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Dependence

On a warm, Sunday morning, a gray sedan stops in the middle of a suburban street. A man exits the driver’s side, takes a few steps, then lobs a folded newspaper onto the walk in front of a two-story house with a garden etched into a hillock above the curb. As the man gets back behind the steering wheel, Santiago heads for the paper as if he has been invited to a game of fetch.

Santi is alert to men in cars. He has attempted to board city buses, mail delivery trucks, contractor vans. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t wag his tail at a guy getting into or out of a pick-up. He once leapt into the passenger seat beside a stranger eating take-out with the car door open; the man laughed and gave him chicken and waffles. In Mississippi, Santiago was picked up twice as a stray. He was reclaimed twice. Finally, he was deposited at a local shelter. He was skinny. He had bloodshot eyes and pressure sores and a yet-to-be-discovered case of heartworm disease. He is a dog who has been dependent upon the good will of the universe. He has believed in it fiercely–and courted it–and more than once it has revealed itself in the form of a man in a van. On the day that I brought Santi home from the animal shelter here in Minnesota, I had to cajole him out of the trunk of my car. When I popped the lid to deposit a bag of dog food, he jumped inside. He sat there with his eyes gleaming, waiting for the adventure to begin.

It is Independence Day, and we are wandering together in our neighborhood. It is already hot. We leave the newspaper behind. A strong south wind makes the leaves overhead flutter and sough, and where red, white, and blue flags have been hoisted, they are wrapped around poles. At a tennis court, a woman with silver hair and a man with a gently protruding belly chase a ball with lassitude as they chat. Parents and toddlers stand under streams of water at a splash pad near picnic tables scattered with firecracker remnants. Santiago and I take our places in the summer tableau, sitting for a spell on a street corner, our faces to the wind. Several blocks away, a church carillon plays, “Morning Has Broken.”

Never is there a day without glory.

We head home through a field of dormant grass and bindweed. The latter is also known as wild morning glory and is considered noxious. It requires other plants for stability, vining and generating great carpets of its own kind. There is little for it to clutch here, only stunted stalks of purple clover. Still, it blooms with pretty, white flowers in this parkland that over-mowing and a scalding sun have stripped of most other vegetation.

What tiny, blooming thing will we miss when the plants that are left on Earth no longer have the strength to pull rain down from the sky?

Beside our house, Joe-Pye weed is high and readying its flowers. Sprawling red sedum has pink blossoms. Every day now, I pick raspberries. In the absence of rain, these plants depend on me to slake their thirst. I have potted plants, too: hibiscus, ficus, and lemon trees and a purple shamrock, all of whom have wintered in the house for years, such that a priest I know referred to them plainly and truthfully as my friends. They are glossy and blooming, while this year’s tomato plant has rooted itself into the soil beneath its pot and dangles three, tiny beads of green fruit. The pumpkin plants salvaged from the neighbors’ compost have great, gold blossoms, and I begin to wonder whether they may, in fact, be zucchinis. The universe will provide. I worry about the water table, which, like the plants, depends on me. As one bleats for generosity, the other pleads for restraint. And yet, the ways in which the soil is distinct from the water, the water from the clouds, the clouds from me are very slight. We are amalgamations of dust and spirit. I extend care. I don’t know of a better approach.

A week ago, it rained. On Saturday, there were drops that whispered faintly like children at a slumber party, so gossamer that it took them hours to dampen the sidewalks. For all their shyness, they were a mercy: a thing prayed for and delivered. The next morning, gray sky persisted. Santiago and I walked around a lake. Near the shore, stalks of water dock had gone orange from dehydration, their seeds like rusty nail heads. Where the lake had receded, a rocky beach grinned. A fish jumped, breaking the quiet as he slapped back through the surface of the water.

The rain that came then was unpredicted. It started ten minutes after Santiago and I left home and lasted for thirty minutes, soaking my shirt and pouring off the brim of my cap. The air became cool, and we were the only people outside. The shower shook blossoms from catalpa trees and ruffled the feathers of two crows who sat on a telephone wire, a church steeple piercing the sky behind them. At the edge of a prairie restoration, I photographed black-eyed Susans and foxtail barley grass and young oak trees sprung up amid the Canada rye. When I turned around, Santiago was eating goldenrod. He loves goldenrod. The clouds exhausted themselves and drifted away. Wet linden trees filled our nostrils with the scent of their wrung-out sprays, and rabbits appeared on lawns. A skateboarder wiggled down the street like a garter snake. From the lampposts and eaves, drops of gratitude lingered, falling from my fingertips and from Santiago’s slick fur with a kind of effervescent music.

We’ve always liked walking in the rain.

