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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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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.