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Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We laugh and laugh.

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

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

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

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

He pauses.

“It’s a miracle,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a miracle.

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

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Unearthed

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

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

It is all so beautiful. It undoes me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peace

On Sunday morning, I wake before five and crack open a bedroom window. Outside, it is cool and dark and quiet. Santiago is on the couch downstairs, where he sleeps when he requires a rest undisturbed by my tugging at quilts, my twitching in dreams. I crawl back into bed and close my eyes. I listen to the wind chuffing the leaves. It is breathy and low, like the murmuration that Santi makes when he wants his chest scratched. It is the only sound I hear. All around me, I feel the weight of slumber: in my body, in the houses on the block, in the roots of trees, in the air itself, as if it rushes to reach its bed before sunrise. The street where the leaves gather in the gutter will not be illuminated for two more hours. I fall back to sleep.

Halloween decorations have begun to appear in the neighborhood. Santiago and I encounter skeletons reclining on Adirondack chairs, spiders engulfing mailboxes, enormous yellow cat eyes glowing in a front window, and wraiths and ghouls in purple and gray hanging from crabapple trees. There are pumpkins on stoops and smiling scarecrows, and real crows cawing at the dawn. Here and there, late-blooming dandelions with perfectly round seed heads spring up from dry lawns. Along the parkway, I reach up one morning to touch the soft needles of a red pine and notice a broken twig from which a trickle of clear sap hangs frozen like a teardrop.

Winter is biding its time.

I text a photo of the skeletons to my niece. She loves the spooky season.

My sister and her husband pull up to the curb outside the house one weekend. They unload the electric fireplace that they purchased for me–as Santiago wiggles his hips and prances around the living room, pressing his black nose into palms and thighs. He misses people. We plug in the fireplace and clap at the flickering orange flames, the facsimile of charred logs, the purr of warm air. I am reminded of a tortoiseshell cat I loved before I loved Santi. Her name was Inez, and she slept on the electric radiators in the condo we shared. During those winters, when I smelled singed fur, I would find her crouched on the metal conduit behind the futon, her eyes wide and defiant, her tiny, almost fleshless bones warm in a way that her luxurious coat could never manage. She is buried in the back yard here, along with her sister.

We drive to the farmer’s market, the three of us, while Santiago stays behind, mournful. We wear our masks and roll down the car windows. We park in a handicapped space because there is a cane among us, and a fragile heart. It isn’t just the pandemic that makes us do things differently: we have aged. We do not walk all the avenues of the market or visit each of the stalls. We move slowly, letting the crowd flow around us, and we know what we want. It is our changing that gives us peace. My sister buys leeks and potatoes and beans to make a soup, and I buy a lop-sided pumpkin to put beside a pot of mums in the garden. When we are weary, we head to an unhurried suburban street and eat doughnuts on the square before finding our feet again. We shop, and my brother-in-law buys a book; my sister, a mug; and I, a shawl. They are not things that we need. They are mementos of our exhilaration. We are with each other, out in the world, and we do not take our giddiness for granted.

After they go home, Santiago lies on the deck in muted sunshine and gnaws a beef bone that I bought him at the market. Rain is predicted, but it doesn’t come. Long before sunset, we fall asleep together on the couch, the fireplace purring at our feet.

The days bounce like a kid on a pogo stick between startling cold and exceptional heat. Early one morning, Santiago and I go to a park where the frost on an acre of blue-green cattails surrounded by turning oaks and maples is so beautiful that it makes me hold my breath. Santi trots with glee in the cold. We love this weather. But his pace is no longer the frenetic one of the two-and-a-half-year-old pup I met, the one who had lived his entire life in a cage. When we come to a rocky slope that we must descend–the trail narrow between saplings and brush–I let go of his leash to avoid losing my balance. Santi clambers down but stops a few feet ahead of me and looks back from beneath silvered eyebrows. He waits for me to reach him and to grab the leather strap draped over his back. He is not as interested as he once was in venturing out alone.

As the sun shines upon the frosted earth and vegetation begins to gleam wetly all around us, I watch swamp swallows hop the lily pads in a pond. Santiago sniffs at rushes along the edge of the water until half a dozen wood ducks take flight. Behind the crown of conifers in the woods, the waning moon is crisp and white in a glad blue sky.

