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Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We laugh and laugh.

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

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

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

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

He pauses.

“It’s a miracle,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a miracle.

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

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Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dog has given me an anniversary present.

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

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

That is joy at work in the world.

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

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

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

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

It is not the outward change that matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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Unearthed

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

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

It is all so beautiful. It undoes me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Smoke

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

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

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

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

It does me good to see them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it foggy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I start to cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see.

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

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Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

That old tom was probably just cranky from the heat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abundance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is perfect morning.

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

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

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

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Holy

Holy Week arrives on the wind. Above the front yard, the branches of a white pine bend and shudder in the tempest. Morning after morning, the yard is dense with pods knocked loose from Kentucky coffee trees. Each one is nearly the size of my hand: a wine-colored pouch filled with smooth, brown seeds. I gather hundreds at a time, composting some, bagging others to be hauled away, saving a few seeds in a jar. Air that flutters like a moth on a warm, June lawn blows in. The next day, winter’s gelid fingers snatch it back. Icicles hang from the hidden wounds of trees.

On Tuesday, the windchill is well below freezing. Santiago and I walk. I wear jackets in layers and a knit cap on my head. We hike beside railroad tracks where an office chair has been abandoned. Its torn vinyl shimmers gold in the sunlight, and when a gust catches it, it swivels. Last year’s grass is flaxen and withered and shining in the strong, spring light. Santi stops to roll in it, standing upright and dusty and satisfied when he is through. Below us is the bright green turf of an athletic field, its line markings fresh in yellow and white. A woman is there, at the edge of a baseball diamond, flying a kite. The kite is shaped like a fish and has streamers for a tail. It is half-drowning in the waves.

I steer Santiago to the shelter of neighborhood streets. There, porches are furnished with comfortable old chairs, books are on offer in cabinets at the sidewalk, and a guitar has been made into a bird house overlooking a garden. We walk past a park where children in face masks are running off their recess. But Santi loves a good headwind; he watches the children then cuts through the trees around which they are playing and heads for the lake. The gale off the water is unremitting–and cold. Santiago speeds up to press against it, pulling me like a sled-load behind him. The wind seems to batter from every direction, now and then catching the lobe of an ear in its teeth. In this way it is like Santi when he wrestles with me, and encountering it is the same boisterous and merry delight. We watch a man in a sweatsuit out on a spit of land in the middle of the lake. He has a cell phone to his ear. Around his legs, his pale, gray pants flap and a shiny black lab gambols. The man and the dog are flecks on the vista, the ground beneath their feet almost invisible as all around them dark waves dance a tarantella.

If there is something more hallowed than this–the wind and the office chair and the dust and the kite and the waves and the man and the dog and our happiness–I do not know what it is. When Santiago and I finally reach the curve in the shoreline that leads us away from the sharpest squalls, we are greeted by a patch of pale purple crocuses. They are the first wild blooms I’ve seen this year.

“This is my body, given for you…”

In the evening, I am online with friends. They huddle on a couch as the sky turns to sapphire behind them. I turn on a lamp to light my face. We eat and drink and talk. I tell them that my brother-in-law’s best friend will die that night of COVID. “I thought,” he said to me, “that it would be a minor character, someone in the chorus.” A wife of their acquaintance is host to a merciless cancer. Our shoulders sag; our eyes are bleak. They ask about my writing, if it is going well, and I don’t know how to answer. I only know how to work by numbers: payroll hours, salary, word count. But I feel certain that there is another way. That is what I am seeking. We sing Lenten hymns, and the sound of our voices mingles and then climbs back inside us to where sacred things live. It sits down and closes its eyes and smiles.

Before I met Santiago, I was ignorant of spring. It was to me the season of filthy snow and dreary woods, of twigs scattered on dead lawns in the bone-chilling rain, the season of nothingness that preceded the season of dizzying heat. But Santi takes me walking in spring shoes. As Easter Sunday nears, we visit a tiny lake secreted between a railroad corridor and rows of beautiful, old houses. Some have Tudor peaks and some have Spanish tiles and one has a different clay mask hanging from each window. A hawk coasts in the sky above our heads among branches that sparkle white in the late morning light. As Santi and I approach the water, a Canada goose slips from the shade of tree roots on the bank and into the lake. She honks her displeasure again and again, like she has been forced onto the shoulder in traffic, and then settles into floating silently on the blue bobbles, among the weathered cattails.

