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Habit

Sunrise holds back now. I lie in bed listening to the whisper of Santiago’s breath in the darkness. The scrape of air entering his nostrils and the silence that follows–the repetition like a chant–constitutes the day’s first prayer. One by one, I invite into my mind the people I love, petitioning for their care as I was taught to do as a child. I name, too, those who trouble me, for this is the hour when my heart is soft. I name the roof that is close above our heads, the walk that we will take after sunrise, the cinnamon rolls that we will share at breakfast, both of us gleeful and gluttonous.

Santi senses my consciousness. His chanting ceases. He lifts his head and releases two, pitiful sobs. I reach my hand out from under the bedclothes and feel for his chest. It is narrow and muscled and covered with fur that is short and velvety. When I find it, I begin to scratch. He lays his jowl against the bed once more and sighs: another prayer.

I get out of bed and throw up a sash. Most years by this time, the windows are sealed with frost, but day after day this December, the temperature is high, as if we lived much farther south. A bit of night blows out of the room and a cardinal sings as I sit in a rocking chair and read scripture. I am trying to establish a new habit. Santiago slumbers once more. He will not rouse himself until I have brushed my teeth and done a few stretches; until I have drawn the living room curtains and rummaged for a hat and gloves; until I have jangled his harness and called his name again and again and opened the front door to entice him. Then, at last, he will blink away his dreams and trot down the stairs, eager to greet the dawn. But not before that time. Winter has its rhythm.

On the third Sunday in Advent, we visit the dam. There is a pearl-gray wash over the landscape, which is unruffled save for those few Sunday morning men who walk alone in flannel shirts and hooded eyes. I point to a beaver swimming in the river, her tail ruddering and leaving a slender wedge of wake, but we are on a distant bank and, though he pauses, I’m not sure that Santiago sees her. We walk for two hours, through the papery remains of the summer prairie and through woods where the dignity of naked trees–with their paunchy trunks and fungi like jewels, their flung skeins of half-sunk roots and branches decorated with buttons of hopeful buds, their furrowed bark and the wounds from which new branches grow as wild as sparklers on the Fourth of July–is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the vaunted green habit of spring.

Santiago tracks, zigzagging back and forth along the trails. I am tugged to piles of brush in search of mice, to fields that smell of deer. We come to a wooden footbridge, and though we know it very well, the dog takes a step or two across its arching frame and sinks into a crouch. His pace slows and he moves fearfully, his body like that of a soldier crawling through enemy territory. The temperature is just below freezing. Beneath us, the wooden planks pop and the metal supports ring, the noises disorienting. What had been familiar and firm suddenly seems eerie and frightful. I watch Santiago, and a rumble of worry echoes inside me, so that with each crack I imagine a plank beneath our feet snapping.

When we get to the other side, on a beach upstream, Santi pads through the soft, dry sand and runs his nose thoughtfully along a freshly gnawed tree surrounded by wood chips. There is more than one way to see.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, I resigned from my job. Like wind shaking fruits from a tree, the convulsions of the year shook loose from what has been ordinary and expected the life that I want to live instead. I have no truck with freeway traffic. The work clothes that I prefer are pocketed overalls and dusty boots. To labor in a cubicle where the sky cannot find me has been to betray a friendship. I have just three more days to office.

I am crossing the wailing bridge. I am eyeball to the gap between the slats, looking at the winter black river and its brittle layer of ice. I am judging the patch of rust on my car, listening to the flutter of the furnace. I am awaiting an insurance card and sitting on a couch whose torn cushions are dressed with laundered blankets. There is no paycheck ahead, no work but what I create for myself.

A couple of weeks ago, Santiago and I walked at a nature preserve: a small, favorite place tucked between apartment buildings and an air field. The morning sun cast orange light across the highest trees in the wood, and where there was grass, it was the beautiful blue that results from an application of frost. We trod the familiar boardwalk, through a dry marsh as alien as a moonscape. In this park where Santi has avidly hunted splashing muskrats, there were, among the bleached stalks of cattails, some patches of gray ice. But the waters had mostly receded, and we looked upon humps of hard soil, bits of formerly submerged vegetation, and dead trees–all sparkling like tinsel. For the first time in two years, we walked parts of the boardwalk that had been flooded. I watched woodpeckers knock at trees. Santiago examined a perfect set of tiny, wet footprints that climbed up one side of the boardwalk and lingered for a stroll before climbing down the other.