Two days later, it is 80ºF. I can’t remember the last time it rained. When we go walking, Santi’s hind legs kick up puffs of concerning, gray dust. Migrating Canada geese settle on wrinkled mud flats that once were running creeks. In the yard, the rhododendron leaves are curling and the white cedar has developed droopy, copper foliage. Every other day, my throat burns, and I wonder if I have developed an autumn allergy or caught the coronavirus. Then I note once more the beige film that coats the clouds: the wildfire debris that blows in and out of town on the shifting winds.

But in the side garden, delicate asters are blooming beside pretty, pink sedum, and on the boulevard, zinnias as high as my shoulders unfurl in a profusion of fuchsia and orange, lilac and crimson. I’ve planted native seeds beneath them, in the ground where the zinnias will die and to which they will not return. I haul a hose around the yard after supper one evening and water everything: the trees, the gardens, the lawns where I’ve scattered fescue and clover seed. A neighbor wanders home from an autumn walk. The sun is sinking behind the house. We stand in the street and talk about God, about making peace with uncertainty.

One afternoon, as I sit at the office laptop in my kitchen, working listlessly, with anxiety about the chores to be done on that little screen and the chores to be done in my home and yard, with worry about the future, which is presented, hour by hour, as a problem to be solved, there is a sudden movement in the sunshine outside my glass door. A white dove lands on the railing of my deck and looks at me. My eyes widen. She flies away.

This past Saturday, my brother texted that he has watched his first Christmas movie of the season. Our family has understood, of course, that, for the first time in our lives, we will not be together for the holidays. We have fragile hearts, burning throats, and cold bones to take care of and, for now, that is best done in our own households. And so there is a need to find solace, to reconsider where joy and meaning reside if not in the places where we boxed them up and stored them last year.

Santiago and I walk. We walk in the magnificent, cool mornings when the sun rises behind wisps of lavender clouds, and in the warm, happy evenings that smell of wood smoke and toasted marshmallows. We take in hillsides burnished with golden light and unearthly purple asters and rabbits grazing in the shadows. We marvel at red squirrels twining themselves around neighborhood trees and deer who stop to watch us, unafraid, and we amble across empty, river beaches and sigh to see the scores of passing waterfowl. Now and again we tussle, as I stop to photograph yellow cottonwood leaves floating in a beam of sunshine or a blue heron posed in a naked tree and Santiago stops to munch on grass or nose at piles of leaves beside the trail. The splendor overwhelms us. We walk for hours when we can, visiting prairies where the switchgrass has gone blond and blowsy and still ponds that reflect the colors of the trees like jeweled necklaces.

Christmas has come early this year.

If you need to unwrap spectacular solace, you can find photos of Santiago and autumn in Minnesota in the gallery.

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Freedom

These are the dark days of summer. For two weeks, the temperature is six or seven degrees above average, with nights that simmer. I move through the house like I am praying the hours, flipping blinds and draping shutters, following the migration of the sun from east to west, dimming the radiance in order to slow the stifling build-up of heat.

It is a liturgy allowed by the pandemic. When I work at the office, I am encased in a cubicle that admits no interaction with the unbridled world. I cannot see blue sky. I cannot see gathering clouds. I cannot see snow that has accumulated in the parking lot, nor tire tracks that waver nervously through the colorless depth as flakes continue to fall blurrily across the scene, like scratches on an old photograph. I can see only my coworker at her desk, and a dark hallway with a waxed floor that shines under the hard light, and photographs of Santiago, in the tallgrass and at the shore, pinned to my wall.

Now that the old oak is gone, the metal and glass doors from which Santi and I exit for our morning walk are white hot by the time we return. A bare-skinned hand or hip is liable to receive a welt if it lingers too long. In the wee, wooded yard behind the house, mushrooms grow on the back door mat in the stubborn humidity. I take sponge baths, unable to stand the steam of a shower or a soaking in the tub. I sleep on top of the blankets of the bed, next to Santiago, who stretches out in torpor as if he cannot cool himself, who laps lavishly from the old cat bowl that I keep for him under the night stand. I wake to fireworks, to sirens, to the resentful bawl of speeding cars without mufflers, to the fights that people have in the early morning hours on the street: the sounds of summer darkness.

My sister and her family arrive Independence Day weekend. We have not seen each other since Christmas. We wear masks, and we meet outside the house, on the deck in the back yard. Santiago joins us. His antics are a physical expression of the giddiness that we, too, feel in our gathering. He dashes across the length of the deck and then stops so suddenly that his claws scrape the paint on the wooden planks. He holds his body in a low crouch, looking up at us. He feints to the right, tossing his snout. He feints to the left, casting his hips. And then he lifts off, raising his body, racing to the edge of the deck, and leaping over the stairs and into the garden. He makes a gymnastic turn in the grass and runs back up the stairs, then sits, the tip of his tongue hanging out of a smiling mouth. Superdog, I call him. He pants for a moment, then starts the routine again. At long last, playmates have arrived.