We wander back to the sidewalks. When Santiago stops to pee on boulevard trees, I gaze up at buds about to release their tiny clutches in kaleidoscopes of leaf and blossom. Suddenly, at the sidelong limit of our vision, there is a flash of fur. We turn our heads. Santi aims his snout at a brick bungalow. He makes no noise but tugs at the leash. Underneath an arbor vitae, there is trembling. We have interrupted two rabbits at their spring business. Put off by our prurience, they hop away with great alacrity, slipping through a chain link fence into a little pool of backyard sunshine. Their courtship resumes. There is leaping and hunching and shimmying. We move on.

It is Maundy Thursday, and, in the evening, I watch a church service from my couch. Santiago is beside me. When the foot-washing occurs in the sanctuary, I go to the kitchen and run a cloth under warm tap water. I daub it with lavender soap. Santi breathes lightly as I caress his body, washing away what the wind has lodged in his fur. He withholds one foot, tucked under his torso, too tired to move. I give him a treat and turn back to the screen. The priest and the deacons remove their colorful stoles and strip the chancel. They take away the candles and the Bible and the pillows for kneeling at the remnants of the rood screen. They fold the altar cloths and cart them away. They drape the cross in black. The church looks like spring: like barren soil and empty branches and dusty stones. And then, for a long time, the priest crouches and washes the altar. I can’t explain why this makes me cry.

There is no such thing as a season of nothingness.

On Good Friday, the sky is overcast and the wind has not subsided. Santiago and I go out before breakfast. Among houses bearded with a scruff of unleafed ivy, we meet a man with an Alaskan Malamute, traveling on the opposite side of the street. The dog is large and white, his tail curled over his back. The man is slight. He stares straight ahead and pulls the dog behind him. The dog walks on tiptoes and glances back at us. His feet look too small. The teetering is how I know that his neck is wound with a collar made to choke him–a collar that is choking him. We pass a miniature greenhouse inside of which there are no plants, just a replica of a human skull, its jaws open in a howl. Underneath an awning, a woman stands at her front door drinking from a mug. She nods at us. The wind tears at lilies in a pot. A man exits the gate of a crooked fence and eyes Santiago warily. Santi rushes to smell him, wagging his tail, and the man softens. “Hey, guy,” he murmurs. Just before we reach home, I notice a painted stone at the edge of the sidewalk. It has never been there before. The words face passers-by.

The stone says, “Show Love.”

I walk a farmers’ market with a friend on Holy Saturday. All of the vendors want to talk: about bee hives and salsa verde and how ducks lay eggs. There is sunshine, and the wind calms. We order take-out and eat on the deck behind my house. Santiago lies on a blanket beside us, and my friend feeds him the crusts of her sandwich, grilled in butter.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Santi and I wake early on Easter morning. We hurry ourselves and arrive at the Mississippi at dawn. Clouds with sooty hems hang over an empty bench high upon a hillside. And then they part. Robins are everywhere: scuttering across the paths, flying from tree to tree, singing. There is a splash beside a cottonwood ringed with the buck-tooth markings of a beaver, and Santiago and I watch a brown head glide downstream, ripples of water trailing each cheek. The sun climbs, orange and mild. Three men are working beside picnic shelters, picking up trash. They wish us a good morning, and they shout and swear and laugh at each other. Hooded mergansers, regal as scepters, have returned to the river, and gold finches have shrugged off their winter drab and flit among the rustling tallgrass in lemon yellow dress. Beside a post at the border of the playground, as Santi stalks groundhog burrows, I find a golden egg.

On a narrow trail, a woman approaches us. She has long, gray hair and is accompanied by a dog. The dog is small and quiet and pulling on the leash that tethers her to the woman. Santiago is distracted by a scent in the grass. I explain our situation.