The farm from which I purchased a CSA share has had a downpour, but my neighbor’s CSA farm has not. I pass on a head of buttercrunch lettuce. I learn how to make kale chips, and Santi trots into the kitchen when they come out of the oven, begging. I learn how to make kohlrabi fritters, and after I’ve plated them with plain yogurt and freshly cut basil, he sits beside my chair with long strings of drool hanging from his jaws. I share these things, but I keep the sugar snap peas–plump and crunchy in a bowl of ramen–for myself. Santiago got an extra walk the afternoon that we picked them up, and a bite of the peach-pecan-maple scones left on the porch with a cheerful note.

This plentitude of food and the pleasure that it brings co-exists with ostrich ferns beside the front stoop that have turned a sickly green from the heat and the drought. It co-exists with a customer at the grocery store who tells me–after I have sanitized my hands and ladled mashed potatoes from a buffet into a paper container–that I ought to have worn plastic gloves. I wonder if she knows that when the rain comes, it is speckled with plastic. My father is hospitalized for three days. His phone is not charged, and there is a time when my family is keenly aware of our vulnerabilities: the ways in which we depend upon technology and strangers, our bodies and each other. One morning, Santiago and I walk past a small, stone angel placed beneath a lush and towering white pine over which the sun is rising red from Canadian wildfires. That is what this summer is like: lavish and kind and terrifying.

I have learned that there is a third way when I am troubled, that when confronted with things that I wish were otherwise, I do not have to choose between resignation or resistance, that there is always, in every circumstance, much that is right, that I can, instead, choose joy. And so I sit under the shade of a sour cherry tree on a hot night and watch Santiago play with a puppy named Juniper. Her big paws and the soft, gray mask across her face make her look like his own, little lass. On a walk, I marvel at a spider web catching the light and a picnic table placed in the blue water of the lake. At a farmers’ market, I smile as a couple with ropy, old necks and dark sunglasses takes a selfie sharing a root beer float. When a doe lifts her head beside a dog park that is empty but for Santi and me, it is a gift; though he cannot clear the fence, Santiago chases her without tether and is happy. I buy ice cream for the neighborhood kids who have stayed out of my gardens–even when losing their balls amid the plants–and I visit their lemonade stand, buying a cup each for me and for Santi. In the mornings, we squash mulberries on the city sidewalks, and, in the evenings, we lie on our deck, the day’s warmth coming into our bones, watching tiger swallowtails flit through the leaves high above our faces.

Never is there a day without grace.

A chilling rain falls, and Santiago and I sleep with the windows open. At dawn, we drive to a park we haven’t visited for a while. Santi snoozes in the car, his chin on the arm rest, but he opens his eyes and purrs when I exit the freeway. At the park, in the cool, morning air, he runs. The sky is gray, and, for the first time in many weeks, I am wearing a jacket. Herons and egrets and cormorants are roosting in the swamp among dead trees and prickly wands of rattlesnake master. Green frogs call, their voices like the pluck of strings. On a path through the woods, a bicycle lies on its side, and nearby two people are gathering wild raspberries. The first acorns have fallen beneath the oaks. Over a hillside covered with wildflowers, a transmission tower climbs up and disappears into a fog.

We walk to the swimming beach. Foam is scattered across the sand, and buoys bob in the water. A mist rises from the waves. On the dock, someone has left a fishing cap. A woman watching the wind blow the mist toward the shore turns to us.

“It’s so beautiful,” she says.

When my father is home again, I sit at the piano and sing a hymn of thanks. A friend emails to say that her teenaged son needs heart surgery. I wish it would be otherwise. But, of course, we are all dependent upon others for the well-being of our hearts. I go to a nursery and buy some coneflowers and coreopsis, pots of little bluestem and hen and chicks, a burning bush. I spend a morning digging out the ferns who will never again be contented in a landscape stripped of the oak trees that they depended upon for shade. Things change. But this is what joy engenders: the love needed to minister in the face of change.

Sunset comes now before nine p.m. Santiago and I learn to sleep through the fireworks that shoot off every night, despite the holiday having passed. On a Saturday morning, we go to the Mississippi River. Smoke from over the border gives the sky a dirty tint and triggers my asthma. The river is so shallow that a man and a child are fishing in the middle of its half-mile expanse. They have crossed from shore to sandbar to rock bed to stand in the sun-sparkle and cast a line. Every beach is a moonscape of previously submerged stones and emergent vegetation, the latter more vivid growing in the mud than the trees higher up the banks, which are a faded olive and dun. I pick up a mollusk shell that is nearly as large as my cupped hands. At the water’s edge, a bald eagle is surrounded by crows cawing with excitement, and when we walk to the prairie, swallows lift and loop over our heads like they are writing cursive messages in the sky. Santi catches sight of a white squirrel and stalks her, suspicious that she is a cat, and a paddling of ducks advances slowly before a boat being launched into the water.

Never is there a day without beauty.

To see Santiago and Juniper, and other joys 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.