I am babysitting a chrysalis for the children next door. They have had four caterpillars in a small, mesh terrarium, and three have transformed and taken flight. The children have chosen a spot on the deck to place the little bag, and they have picked and eaten raspberries from my bushes, and they have gone away for the weekend. As I chat with my sister, our chins sweating beneath our masks, my niece says that there is no chrysalis in the terrarium. There is a Monarch, clinging to where a pouch like pewter had hung the night before. When I unzip the bag, the butterfly does not move. His wings are as brilliant as a sunset over a rocky coast, his legs as fine and strong as a dancer’s. I take a picture and send it to the kids. The next time I look, the butterfly is gone.

I do not feel like I am in a lockdown. I am not suffering under quarantine. I have a home and a job and a car and a yard. I am watching lives beyond my own being niggled down to the size that I have preferred mine to be. I used to sit alone in a car in the mornings, watching anxiously for the driver who would cut me off when I needed to cross three lanes to reach my exit. Now, Santiago and I regularly run into the neighbor across the alley: she chatters cheerfully to the daughter she pushes before her in a stroller, and we stop to greet one another as the sun climbs the sky. Each day, the dog and I listen for the thunk at the door that will mean that the mail carrier has come, with his skinny legs and merry eyes, letters and magazines. One afternoon, the neighbor across the street texts that she has left a box of freshly picked basil and thyme and Queen Anne’s lace on my front stoop.

I am not alone. I am cloistered. I live in a community, and my work is to see God in these faces: in the neighbors whose cigarette smoke drifts into my windows, in the cats who leave bird bones in the yard, in the spiders who rebuild their webs, day after day, beside my front door. My work is to hold loosely to property and to expectations. My work is to tip my head and shake it until a freight of distractions drops loose from my ear and is left to rot back into soil so that I can hear once more. There is poverty to hear, and injustice, and birdsong, and joy.

The trees along the parkway glint with sunlight as my sister’s family and I drive to get gelato. The heat presses down upon us, unmoved by wind. We spoon and lick our treats at a picnic table in the shade, admiring in the driveway of a house across the way a school bus that has been decoupaged with groovy colors. My brother-in-law is walking with a cane, the result of a bad fall. We are mindful of risk in a burdensome new way, and the soberness of that risk is what makes us so elated by our freedom. I stand six feet away from these people whom I love and smile into the camera as I take a picture of them, behind me, all of us framed together.

When we have finished our treats, we visit a WWI memorial. My sister and I descend from an Englishman who made it home from the Western Front. We photograph the flag pole and rest on the cool marble beneath it with our water bottles. My brother-in-law is proud of his slow walking as we wander over to Abraham Lincoln, who stands hidden nearby among pines and magnolias, the icon of another war. Before they leave town, I take the family to a bakery that sells doughnuts like sweet, chewy clouds. Its windows are masked with plywood. A couple of blocks away, an auto repair shop has been gutted by fire. It is the same throughout the neighborhood. Sometimes the wood says, “Black Owned.” Sometimes it says, “Justice for George.” Sometimes there is nothing but a frightened peep of a scrawl, hope amid risk: “We’re open.”

I am driving home from a park with Santiago one hot morning when I see that a man is in the yard with the six-foot-tall Virgin of Guadalupe paintings. The paintings change like the weather, but they are always vibrant: teal and yellow and red, and glimmering with the brilliance of the sun and the moon. They are peaceful: with downcast eyes and clasped hands and shoulders that bear the world, and featuring a cherub to boost the train of the holy maiden’s garments. It is the image that the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, left inside the cloak of an Aztec peasant: Juan Diego, the first indigenous saint. I turn the car around. I talk with the artist, whose name is Harold. There is a painting of the Archangel Michael on the lawn, but Harold says that his call is to paint the Virgin of Guadalupe. He offers me a drawing. I pay him twenty dollars, and I tack the drawing on the wall in the study near where I write.

“Let it be unto me according to thy word.” That is what Mary said to the angel who told her that she was pregnant, accepting without dissent what was delivered into her life. She was free.

Santiago holds loosely to property. I buy him new clothes: an orange collar, a buffalo plaid harness, a long, black leather leash. I can tell from the way that he prances when I fit him that he doesn’t just think that he is going outside; he thinks that he looks handsome. He does: clean and natty. It takes him one day to get the harness pocked with stickseed, which has transfigured now in mid-summer from tiny white blossoms into bright, green burrs at the edge of every wood that we traverse.

