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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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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.

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Judgement

We walk in the morning before breakfast, and Santiago grazes. As I am bent low at the waist, looking into the mostly hidden eyes of a painted turtle whose shell is wet with dew, Santi crunches with startlingly loud satisfaction at goldenrod and sunflower leaves, at blades of grass grown tall along the edge of the park trail beside the river. Every autumn stroll includes these moments: I gaze up at maple leaves mottled as they turn a vivid red or at crabapples hanging pinkly from a branch, and when I look down again, seed heads are draped over Santi’s eager snout or a slim sheath juts from his jowls like a toothpick as he chomps. Day after day, at keyboards across the internet, people type, “Why do dogs eat grass?” Day after day, Santiago harvests the salad.

In a corner of our front stoop, an orb weaver has strung a large web. She sits in the center of it, tawny and long-legged and serene. Each time I leave or enter the house, I stop and tilt my head to catch the sunlight shimmering along the rectangles and triangles and trapezoids of her home, the silken threads stitched together in a design that has the magnificent imperfection of a patchwork quilt.

One evening, a man knocks at the door. He sports a blue uniform and a cap with the prefix “eco.” I lower the glass a few inches so that I can hear him through the screen; the door remains closed. It is the hour of supper, of retiring from decisions. The man names people I’ve never heard of and gestures vaguely up the street, saying that he is working with my neighbors to manage mice and spiders and wasps. I ask if he proposes poisoning these creatures, who are also neighbors, and he replies that his company uses an all-natural product made from chrysanthemums.

The high carriage of his shoulders, the way that they are squared, suggests that he is confident that he has answered my question, that a thing made from flowers cannot be poison. I point at the web beside his head, where the long-legged beauty sits listening, and when I say that I don’t mind living with spiders, the man repeats my words–“You don’t mind living with spiders?”–then turns abruptly on his heel and leaves. I am sorry, because I did not have the opportunity to say to him, “Don’t you see how making this judgement, as if the life and death of others were a matter of personal taste, harms us all?”

Under his blue cap, he had brown skin, brown eyes, black hair.

One weekday morning, Santiago and I watch the sun rise over a lake. Though no one else is in the park, I wear a mask: at least a thousand miles from uncontained fires, the air is chalky with ash. Ducks and geese have gathered on the gray water at dawn, bobbing occasionally beneath the surface, their upturned rumps sleek and placid as the lake ripples around them. I stand at the shore among trees whose leafy branches frame the scene like wrought iron in the darkness and watch the flame-red wildfire sun lift itself slowly, like the wary eye of a painted turtle, over the still black canopy on the other side of the lake. Santi is patient. He sniffs at the sandy soil and waits, never tugging on the leash, as if he, too, needs this prayer, this incremental assertion of life painted in the very colors of death, needs, as I do, the hope of the east staring down the despair of the west. As it rises over the treetops, the sun casts a finger of light across the water. A candle has been lit. Day has begun. Nothing has stopped it.

We walk the beach. Gulls seem to fill every inch of the sky, and the sand is littered with their white feathers. Sailboats are huddled sleepily around docks, their season narrowing to a close. The sky is now pink and blue, but those hues are muted by the dust of forests and bungalows and those who dwelt in them, their souls drifting across the heavens. Santiago and I stop to watch three deer cross a trail in front of us. They move with the laziness of morning, turning their faces to ours atop long necks, their eyes wide and wondering. For a long while, Santiago is silent. When at last he wails with desire and leaps to the end of his leash, the deer take lightly to the woods on prancing haunches.

There is a police chase that morning. Far across the lake, blue and red lights spin on their own axes and speed through the semi-darkness of early day as sirens sob. It is something to behold in this place designed for sitting soundlessly beside the waves, and I watch with wide and wondering eyes. Santi and I walk back to our car among shy purple blooms of clover and gnarled old oaks. The sumac leaves have gone brilliantly red. The scuff of the earth beneath our feet is dry and autumnal, but the air that was cold in our noses and a little smoky has warmed and greened. At home, I hear on the radio that a police chase has resulted in the capture of a murder suspect.

How does one judge the goodness of a morning?

I’ve been reading the woolly bear caterpillars wrong. It is the black bands that are said to predict the length and ferocity of winter, not the rusty red around the middle. It is hard to find two woolly bears who agree, in any case; they are various and splendid in their creeping. There is an early cold snap. I spend a weekend sealing drafty windows that have been sealed before and are gaping anew. I bring inside the house the ficus and the hibiscus and the lemon tree that I’ve been growing from a seed plucked from a rind destined for the compost pile. I move the furniture to make room for the plants at the windows. I fold the yellow and blue seaside quilt of summer into the armoire and drape the couch with the orange and brown leafy quilt of autumn. My neighbor delivers a box of apples from her tree, and I make galettes and a crisp. The evenings descend earlier. There is pleasure in the light and scent of a candle burning as Santiago snores and the world outside settles.

