to the left, casting his hips. And then he lifts off, raising his body, racing to the edge of the deck, and leaping over the stairs and into the garden. He makes a gymnastic turn in the grass and runs back up the stairs, then sits, the tip of his tongue hanging out of a smiling mouth. Superdog, I call him. He pants for a moment, then starts the routine again. At long last, playmates have arrived.

I am babysitting a chrysalis for the children next door. They have had four caterpillars in a small, mesh terrarium, and three have transformed and taken flight. The children have chosen a spot on the deck to place the little bag, and they have picked and eaten raspberries from my bushes, and they have gone away for the weekend. As I chat with my sister, our chins sweating beneath our masks, my niece says that there is no chrysalis in the terrarium. There is a Monarch, clinging to where a pouch like pewter had hung the night before. When I unzip the bag, the butterfly does not move. His wings are as brilliant as a sunset over a rocky coast, his legs as fine and strong as a dancer’s. I take a picture and send it to the kids. The next time I look, the butterfly is gone.

I do not feel like I am in a lockdown. I am not suffering under quarantine. I have a home and a job and a car and a yard. I am watching lives beyond my own being niggled down to the size that I have preferred mine to be. I used to sit alone in a car in the mornings, watching anxiously for the driver who would cut me off when I needed to cross three lanes to reach my exit. Now, Santiago and I regularly run into the neighbor across the alley: she chatters cheerfully to the daughter she pushes before her in a stroller, and we stop to greet one another as the sun climbs the sky. Each day, the dog and I listen for the thunk at the door that will mean that the mail carrier has come, with his skinny legs and merry eyes, letters and magazines. One afternoon, the neighbor across the street texts that she has left a box of freshly picked basil and thyme and Queen Anne’s lace on my front stoop.

I am not alone. I am cloistered. I live in a community, and my work is to see God in these faces: in the neighbors whose cigarette smoke drifts into my windows, in the cats who leave bird bones in the yard, in the spiders who rebuild their webs, day after day, beside my front door. My work is to hold loosely to property and to expectations. My work is to tip my head and shake it until a freight of distractions drops loose from my ear and is left to rot back into soil so that I can hear once more. There is poverty to hear, and injustice, and birdsong, and joy.

The trees along the parkway glint with sunlight as my sister’s family and I drive to get gelato. The heat presses down upon us, unmoved by wind. We spoon and lick our treats at a picnic table in the shade, admiring in the driveway of a house across the way a school bus that has been decoupaged with groovy colors. My brother-in-law is walking with a cane, the result of a bad fall. We are mindful of risk in a burdensome new way, and the soberness of that risk is what makes us so elated by our freedom. I stand six feet away from these people whom I love and smile into the camera as I take a picture of them, behind me, all of us framed together.

When we have finished our treats, we visit a WWI memorial. My sister and I descend from an Englishman who made it home from the Western Front. We photograph the flag pole and rest on the cool marble beneath it with our water bottles. My brother-in-law is proud of his slow walking as we wander over to Abraham Lincoln, who stands hidden nearby among pines and magnolias, the icon of another war. Before they leave town, I take the family to a bakery that sells doughnuts like sweet, chewy clouds. Its windows are masked with plywood. A couple of blocks away, an auto repair shop has been gutted by fire. It is the same throughout the neighborhood. Sometimes the wood says, “Black Owned.” Sometimes it says, “Justice for George.” Sometimes there is nothing but a frightened peep of a scrawl, hope amid risk: “We’re open.”

I am driving home from a park with Santiago one hot morning when I see that a man is in the yard with the six-foot-tall Virgin of Guadalupe paintings. The paintings change like the weather, but they are always vibrant: teal and yellow and red, and glimmering with the brilliance of the sun and the moon. They are peaceful: with downcast eyes and clasped hands and shoulders that bear the world, and featuring a cherub to boost the train of the holy maiden’s garments. It is the image that the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, left inside the cloak of an Aztec peasant: Juan Diego, the first indigenous saint. I turn the car around. I talk with the artist, whose name is Harold. There is a painting of the Archangel Michael on the lawn, but Harold says that his call is to paint the Virgin of Guadalupe. He offers me a drawing. I pay him twenty dollars, and I tack the drawing on the wall in the study near where I write.

“Let it be unto me according to thy word.” That is what Mary said to the angel who told her that she was pregnant, accepting without dissent what was delivered into her life. She was free.

Santiago holds loosely to property. I buy him new clothes: an orange collar, a buffalo plaid harness, a long, black leather leash. I can tell from the way that he prances when I fit him that he doesn’t just think that he is going outside; he thinks that he looks handsome. He does: clean and natty. It takes him one day to get the harness pocked with stickseed, which has transfigured now in mid-summer from tiny white blossoms into bright, green burrs at the edge of every wood that we traverse.

But Santiago is a handmaiden of the Lord. He accepts the burrs on his new clothes as the work of the universe at its planting and as the price of a life well lived. He is open and hopeful, attuned to what the world is presenting, even as it changes, upending our expectations. We are in a familiar forest early one Saturday morning when I imagine from the vigor of his sniffing and his trotting that we are tracking a deer. I am puzzled when we reach the top of a hill and come upon a camper among the birch trees, with white geese padding about beside it. A large area has been cordoned by a rope fence, and I follow Santi, cursing its ruination of the landscape.

And then I see the goats: a dozen of them at first, away from the fence and browsing in the dark wood with its gentle shafts of dawning sun. Santiago is pulling, eager to get closer. We follow the curving path and encounter at least a dozen more goats, in every shade and pattern, doing the things that goats are famous for–standing on logs, butting heads–so that the moment is astonishing, like something staged for the cinema. Santi barks at last. He cannot contain his excitement and jams his head and front paws through the fence, so that I have to disentangle him as he shouts and stick a flopping post firmly back into the ground. The goats are silent, but they have run toward the rope, not away from it. They are watching us with small, black eyes at the tops of their long faces, their horns as expressive as arched eyebrows, curious about what the day has brought them.

Later, we find the signage: the goats are clearing the underbrush. They are chewing down to the root what is harmful, making space for healthy, new life.

On a weekday morning, the heat begins, at last, to pass. Raindrops fall so delicately upon the surface of the local lake that the sound of them is almost imperceptible underneath the whoosh of distant traffic. Santiago and I walk beside houses whose chimneys are covered in creeping vines; where U.S. flags flap in front yards and coneflowers in worn purple and dusty red and faded gold decorate the gardens; where church steeples lean against clouds the color of a chrysalis about to release a Monarch. Santi grazes on wet grass. The rain dampens my hat, my sleeves. It falls on Santi’s back and parts the fur on his snout so that the spots on his skin show through. It dirties our feet. We do not expect otherwise.

More scenes from summer, including Santi with the goats, in the gallery.