But Santiago is a handmaiden of the Lord. He accepts the burrs on his new clothes as the work of the universe at its planting and as the price of a life well lived. He is open and hopeful, attuned to what the world is presenting, even as it changes, upending our expectations. We are in a familiar forest early one Saturday morning when I imagine from the vigor of his sniffing and his trotting that we are tracking a deer. I am puzzled when we reach the top of a hill and come upon a camper among the birch trees, with white geese padding about beside it. A large area has been cordoned by a rope fence, and I follow Santi, cursing its ruination of the landscape.

And then I see the goats: a dozen of them at first, away from the fence and browsing in the dark wood with its gentle shafts of dawning sun. Santiago is pulling, eager to get closer. We follow the curving path and encounter at least a dozen more goats, in every shade and pattern, doing the things that goats are famous for–standing on logs, butting heads–so that the moment is astonishing, like something staged for the cinema. Santi barks at last. He cannot contain his excitement and jams his head and front paws through the fence, so that I have to disentangle him as he shouts and stick a flopping post firmly back into the ground. The goats are silent, but they have run toward the rope, not away from it. They are watching us with small, black eyes at the tops of their long faces, their horns as expressive as arched eyebrows, curious about what the day has brought them.

Later, we find the signage: the goats are clearing the underbrush. They are chewing down to the root what is harmful, making space for healthy, new life.

On a weekday morning, the heat begins, at last, to pass. Raindrops fall so delicately upon the surface of the local lake that the sound of them is almost imperceptible underneath the whoosh of distant traffic. Santiago and I walk beside houses whose chimneys are covered in creeping vines; where U.S. flags flap in front yards and coneflowers in worn purple and dusty red and faded gold decorate the gardens; where church steeples lean against clouds the color of a chrysalis about to release a Monarch. Santi grazes on wet grass. The rain dampens my hat, my sleeves. It falls on Santi’s back and parts the fur on his snout so that the spots on his skin show through. It dirties our feet. We do not expect otherwise.

More scenes from summer, including Santi with the goats, in the gallery.

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Celebration

1.

We begin celebrating on the Saturday before Santiago’s birthday. It is not yet 7:00 a.m. when we arrive at the dam. The blue sky is woven with thin strips of white clouds like a bolt of freshly pressed gingham, unfurled. It is fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature is rising. We make our way into the park above a marsh where the water is high and dark between papery, old cattails that catch the golden light of morning. Canada geese churn the water into waves: chasing, honking.

We walk to a half-swallowed beach where Santiago presses his snout into a hole in the bank. He is motionless and thoughtful as he inhales. After a moment, he raises his head, inches his paws down the crumbling soil, and sniffs the river: someone has been here.

I take him deep into the woods, which are beginning to green. The river disappears. The paths are narrow and the light is low. It is quiet. I am gazing with admiration at vines, not yet leafed, that drip from the trees. I am listening to hear if there are sounds in this forest, if the rivulet of water beside us moves with a din any louder than the blood in my ears. I trip on an exposed root and fall, muddying my leggings and the palms of my hands. Santiago looks back at me and waits as I drop the leash and pull a tissue from my pocket to wipe myself clean. When I stand, a barred owl hoots, its call lilting and ethereal, childlike and dangerous, like something out of a fairy tale.

We re-enter the sunlight. Tree swallows flit and dive across the meadow. Along the path that Santi and I are traveling, a northern flicker looks for food, all of our shadows sharp on the mown grass in the gentle warmth of the morning. In the crook of a tree, someone has left a painted rock. We find them everywhere these days: beside garbage cans, along sidewalks. “Be happy,” it says. Atop a weathered, wooden bird house, a bluebird perches. I pull Santi to a stop and watch her: the particular shade of blue on her wings, the little flame of orange across her chest. I consider happiness.

We come to the marsh once again, to where more than one tree trunk has been freshly nipped to an hour-glass and toppled. Santiago pulls at the leash. He wants to go into the water. I watch a short, round figure scuttle in the shadows of the underbrush.

At home, my parents arrive. We are celebrating my mother’s birthday. We bump elbows and sit something like six feet apart on the deck to eat cheese and fruit salad and cake. In the yards and alleys around us, children ride in plastic cars, swing in hammocks, pass in strollers. Santiago is hot under the noonday sun and laps at a vodka tonic left on a low table. I am getting a headache. When my parents leave, we exchange gifts. I give them a magazine and a movie because the libraries and the theaters are closed. They give me bleach wipes and disposable face masks.