Autumn is not a time of dying. It is a time of bringing life in close.

On a Saturday, Santiago and I greet the day at a farmer’s market. I wrestle the first pumpkins of the season into a sack, along with maple-walnut biscotti for me and ginger-peanut-butter biscuits for him. We have put on weight, but we are not managing that today. We are adventuring. We drive to two parks that we have never visited before. One has hanging bridges, a fungus like a cocktail apron wrapped around a tree, and a young man looking under the hood of a car in a driveway off an alley. Santi watches the man with interest. He is slim and handsome, and he doesn’t move as he considers the engine. When he turns at last to Santiago’s fixed eyes and the tail held high in hopes of being noticed, the man asks if the dog would like to help. The second park has a winding boardwalk flecked with yellow cottonwood leaves, cattail fluff that makes Santiago sputter, and a rock painted with the letters, “Be You tiful,” and left in the crook of a tree.

A week earlier, we met a woman. She was small and had white hair. She walked between two shepherd dogs, so large that they seemed like horses to her chariot. When she saw Santiago and me on the opposite side of the street, she reined them to a stop. There they stood, the three of them, motionless and staring, until Santi lifted his nose from the ground he’d been happily sniffing, whined nervously, and then barked.

“Geez!” said the woman with distaste, in a voice meant to be heard.

Santiago and I have been together five years this month. We have experienced this too many times. I never say anything. I am tired.

“It’s not all right for him to be scared of your dogs?” I ask.

To anyone who has walked down the street minding her own business and seen from the corner of her eye two men coming from the opposite direction who slow their pace and then stop, who lean against a wall and watch her; to anyone who has felt a coldness in her stomach, knowing that the men are rolling around in their mouths the words that they are going to spit at her when she passes; to anyone who has experienced the black silence in their eyes that will lurch out and grab her when there is no where to escape to, it is clear what is happening with dogs who are taught to stop and stare at other dogs.

“He’s aggressive!” shouts the woman.

I cannot abide this. “Nope. He’s not. I know multiple vets who will tell you different.”

We are walking. The woman continues to stand with her dogs, holding her ground.

“He’s reactive!”

It’s a slur–reactive–a word used by people who control the animals whom they live with as if those animals had no right to respond to the stimuli around them.

What makes a woman think that she requires two military guard dogs, each nearly as large as she is, in order to walk in the world on a sunlit morning? What makes her so sure that she is under attack?

Santiago is calm. We have continued to amble, and he lost interest in the shepherds immediately after we passed them. He is leading me down a hillside to a lake ringed with false asters.

“You might want to try being friendly!” I shout to the woman.

It may not have been my best moment. I recuse myself from judging.

The traditional five-year anniversary gift is wood, and that suits us. On Sunday morning, we walk in the woods around a lake basin. The weather is warming again, and it is dry. Wind rustles the cottonwood leaves and the acres of cattails where once there was water. Fallen ash tree leaves are slivered like bits of gold along the wood chip trail, and woodpeckers and nuthatches hop up and down the trunks of trees. A stand of purple loosestrife is growing, illicit and lovely.

It is after we have been walking for fifty minutes, when we are nearly back to the little lot in which we have parked the car, that we follow a trail that I have always believed to lead to a suburban street: a dead end. I have judged wrong. We walk for almost two more hours on trails that follow a shallow creek to a pond filled with wood ducks. We listen to the ping of an aluminum bat hitting a ball as a man pitches to a small boy in a back yard. Santiago sashays off the path and finds a dog park with a steep, grassy slope glowing in the September sunshine, and nobody inside. He explores the scents along its wooden fence posts, charging me occasionally to express his joy, and then repeatedly rolls on his back when a Border Collie arrives, trying to interest her in what he has to offer.

She is cool. It is still a fine day.

On our anniversary, I buy an electric fireplace. The window seals may not hold. We are older than we once were, Santiago and I, and, despite our extra pounds, the cold gets to us. Workers at the store put the box into my back seat because it won’t fit in my trunk, and when I get home I have to flag down a man in a city truck to help me get it out. I haul the fireplace inside, unpack it, put it together, and spend an hour trying to figure out if it really doesn’t work or if I haven’t understood how to operate it. I put it back in the box, tape it shut, and put it in the trunk, which can’t be closed while I drive it slowly back to the store.

I react with tears. I call my sister and leave her a message. I am frustrated by my own anxious need.

Santiago and I go walking. It is Monday, and I’ve taken the day off from work. We go to the dam, where we go each year to celebrate the great luck and profound delight of our friendship. The woods are quiet. The oaks are turning orange and red. The lindens drop yellow leaves as wide as my palm and, now and then, a chipmunk crosses our path. Where the sun shines down into the foliage, Virginia creeper is lipstick red or drunken burgundy. Pale purple asters are crawling with bees in a field before a ring of birches. Like many of the parks we have visited this year, there are places where the short, dry grass has been over-trampled, leaving little but soil and pebbles at picnic grounds or fishing promontories.