“He’s friendly,” I call out.

The woman tosses her leash to the ground. The dogs trot to each other and nose a greeting.

“The Lord is risen!”

“The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”

Late in the morning, I drive. The sun shines over the freeway. I bring to my mother and father chocolate and jelly beans. Mom and I sit in the kitchen and chat as Dad hands us plates of pretzels and egg rolls, tortilla chips and black bean dip. He tends to the food sizzling on the stove and baking in the oven, and Mom shows me the Ukrainian egg she made decades ago, the quilt she completed last year. In August, she and my dad will have been married for sixty years. I ask them to tell me things that I don’t know: about when she taught riding in the mountains of Colorado and when he was picked up in a Mustang for a job interview and had to figure out what to eat at a golf club. Mom recounts how her foot was pierced by a shaft of wood; she shows me the wound. When I get home, I text my brother and sister the stories. All of our lives we have been part of a narrative that happened above our heads.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…Then I shall understand fully, even as I have been understood.”

After Easter, the wind shifts. It rains. Earthworms by the score stretch in the gutters, and plastic eggs lie scattered in the parks, emptied of trinkets and sweets and abandoned. In a swamp, red-winged blackbirds chirr from atop the smooth skeletons of trees, and a muskrat has begun to fashion a new hut from old cattails. It showers and it drizzles and it pours, and Santiago and I walk between the raindrops, welcoming back the wood ducks and the herons. Pussy willow catkins go bushy like caterpillars. Cool air rises from the ground along with starbursts of Virginia waterleaf and needles of lily of the valley. One early morning, Santi and I board a fishing dock. I watch a man with a cigarette between his lips haul up a sunfish while Santi stares between the rails at three whitetail deer in the woods across the water. At the corners of household gardens, yellow flags of forsythia blossoms wave. A squirrel climbs a tree with a slice of pepperoni pizza in his mouth.

If there is something more hallowed than this, I do not know what it is. I turn on the computer, and I write.

Miss Santiago? You can find him rolling in the spring grass in the gallery.

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Distance

Early Sunday morning, we roam the neighborhood in a cold slush. I have rubbed Santiago’s paws with wax to protect them, but he prances gingerly, favoring snow-covered grass and eschewing the puddles that are forming along the sidewalks. The sky is white. The streets and alleys are quiet, the only sounds around us the slap of our own feet in the slurry, the drip of snow sliding off rooftops, the trickle of the dawn thaw to sewer grates.

Santiago pulls me, sniffing at wet tree trunks and black garden soil on the boulevards, heading for a wide road that I won’t usually cross with him. On this day, there is no traffic. We step onto abandoned pavement as a robotic voice in the crosswalk signal calls, “Wait! Wait!” We are heading for church bells. I listen to their clang and chime, trying to discern a tune, but I hear none. The bells simply ring–on and on and on and on and on–as we walk through the slop of snow, past the church itself, which rises modestly beside late-sleeping bungalows. There are no other dogs outside, not even in their yards. There are no other walkers, no joggers, no bicyclists. Santiago runs his nose along front yard fences. The metal tags on his collar jangle to the rhythm of his paws, the combined percussion like wire brushes on a cymbal as he moves through the slush. For more than five minutes the church bells ring, sounding a final chord at last, dissonant and sweet beneath the morning bird song. We are blocks away.

All week, the local media reports that popular city parks are congested beyond the ability of people to keep six feet of distance. Santiago and I don’t prefer those parks. We go to little, wild places. We watch returning hooded mergansers in a city drainage pond, in the rain, the black and white blockheads of the males arresting beside the honeyed mohawks of the females. We see them in a squiggle of suburban creek another day, along the river bank a third day. One gray evening, I study a bald eagle sitting high atop an elm tree behind a darkened office building. Her yellow eyes survey a tiny, one-block walking path and a brook beside which Santiago prowls on faded grass, dry as paper, while mallards float, watchful, on the water.