I find two ticks on Santiago: the first of the year.

This is how my life feels: endlessly beautiful and like I am on my hands and knees in the dirt.

2.

On Sunday, we encounter a beaver. We are miles from the Mississippi, in a park at the juncture of two freeways. It is a little cooler than the day before. The pond is the blue of the sky and the green of the glossy, young cottonwood leaves that scintillate in high branches on the opposite shore. A pair of hooded mergansers, small-bodied and striking, floats in the smooth water.

We walk a paved trail beside young maple trees that Santiago stops to urinate on, until we come to a footbridge. He tugs me, then, across the grass and gravel to the north of it, to a culvert that drains into the pond. I smell what he smells: a piquant waft of urine. Santi noses, paces, circles himself into tangles in the scrub. There is a loud splash behind us.

When we race back to the footbridge, I watch an animal dive–with slow and heavy grace–under the water, but I do not see its tail. Santi pulls me across the bridge and down the gravel path to a clearing at the edge of the pond. A tree here lies felled, its stump gnawed to a point. When the animal surfaces again, he is far off, but his head is large and chocolate brown. He swims with his eyes above the water, puckish and contented.

We follow the bike trail. The steel factory is silent. It has never been silent before, not even on the weekends. Beside the railroad tracks, dandelions and creeping Charlie have blossomed, yellow and purple, and Santiago grazes on fresh grass as he walks. He is jaunty. Bicyclists ride by in packs, chatting with one another. No one wears masks. We meet a killdeer at the intersection of two rail lines, and in an unseen pond, a chorus frog sings his song, percussive and lonely.

In the yard at home, I pluck nascent trees from the dry soil: maple and buckthorn shoots as tenacious as they are small. But I plant red dogwood, taken from winter pots, twisting the stalks into the ground and watering them liberally. A cardinal is building a nest, as she does each year, in the cedar outside my living room window. Canadian white violets and rhododendrons with their ball-gown pink blooms brighten the landscape, which is burgeoning, at last, into knolls and fronds of woodland green. At the front stoop, Jack-in-the-pulpit has come up beside Bishop’s cap. I get down on my knees to examine their flowers, secreted and minuscule and lovely.

The pet store is open. I buy Santi a box of his favorite cookies, an elk antler to chew on, and a plush raccoon that I know he will destroy in under three minutes. When I get home, he is at the door, wiggling and smiling. I give him the antler. He takes it to his dog bed and lies down with it clasped between his front paws. The clack of his teeth against the bone is the sound of happiness.

I am tired. Lately, I am always tired.

3.

I leave the car with the mechanic and get Santiago out of the back seat. It is Monday morning. We walk home.

I have an impulse to swing the leash in the direction of the most straightforward route. We are more than three miles from where we live, and it is a work day. But this is the week of Santiago’s birthday. He leads me two blocks down a calm suburban street to a trail beside a creek. It is sunny but cold, perhaps forty degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind. I wish that I had brought gloves. A blue heron lifts its great wings languidly from the water that curls through trimmed back yards with terraced gardens. I remember what Santi has taught me: that delight is our most important daily endeavor. My shoulders drop. I breathe more easily behind my mask.

We emerge onto a street that Santiago has never been on. When I was child, forty-five years ago, I walked this block to take piano lessons from a woman who wore glasses on a chain around her neck and rings on every finger. I stare at her house as we pass, remembering the variety of pianos on each level of the interior, the recitals in the living room filled with folding chairs. We pass the house of a girlhood friend, who made warm pudding on the stove after school and served it to me topped with cold milk. We arrive at a park where mallards dawdle in a pond veiled by yellow willow boughs. We keep moving. We climb the freeway overpass, and I look down on the large, backyard vegetable patch that can only be seen from above. We pass wood ducks in a drainage pond, Mickey Mouse on a flag, vintage sports cars crowded along a driveway, a teapot on a pole in a flower garden.

We find the faded trail that leads between houses down to a dog park. We are triumphant. The ground slopes as the hardwoods close ranks around us. Water trickles by in a ditch at the bottom of the hill. Santiago steps lightly across the rocks that allow for passage, and the sun shines on his face as he makes his way toward his destination. I lose my footing and fall on my hands and knees in the mud.

4.

Santiago is shedding. Every morning, the dark bed sheets are scattered with white hairs. Around his muzzle, where his fur used to be black or brown, the hair grows in white.