The landscape changes and we adjust. Life persists.

It is forty-three degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30 in the morning on December 23rd, when Santiago and I begin our walk. We have left our car near a hockey rink. The ice within the boards gleams with a layer of water, and blades of grass poke through its surface. The sun is not yet entirely over the horizon, and the clouds are as thick as a wool muffler, making the neighborhood’s seasonal decorations blink with a gentle vividness. In a warmly lit room with glass walls, a white tree is hung with glittering ornaments. Beside a back yard dog house, a pup made of yellow bulbs wears an illuminated red cap on his head. There are window boxes dressed in pine and bows, and a Little Free Library offers a dish of peppermint candies. In one plot, every tree and eave is wrapped with lights, and the garden is planted with candy canes. I watch two squirrels run across a telephone wire. The air smells of wood smoke and cedar and fabric softener.

A young man and woman cross the road. They are dressed in scarves and knit caps. They walk at an easy pace. Santiago stops to piss on a fire hydrant and the couple passes us.

“The calm before the storm,” the man says, and he smiles.

When Santi and I return to the hockey rink, two men are grooming the ice, one with a broom, the other with a rake. Santiago watches them for a long time, the water splashing at their feet.

The cold is coming.

At home, I make French toast from old cardamom bread. I smother it with powered sugar and maple syrup and stud it with clementine chunks and sliced almonds, and Santiago and I eat gleefully and gluttonously.

My family has adjusted its holiday traditions. I walked around a garden with my parents this week, watching my father adjust my mother’s mask to clear her fogging glasses. They gave me a thumb drive of family photos to keep me company on Christmas Day. At a wildlife sanctuary with my sister’s family, I laughed when my niece accidentally doused me in feed corn and watched in wonder as a yearling stuck his nose through a chain link fence to lick her hand. I delivered what presents I could and stood in line to ship the rest. Until the day that I turn in my office computer, I don’t need to be anywhere but home.

The snow begins to fall: the first since October. It is wet and heavy. As the temperature drops it will become ice. I put on a sweater and clear what is on the ground, even as colder snow continues to plummet and blow, the landscape now as fluid as a river. By evening, it is ten degrees. On Christmas Eve, it will be below zero.

The weather was warm a couple of days ago, at the winter solstice. People were out in the park where Santi and I were walking. There were families with preschoolers on little bicycles and women jogging in pairs. There were men on fat tires in the woods and a group of four young boys on scooters at the bottom of a slip of pavement. The boys were wheeling themselves, one-footed, up the hill. The smallest one trailed the others, and he looked at me and Santiago as we crossed his path.

“That was really fun!” he said, his face as bright as a comet.

With his hand, he made a diving gesture.

“Shwoop!” he explained.

That day, Santiago and I walked on a high ridge amid towering red pines. We had never been there before, had never imagined that this vista existed in a place so familiar to us. When we got home, I indulged a habit, reaching for a notebook and pen. I wrote about the peeling plates of cinnamon bark on the trees and the ladders of broken branches describing their age; about the tufts of white-tailed deer fur that lay among the milkweed pods and about the dead deer who lay between the freeway and a pile of brush several yards away; about the tents hidden between the horsetail and the railroad tracks, and the graffiti under the bridge by the abandoned plant; about the sky that darkened and the oak leaves that began to whirl and advance like angry spirits; about the dock pushed out from shore to hibernate in ice as pretty as green marble; about the little boy who asked me to watch him on his second descent and about all of the boys who came shwooping down the hill, their stocking caps flying behind them.

Writing is how I see. And I expect that it will hold.

For the joys of the season, including including deer and ornaments and orange-tinted dawns, visit the gallery. Merry Christmas!