When Santiago is outdoors, he is nearly always at the end of a six-foot, leather leash. The dogs that he meets are nearly always discouraged from interacting with him. They are tethered to the waists of runners or yanked to the edges of the trail; they have muzzles on their snouts or they are scolded, “We don’t bark, girl; remember?”

Santiago barks. He barks when there is a rabbit in the yard at daybreak. He barks when I eat cheesecake. He barks at dogs who are bigger than he is and at dogs with cold stares. He barks at dogs who bound and waggle and at dogs with sexy trots. On lucky days, he barks at a dog whose human companion stops, content to allow the leashes to tangle as the dogs circle and inhale each other, nose to nose.

On an afternoon as blue as a robin’s egg, we visit a wetland. It sits behind a metropolitan airport, so that as we walk through a thimbleful of woods, painted biplanes fly low overhead. Pussy willow branches beside the boardwalk are bursting with soft, silver catkins that shimmer in the sunlight. Behind a scrim of old cattails, Canada geese can be heard honking, flapping, and splashing in the marsh.

Santiago is hunting. We are half-way around the trail–which hugs weathered and moss-covered trees that lean, stumped and jagged, out of the icy water–when he begins to run along a length of boardwalk. He stops short, gazing out over the water, front paw lifted. I move cautiously behind him, eyes above his, breath held, watching for what he might find. He turns back to the boardwalk and begins to run again. I follow, leashed at six feet, joined in the chase.

I am the first to spot the muskrat lodge hidden among the cattails–made of them, but caulked with mud so that it is dark among the bleached gold of last year’s stalks. I do not see it before Santi jumps off the boardwalk in search of it. I see it only after I have hauled him out, after he has experienced the giving way of water where he expected solid ground.

He never does see the muskrat. She is auburn and enjoying a bit of nosh atop a soggy log in the open water. Back and forth Santiago runs across the planks, zig-zagging from one side to the next, his black nose quivering when he pauses to assess the air. Even when I position him with the hope that he might see around a haystack of cattails, he gives no sign of triumph. He does not bark intensified desire. The muskrat slips into the water.

On Friday, we go early to a dog park. Clouds press down, scratching a train that passes slowly beside the fenced fields, the cars covered with graffiti. Santiago greets two dogs who are with one man. The canines chase each other around a pine tree, just for a minute, and then the man calls his dogs to the gate. Santiago barks at them behind the rails of the fence as they get into a car. We are alone.

After he has run his crooked run across the unsprouted prairie, and sniffed the shared water dishes and peed on the plastic chairs, I take Santi to meet someone. We visit a marker along a WWI memorial. It is the same bronze cross I always visit, carved with poppies and oak leaves, its smoky, green patina camouflaged against this moment between winter and spring. The name at the top of the cross is the most sonorous of all the names on the memorial. It belonged to a bugler. His lungs gave out in 1918.

Santiago is watching a woman on the other side of the parkway rake winter’s leavings from her yard. A black lab keeps her company. I sit on the concrete slab and place my hand on the cold cross. I come here when I need perspective. I start to speak, and I begin to cry. I had meant to bring greetings from 2020. I had meant to bring the comfort of a dog. I had meant to be hospitable. But there is water in me where I thought there was solid ground. I am full of a worry that has grown large while I was carrying files home from the office and keeping six feet from my neighbors and watching my savings dwindle and emailing everyone I love, and that worry is greedy now. I sit and I sob.

The lab moves and, across a wide boulevard, Santiago barks and wags his tail. I wipe my eyes with the tissue I carry against accidents with poop bags. My worry is not about death. It is not about money. I am lonely. I miss the person I was before I was told that I am coping with a pandemic.

“Be happy,” says the bugler.

That’s what he always says.

On Saturday, Santiago and I run lightly through the woods. We walk a chilly beach past a canoe filled with brown water. We stride into the wind, out to a lake point where we can view an island, tree-lined and slight as a scrub brush off in the distance. We meet a woman with gray braids and walking poles who smiles at Santi as he wanders the path with his nose to the ground. She says, “Puppies always have the right of way.” We stand still and listen to chorus frogs.