We walk in the neighborhood. It is quiet and cold. Santi is happy. He sniffs at the trees on the boulevard and rolls in the grass on the parkway, lolling on his back and then crawling on his belly. When I rub my hands over his body to brush off the dirt, his fur flies off like skipperlings. He is becoming new.

I work at home, bored and snappish, every email that blinks into my inbox a vexation. At night, I dream of moral worry and of sorrow and of a galaxy of silver-white stars in a midnight blue sky, and my dreams cling to me. I am isolated, but I want to be alone.

In the evening, I water the yard. I’ve sown grass seed twice, and it just won’t rain. I haul hoses up from the basement and unkink them on the lawn. The air is cool. Santiago lies on the deck and champs his jaws at passing bees. I move among the gardens, spraying the bluebells that will soon pass and the ferns that are only beginning to arch their spines and the Kentucky coffee trees that won’t leaf for another month. I forget everything else that I was going to do. This is me down on my knees, fasting and praying.

5.

On the day before Santiago’s birthday, I take him to a tiny park that we have been in once before. I intend to leave the car in the lot and walk to the eastern shore of our favorite lake. Instead, Santi heads past the flowering pink crabapples and the pretty white birches, past the mallards in the creek and the birdhouses posted along its shore, past the backstop, the playground and the basketball hoop, straight into the woods.

We follow a trail through a scrim of mature trees. We have never been here. There are large houses on either side of us, with wide back yards. A flaking white bench in a garden has a bird house built into each arm. Fungi scramble up a tree like steps to a fort in the canopy. We pass a footbridge and wood ducks and hosta beds and trellises, and when we emerge onto a road and the trail ends, I see a church steeple in the distance. I know where we are. We walk one block south and re-enter woodland. The sunshine through spring leaves gives the air a green tint of enchantment, and the pond that we circle is as blue as the sky.

We are in a beloved place–where we have felt the hot summer sun sink in the evening with a welcome shiver; watched deer disappear into a motley of autumn leaves; trod upon the melting winter snow. To have arrived here, to know that we were never misguided, never lost, is a slow and heavy grace.

6.

It is Santiago’s birthday, and he wants to go to the dog park. He makes a noise in the back seat of the car as we approach: a breathy exhalation that melds contentment with pleading, hope with desperation. When I pull up to the gate, there are no dogs inside. We go in anyway.

The nights are close to freezing now. I’ve taken a potted hibiscus and a ficus from the deck back into the house. The mornings, though, are beautiful: blue and bright, with strong sun that warms the limbs. Santiago is joyful. He runs to each of his sniff spots: the central evergreen, the picnic table, the water dish, the fat clump of grass. I walk behind him, taking photographs. Bird houses sway on trees in beams of sunshine. A train rumbles past, its cars painted with graffiti. A lean-to has been built in the woods and furnished with two plastic chairs.

When a black-and-tan shepherd enters the park, I watch nervously. As muscled as he is, Santiago is intimidated by larger dogs. Like a much smaller terrier, he can become paranoid and barky, and his bark, in turn, whips up paranoia in others. But the shepherd moves slowly, as if he were old and aching. I relax. It is not until Santiago has noticed the other dog, not until he has raised his snout from the scented ground and rushed him, not until I’ve watched the shepherd’s guardian flinch, that I notice that the mutt is missing a leg. His black coat is sleek. His chest is broad. And he is game. The dogs play.

7.

We celebrate. Leaving the shepherd behind, Santiago and I drive a short way to a neighborhood park. Here, two red-bellied woodpeckers encircle a small tree like a Maypole: flitting and resting and flying and climbing. Perhaps they are conversing about love. Fresh cones are growing on the tamaracks, as wee and sweet as cinnamon rolls for a paper doll’s tea party. In the pond, a snowy egret poses.

We cross a footbridge and head into the woods. Santiago tugs toward a smell along the bike path and I see it: a bit of basalt in the middle of the pavement. It fits snugly in the palm of my hand. It is painted with daubs of blue, green, white, and lilac: the colors of spring. I pocket it. It is a birthday gift, a reminder of the delight to be found if only we will keep walking.

On my lunch break, I place an order on the phone and drive eight miles to pick up a peanut butter cupcake, curbside, for Santiago. I give him the plush raccoon, from which he extracts the squeaker in under two minutes. I let him eat too many dog cookies.

