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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.