At home, I cup oak leaves in my hands to see if anything is coming up beneath them in the gardens. I find tiny crocus shoots and leafing Jacob’s ladder, evidence of bloodroot and primrose among the tulips and day lilies. At the end of the sump pump pipe that runs out into the back yard, the mesh cover has been knocked off by the mice so that they can come and go freely from the house.

What grass there is for a lawn is a dull yellow. But if you come in close, you can see blades of green.

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Time

Spring slips in on wet ice. On a Sunday morning, we walk before seven a.m. Santiago cries sharply from the back seat of the car as we pull up to the dog park: a plea to be let loose. He jogs the grounds alone, sniffing at the fencing, at the iron legs of a picnic table, at frozen water in a dog dish. The sky is the barely-blue of frayed denim, and the air has a chilly, winter stillness, but above our heads, birds yodel and cheep. Santi barks at the gate, satisfied with his examinations, and we walk in the woods. A new lean-to has been built there, beside a narrow footpath. Two logs inside it form a bench upon which to contemplate railroad tracks stretching west beyond the trees to where the day has hardly begun. Santiago trots and I follow, dancing as the path rises and falls, trying to slow the momentum of my heavy boots when he suddenly stops to press his nose to a root beside a mossy trunk. It will be the last day of hard-packed snow.

The rest of the week is wearying. I scribble visits to the dentist, the optometrist, the primary into the margins of my work schedule. My brother-in-law has a hospital stay. A friend of my parents dies. At the office, a salary nearly double my own is described in my hearing as insulting: an inequity of expectation that can only exist in a culture in which to be treated like a dog is to be judged to be without feelings, delicacy, or desire, as if there were grades of being. Day after day, the sun is strong but the wind is cold. Santiago and I walk in the evenings on snow that has melted and re-frozen, leaving boot moguls that are dangerously slick. Trees sway and creak. Where the snow has receded, there is sucking mud. I buy a box of compostable bags for Santiago’s poop, and the first three off the roll tear like paper through a shredder. It takes twenty-five minutes to return them.

I walk with Santiago because I love him and because he is an alchemist: because to emerge on a bitter evening in a season of disappointment from a dark underpass thick with ice to a vivid pink sunset, unexpected and lovely and hanging high across the sky, the snout of a shadowed dog aimed at it like an arrow is to make time. I did not understand this when Santi first came to live with me. I had appointments then, too, and a job, and chores, and family and friends who mattered to me, and goals that goaded. I clocked our walks, tugging at the leash with frustration as Santiago stopped to smell each un-met blade of grass, each lamppost wet with scent. In our early days, it took half an hour to circle two blocks. It was love that made me consider the wonder of a blade of grass to an animal who had been caged for his entire life. It was grace that reminded me that I am an animal. If I have learned by my salary how much the commercial world values my time on Earth, I have learned from Santiago how to be without purpose, making merry in creation, tending to the labor of my soul.

On Friday evening, Santiago is impatient with me. We are walking a parkway we’ve eschewed all winter, and I keep stopping to take pictures of the moon. It is nearly full–a bright white orb in a clear, blue sky–and the setting sun casts golden light across tree branches that hold it like a pearl set in a ring. We are ecstatic. The weekend has come and we have time. There is a dog park here, and Santi cries to be let in, but I will not allow it. The stench of ammonia in the mud is overwhelming, and there are more canines playing than Santiago can encounter without being visited by spooks from his past. He will bark warnings and foam with worry and I will have to hustle him away from the dogs he fears as people cluck and imagine that he is aggressive.

We wander north instead. A weathered bench sits at the bottom of a sloping golf course, waiting for the grass at its feet to green. A sofa lies on its back in the scrub beneath a railroad bridge. We find a rugby pitch hidden like a fairy glade, a plaque on a boulder beside it tracing its lineage to England. Santiago sniffs at copper-colored pine needles dropped under the trees. He pees on straw archery targets. He leads me across fields where the grainy snow gives beneath our feet and along dry sidewalks scattered with streams and ponds of snow melt. Netting posted far above our heads to catch stray golf balls is torn and peeled back before the moon that is glowing in an ever duskier sky. Gazing through it is like being invited into eternity.