In the evening, Santi rests on the bed, on his pink, princess throw. The windows are open to flush the stuffiness from the room. He listens with pricked ears to the sound of a dog barking in a house across the street, to bird song, to a mother calling for her child. Darkness is coming. When the world grows quiet, he lies down facing me, his chin in the shag. His eyes go soft. After a moment, he opens them again and cries. He stands, and I move from a rocking chair to his side and scratch his chest.

When he settles down to sleep at last, I watch him playing in his dreams.

You can see pictures of our celebrations in the gallery.

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Blue

On Wednesday, morning, I wake to silence. The sun has arched an eyebrow over the horizon, but the bedroom is dark behind scarves tossed over the window shutters for curtains. Santiago is sleeping downstairs, on the couch. I hold my breath, listening. The old furnace, for the moment, is not clacking or panting like a beast in a metal cage. I send my mind into my ears and discern neither sound nor vibration. I listen and listen, until I must inhale at last, and though my home is ringed by a street and an alley, and a county road is but one block down, I don’t hear a single car pass.

I slip my feet out from the bedcovers and turn on a lamp. When he hears me open the closet door, run the bathroom tap, Santiago comes upstairs. I am dressing, and we are going to walk. A few days ago, we had snow. I haven’t driven the car since then. The temperature has hovered around freezing, and what the spring sun has managed to melt has slid from the top of the car to form a sheet of ice at the bottom of the windshield. I chip it off and kick away the icicles that have affixed the chassis to a frozen puddle on the driveway.

Day has dawned now, cool and bright. When we arrive at the park, there are three other cars, yawning across two, wide lots. The air has been scrubbed clean by the shutdown of factories, the stilling of traffic, and the sky is a shade of blue that I cannot remember ever seeing before. Where it hangs low along the tree tops underneath childish, white clouds, the atmosphere is an indescribable color, a blue so limpid, so permeated with light, so captivating and alluring that it is like a chorus of Sirens. I cannot stop staring at it. It is so beautiful that every now and again, as my feet move and the tender air touches my face and the sunlight is gold on the far tips of tree branches, I look at it, and I cry.

We take to the woods. There is a lone hooded merganser floating calmly on a hidden pond. The white patch on his head gleams over the brown water. Most of the trees have neither budded nor leafed. Where the sun beats down, there is grass; where the ground is valed or shaded, snow. Beneath our feet, the gray leaves have frozen, and they rustle with a crystalline dryness as we walk. The embracing quiet of the morning persists, but it is accompanied by the chatter of birds: cardinals, chickadees, robins, seagulls, crows.

There are no children at the playground. A sign posts its closure. I watch Santiago on the leash ahead of me, absorbed in the smell of the soil. He trots to a shallow beneath a fallen tree green with moss that seems to wiggle in the sunshine. He stops to inhale and consider this space, to wonder who has been here. Over his back, the morning light plays across blowzy, honey-colored cattails. I think about the children who live next door to us, how they run to follow a heron in the sky, how they call to me, asking if I’d like to see the beetles cupped in their hands, how they beg to hunt for frogs in my yard. There are many ways to play.

Everything that Santiago and I love in this preserve has become enchanted under the clarity of the blue sky. The little, white chapel at the edge of the park shines as against heaven itself, the granite headstones on the hillside glinting as the snow shrinks around them. At the beach, Canada geese sunbathe on warm, faded sand. They watch us sideways as we pass, sidling slowly into the water, which is its own, extraordinary shade of cold, clear blue. As a pair of wood ducks takes flight from the shore–worried by Santiago’s attentions in the grass–a hawk dives into the lake, and life expresses itself with splash and flutter.

There is death, too. In the woods at the outskirts of the lake, we come across a lifeless muskrat. Her body lies in the snow underneath a small branch. Santiago is not very interested in dead things, but I am. What caused this animal’s death? In the moments that preceded it, was she frightened? Is her spirit now at peace? Her chestnut fur looks as soft as a mink, so that I think for a moment that she is one. Her tiny black eye stares. I say a prayer, but I have to say it quickly. The blue sky is calling to Santiago.

Let the dead bury the dead.

I work that day, at the dining room table, on a computer taken from the office. I do not know how long I will have a job. In the evening, I close the laptop and prop my phone on the kitchen bar. The ice clinks pleasantly in a gin and tonic when my friends call, their faces filling the little screen. We drink and nibble and converse, smiling at each other. I move to the living room and join Santiago on the couch. He is snoring with his snout tucked behind a pillow. I watch the trees in the light that coalesces to sink outside the porch windows a dozen miles away. We talk about our fears. When night reaches inside the house, I turn on a lamp, I take down my hair. We learn to play a new way.

