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Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dog has given me an anniversary present.

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

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

That is joy at work in the world.

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

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

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

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

It is not the outward change that matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.