I am sorry to see winter go. I like the quietude, the darkness, the permission to stop moving. The weather is warming. On Saturday, the lakesides are full of people who have shed their heavy coats and are wearing sunglasses. There are children in shiny, rubber boots wading through the wet snow and joggers in shorts and trainers on the puddled paths. There are women riding bikes and men pushing strollers. There are dogs of every form and hue, the midday sun lavish on their sleek and shaggy sides. I watch a man climb a tree while a woman photographs him. I watch a boy climb atop an overturned lifeboat and sing, “Row, row, row your boat…” I watch the wind push returning Canada geese sideways across the sky. Santiago jumps with all four feet upon a bush he suspects of sheltering a rabbit. Before we go home, he rolls in grass still weighted with the gray dust of winter.

That night, we move forward. I turn all the clocks an hour ahead to Daylight Saving Time. The neighborhood children have roused themselves from hibernation. They chalk the sidewalks with games, ride scooters in the street. The ones who have only just learned to walk stand on their driveways in the afternoons, their coats unzipped, their cheeks smooth, considering the blades of grass in wonder.

On Sunday evening, I take Santiago grocery shopping. He has already had a long walk by the river, but there is a tiny trail near the store, and the work week is coming: I make time for a second walk. We watch a mallard dining in a bird feeder and greet a white-haired man with a leather fisherman’s cap. The creek burbles. The sun sinks. Santi waits in the car with the windows open while I buy cereal and almonds and avocados.

I see them first as we drive home. Santiago is sitting up in the back seat, purring. There are five of them. They cannot yet be said to be tall, and their heads are free of antlers. They are in a valley that houses a couple of businesses but backs up to a park. Browsing among the landscaping, the deer relax their white tails. I pull the car to the shoulder, put on my hazard lights, and look down the hill at them. For a long minute, Santi watches in silence. The smallest deer begins to gambol and the others follow him after a fashion, moving slowly away from us, across a parking lot. Santi begins at last to make noises that sound as if I am slicing him with knives.

He sleeps that night with his princess bed delicately kneaded to provide a pillow for his head. I have washed the mud from his paws with lavender soap. He snuffles softly, his eyes closed, his nose twitching in a dream. I contemplate with wonder, as if it were gold in my pocket, his time on Earth.

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Acceptance

For two nights, Santiago and I walk in sleet. It blows in for evening rush hour: an icy spittle dampening the light that flickers a little longer each day now before sinking below the horizon. The first night, I slather Santi’s paws with beeswax and we walk on city sidewalks, in slush and over ice, across dry pavement and through snow-melt puddles black in the shadows of Tudors and bungalows. The rain strikes at my face under the brim of my cap and uncovers mushy piles of dog poop left behind in the snow. Santiago stops to sniff at each one. The air is warm for winter (too warm), and it is pleasant to see the golden light that shines within the houses as we pass, across dining room tables and over fireplace mantels, and to think about our own supper and how it will satisfy our wet and weary limbs when we return home.

The second night, we walk in a park that is hushed, amid bare basswoods and maples, where the snow begins to fall in big, wet flakes that stick to my coat, to Santi’s fur, to the path that becomes more and more white underfoot. Fog paints the sky the palest lavender. Santiago watches mallards who huddle darkly, by the dozens, in the open water of a drainage pond. Little waves plash around the ice that has formed farther out. The ducks quack quietly. Snow comes down on the tamarack trees with their spines and bubbles, tiny cones still clinging to the branches like tea roses. Inside our house, the tea rose that had lost all of its leaves to winter is gaining them again beside a south-facing window, and the shamrock, too, has resurrected a few green leaves, and one, white bloom. Around the pond as dusk descends outside, old, brown mullein stalks and burdock prickles and forks of vervain seem to breathe deeply as the snowflakes fall, as if wiggling their toes in the hard soil, testing for spring.