The sun remains strong on Thursday, but the wind is sharp and surprising. I work for a few hours then pack Santiago into the car for a midday walk. I intend to go someplace else, but, as I drive, I suddenly think on a perfect little park: a lake walk with asphalt and wood chip trails, trash cans and dog poop bags, a landscape of bench and stream, playground and ball field and forest. Santiago begins to purr in the back seat when I veer onto the freeway bridge that takes us there. The park was his idea.

On a path not far from a stand of towering birch trees, we meet a small, old man wearing a mask with blue and white stripes. As we near each other, I tug the scarf wrapped around my neck up over my mouth and my nose. The man quips, “Nice smile,” and his eyes twinkle. He wishes Santi and me a nice day. I watch the sky, looking at the buds on the trees–some fat like nuts, others long and reaching, like fingers pressed together in meditation. Santiago stops before a scrim of trees that separates the parkland from a row of suburban back yards. I stop, too, scanning the woods in the direction of his quivering, black nose. He never sees the three deer, but when they move and reveal their white tails, I do. They remain grazing and eyeing one another unguardedly on the other side of the wood, as if they were enjoying a picnic lunch on their own lawn.

They are.

We walk for an hour. Santiago dogs at lake edge and creekside, nosing around for wet mammals and waterfowl. I listen to red-winged blackbirds click and chirr. The wind blows through pussy willow branches whose catkins have gone silvery-green, about to burst into flower, and high above a lake filling in with cattails, a bald eagle sits with straight neck and puffed chest. I think about how my life before I met Santiago–before I learned from his attentiveness and his joy–was impoverished, about how the deer and the catkins and the blackbirds were present but hidden from me, unnamed and unknown, about how I perceived only the gross outlines of a material world squatting underneath a dirty sky.

I receive mail this week: an envelope hand-written to me, with a return address and name that I don’t recognize. I turn it over in my hands, frowning, and slice it open cautiously, as if poison might tumble out. Inside are a hand-colored illustration, a page of prayers, and a double-sided sheet of jokes, from a family I’ve never met at a church where I am not even a member. I watch the priest from that church deliver a sermon online from his kitchen table, and as he reaches the sober peak of his argument, a calico cat glances into the frame, climbs upon his lap, and awaits back scratches and belly strokes. Everyone is re-learning how to play.

And just like that, spring comes. The snow in the yard is gone. The wind is still cold, but when I peer underneath the oak leaves that blanket the gardens, I find tiny zippered fronds of Jacob’s ladder, white buds of bloodroot, a clump of sprouting fescue, deep red wrinkles of rhubarb, succulent green runners of wild stonecrop. The cow parsnip is so large already that I can see it from the upper story inside the house. And two, wee hazelnut bushes, not a foot tall, are budding. They have survived their first winter.

Over the weekend, more mail arrives: my sister sends masks that she has sewn in pretty, patterned fabrics, and I am pleased because the paper masks that I’ve been wearing have a habit of slipping askew and scratching my eyeball. One of those paper masks lies in a drawer in my abandoned office cubicle. I wore it when the indoor pollution strained my lungs and raised my blood pressure, sometimes for weeks on end. At home, I breathe easily. I breathe easily outside most of the time, too, though a mask on a cool day is a comfort to twitchy lungs, warming the air via the heat of one’s own body.

Santiago and I no longer wake to an alarm. On Saturday morning, we rouse ourselves just after daybreak and spend two hours at the dam before the crowds with their naked faces arrive. We startle a Canada goose whom we startled last year, nesting on the same little finger of land along the river. She leaves her eggs in fright or fury and escapes into the water where she honks and honks though we are long gone above the roaring cascades, halfway to the opposite shore. The goose is not interested in playing a new way. She is, perhaps, part of what Nature intends, with her pandemic, to protect.

Santiago and I stroll on Sunday morning in a park on the way to the grocery store. Pairs of mallards move through the placid creek, water rippling behind them toward last year’s shaggy grass over-hanging the banks. In the afternoon, I bake a visiting cake scented with lemon zest and topped with toasted almonds. I write the recipe on eight postcards and affix stamps for mailing. For the moment, this is how we share cake. I am wearing overalls that remind me of my great-grandfather, who cut timber and husbanded sheep and raised children. I am not wearing a bra or mascara. I think about the office buildings, imagining their windows unsealed and opened to the fresh, blue sky, their rooms emptied of workers and filled with families. Santiago is napping beside me on his soft, pink blanket. He is twitching as he dreams. Life has moved home.

To dream in blue, visit the gallery.