A man and a woman sit on a bench overlooking the river. They wear masks and dark sunglasses. They are old. The woman claps when she sees Santiago. She leans forward and smiles. Santi runs into her lap and she rears back a little, unsure, then strokes his head and laughs as he wags his tail. “Have a good day!” she says to us in accented English.

The world forms around us. We create the peace and joy that we expect to find.

Santiago’s nose is quivering. We have come to a sunny glade and he is sniffing the air. For a long while, he does this, until I tug him back to the dappled woods, to where the ancient oaks cling to the riverbank that has fallen away beneath them. Santi begins to run. We are on the trail of something, probably a deer. He diverts onto a footpath through dense woods. I watch my feet to avoid tripping over a tree root and crouch to keep from being slapped by branches.

Suddenly, Santiago stops. He has gulped something from the forest floor.

“Leave it!” I demand.

He does.

It’s a hot dog bun. There is a pile of them and, nearby, a pile of unblemished apples.

This is what we were hunting. This is what someone judges to be food for animals.

When we get home, there is a text from my sister. Her husband is going to buy me an electric fireplace and put it together. I am to choose the color. I will sit beside it in winter, with my beloved at my side. The flames will glow and our bodies will be warm and the good life will be very close.

To see a giant spider and other fall pics, visit the gallery.

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Joy

It is winter, so Santiago is injured. He began to limp last night, immediately upon touching pavement for an evening walk. Draping a rear paw across the cold air, he hobbled three-legged in the lamplight, not wanting to forfeit the pleasure of nosing at neighborhood snow banks and tree trunks and garbage cans daubed with scent. I took the favored paw in my hand and found what I find each year: a pad from which the top layer of skin had been stripped.

I am careful: we drive to parks most days and nights in this season, rather than strolling from home, to avoid the chemical salt that speckles sidewalks to melt the snow. Still, the salt and the street brine and the swampy black traffic slush all do their work: wearing out the flesh underfoot. I walk Santi only as long as it takes for him to release his bowels, then harness him into the back seat and drive to the grocery store to buy sterile pads and gauze and duct tape for a dressing. Scattered in front of the pharmacy entrance are piles of white salt.

The next day is Saturday. The work week in winter offers only two days for walking in daylight. I re-dress Santiago’s foot in the morning, wrapping it tightly in duct tape so that it will not slip off like a boot. We drive to the river.

It is early when we arrive. The woods along the shore are covered in white snow in which the divots of old footprints are pearl gray, like the sky. A cozy smell of wood smoke drifts across the water–a January smell. The winter birds chatter in their modest, cheerful way. For most of our time here, we are alone. We’ve left behind two women with a little black brush of a dog, and not until we return to the parking lot will we see a man placing a tripod camera into a hatchback. For a moment, we are joined by a hawk, but she, too, disappears.

The dressing on Santiago’s paw makes a sound as he moves over the hard-packed snow like the sound of a diapered child crawling across the floor. It is slippery, and this leg repeatedly skids off in a separate direction from the other three but does not slow him down. He jogs, stopping only to pee in haste where his nose invites him to. I jog with him, the two of us leashed together within the air that is perfectly chilly, upon the landscape that is buttercream white, among the trees resting with their eyes open all around us.

I have lived most of my life under the apprehension that joy is an accident, that one stumbles upon it as one does a dollar bill stuck in spring mud.  I think now that I have been wrong; for, it seems to me now that joy is a choice enacted.  When Santiago pulls me down a snowy trail, branches scraping at my cap and burrs catching on my coat; when the sun behind the clouds is faint like a moon, and tiny clawed prints suggest that we are tracking a raccoon to the marsh; when the trees are hung with moss and ice beside the silvered beaches; when the dog tugs hard over the hump of a footbridge and onto a hushed trail deep within woods where we have never been, it is as if a person one had made love to many times had closed his eyes and revealed a scar that one had never noticed.

I make Santiago accompany me to the beach. He prefers snow-covered savanna to driftwood and sand. But he acquiesces, and we walk to the lip of ice that meets the lapping of the open river. Santi pauses to consider whether there may be beasts in that gentle coursing, or whether the water is, itself, a moving beast. Apprehending nothing upon which to pounce, he turns back to the rocky shore, and I let go of his leash. He trots to a tree whose roots have been exposed by high water and erosion. Each tendril is decorated with snow and among the crevasses something lives. Santiago sniffs and digs, racing around the large trunk, trying to find his way in to the den of scent. He is happy. I pick up a pebble, rough and sepia and white, like the day.

On the way home, the car heater is on. Santi sits up in the back seat, facing the vents, and purrs. I drive along as many parkways and beside as many parks as I can find, going 25 mph, both of us gazing out the windows. I will put a fresh dressing on his foot, looser. I will put baby aspirin in his food. He will sleep on the couch in the afternoon, while the sun briefly shines. We have made our day’s joy.