Santiago’s paw is healing. I sent a photo of it to Dr. Megan: there is no longer any inflammation, no hint of a wart or a tumor or a bump. “I guess he had an antibiotic deficiency,” she quips. I accept this diagnosis, knowing that each winter when the snow is very cold and the sidewalks are warty with de-icing salt Santi stops and shakes his paws in the air as we walk, that his eyes over his shoulder plead for me to remove the chemical crystals that lodge between his toes and burn his flesh. At the local hospital where salt is cast like grass seed, the grass itself is singed each spring, dead for more than a foot’s width beside every slab of concrete sidewalk on the campus. Year after year, strips of new turf are laid down.

What becomes of the groundwater? It continues to burn, I suppose, like a puppy’s unprotected paw.

We went to a new park on MLK, Jr. Day. The sky was blue and the day stretched before us. We arrived at a visitor center that formed the joint between paths leading to a meditation garden in one direction and an amphitheater in another. A sign itemizing things banned from the grounds read, “Dogs.” I hadn’t realized that our destination was not a park but a nature preserve.

A girl who cared for Santiago one weekend when I was away told me that he had peed eleven times on one of their walks. It must have been a short walk. Santi loves to leave his scent behind, and urinating and defecating are often followed by the powerful and incessant kicking of his large paws. He is hard on natural habitat. In the metropolitan area where we live, that habitat is three percent of what it was before European settlement. Three percent is the amount of fat on the bodies of people who don’t float in the water.

When we re-plant our wild world, we won’t have to be wary of dogs. Until then, Santi and I play by the rules. I took him to two parks on the way home.

When we arrived back at our driveway, it was to find it clogged with a heap and tumble of snow and ice chunks. The mounds of shoveled snow on either side of it were pocked with boot marks and snow pant skids. I parked on the street and let Santi out of the car. In one of the neighboring yards, two families of kids were playing in hoods and scarves and mittens.

A family with foster kids used to live down the block. There were two black-haired Native American boys and a tiny, blond girl who toddled after them. Neighbors suspected that they were being abused and called the authorities, who did not appear to intervene. The children were judged to be out of control, leaving candy wrappers, for example, in the street. One neighbor recounted to me how he’d once told the oldest boy in a dark voice, “I can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.” The child was eight. He’d left a toy truck in the man’s yard.

I spent nine years walking through other people’s yards on my way to school when I was a kid. I had no concept of property, and no one ever told me that I was trespassing. All of my backyard sledding was done on a hill that wasn’t in my backyard. I was never invited; I just showed up.

No one was in the parks on MLK Day, though the sun was high and the slush that moved through the Mississippi made a light and peaceful sound as it passed. The blue spruces were laden with pretty, white snow, and Santi circled each one of them, sniffing the dog tracks and the low branches brushed by sheltering rabbits. He pulled me behind him like a sled dog, eager, not just for the exploration of the landscape, but for the exhilaration of hauling a load. My hiking boots were heavy in the snow. I was sweating within my layers of clothing. After a while, I let go of the leash.

Santiago did not run away immediately. He wandered as is his custom when loosed, trotting to this tree and that snow drift for a sniff, contented in his humble freedom. He evidenced no compulsion to chase or to examine any particular thing. What seemed, instead, to come over him like a devil whispering at his back was a delight in dashing farther away from me each time I called to him, at last, to “Come!” The louder I called out the command and the more vehemently I attached his full name to it–“Santiago F. Anderson!”–the more his rump flounced as he ran from me. It was, I think, his way of laughing. He was out of control. And when, after several rounds of this call and response, he decided to return, he did so from a great distance, running as fast as he could, gaining momentum as he aimed with full speed and weight directly into my knees.

I stood still and took the hit. I like it when he plays. Why should I want to control a wild thing?

Two of the neighborhood kids had finished their games by the time I grabbed my shovel to clean up the driveway. A big sister walked her little brother home, both of them moving stiffly in their snow pants as they passed. The debris in the driveway was compacted and heavy, and frozen, now, to the curb. As I chopped and lifted it, a father opened a front door and welcomed his children inside.

On exhibit now in the gallery: photos of winter wonder.