Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Stars Aligning

Oh, how the winter night calls to us. Yes, there may be less light these January days than we’d like, but in the darkness, the stars shine brightly.  For me, it has always been a metaphor for my faith. 

The other night Samwise and I were in the forest, having timed our walk so that we were there in the darkness. It’s part of his training, and part of my joy. Slowly I have been introducing my young companion to various aspects of the natural world he’ll deal with when he’s ready to hike without limitation. 

A couple of weeks ago during a talk I gave at the Currier Museum of Arts in Manchester as part of their celebration of the White Mountain artists of the 1800s, I was asked why I was limiting Samwise’s time on the trails. The first answer is a simple one, something I fear is being lost as hikers become more aggressive with their pursuit of hiking goals. A dog’s body needs to mature. He’s just turned a year old, and I won’t feel comfortable getting him out on a mountain and on a trail longer than five miles until he’s eighteen months old. His joints and his bones need the time. 

However, there is another issue. It’s the mental aspect of hiking. Samwise is still a pup, gregarious and joyous with boundless energy. But he doesn’t know yet what he doesn’t know. He needs to be aware of his limitations. His first experience with ice was comical, but it was carefully monitored so that he didn’t fall through it into deep water. He’s still learning about wildlife and he’s so friendly I'm concerned about his encounters with those who might not take so kindly to his enthusiasm. Especially moose and porcupines. He’s also still learning to be a good citizen, to fit in appropriately with people and understand that it is not okay to jump up on folks when he meets them. Or to understand that not all people like dogs. 

I fully respect all of this, and I want him to be a bit more seasoned before he heads up into the mountains of New Hampshire. But that still leaves us plenty of gentle hiking throughout the region. A favorite locale has become Thorne Pond. I’ve written about its lyric setting before, but it is a perfect training ground for him to learn to sit, stay, observe, and be polite. 

Fortunately for me, he’s the smartest four-footed fellow I’ve lived with. He picks up on things quickly. He’s obsessively observant. He’s learned to sit and watch the locals like the lone otter and the lone heron as they live their lives around the pond. He’s done well with bears encountered along the trail, and although he sorely tempted, he restrained himself from running with a fox. (Frankly, I’m not sure the fox would know what to make of my smiling friend as he tried to lick him to death.)

More than any other dog I’ve been acquainted with, he loves to look up. At night, I’ll wake in bed seeing him next to me sitting and looking out the window. In the middle of the evening, he’s drawn to the moon and the stars. When we are in the car and moving down the road, when a bird flies overhead, he watches until it leaves his sight. Recently, when I bought a convertible and while visiting friends on an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve down in Newburyport, I took the top down. He was mesmerized by the lights downtown, and the stars when we reached the countryside. 

When we were in the woods the others night, I let him run as he’s wont to do, but I kept recalling him to my side. When we entered the meadow, I stopped in my tracks at the vision of Mars, the moon, and Venus lined up perfectly in a small area. I called Samwise back and asked him to sit with me. As I knelt, he sat. That’s when he looked up and saw the three celestial bodies together. He didn’t move, other than to keep his head craned upward in wonder. I felt his body's weight against mine, felt his warmth and his calm. 

The past year has been one of intense experiences for me. My near death, Atticus’s unexpected death, Samwise’s unexpected arrival, my long recovery, finishing the final draft of my latest book. But at that starry moment, all time and past and future disappeared. I felt my place in the universe with pure understanding. As Emerson would say in his Transcendental way, or Muir in his kinship of the wild, Samwise and I were with our peers out in that snowy field, with stars so brilliant, so bewildering, and humbling, I couldn’t help but feel I was part of all we saw. And that little line that divides man and beast vanished and what we shared was the sacrament of communion. 

Nature has a way of bringing us home. If we pay attention to her ways, if we have reverence for her, and gratitude, the song that emanates in her heart, plays in ours. Every vibration is there for us. Every quaver, every octave, and note. No matter what life throws at us – the good, the bad, the day-to-day – we are always part of the grand scheme of things. All we need do is recognize it. 

That night, with Samwise by my side, both of us intoxicated the heavenly firmament, I recited some simple words from that old New Hampshire farmer, Robert Frost. Perhaps his shortest poem, “A Question.”

“A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

ATTI - 48

I am a strange bird in that I toe the line between pragmatism and romanticism. This occurred to me last night as I looked back on what transpired at our town clerk’s office in the morning. Karen Burton, I must say, is the kind of clerk every small town should have. She runs everything cleanly and with a smile. And, if you are friendly, as we are, she gives grand hugs at just the right time.

I registered our new car with her by filling out the forms and writing two checks – one to the State of New Hampshire; the other to the Town of Jackson. Then she brought forth a set of new license plates.

That’s when I paused.

It hit me that I wouldn’t be carrying my old license plate with me and I thought about another vanity plate which would update the latest chapter in my life.

Stumbling for a bit, I decided to go with the anonymous numbers she handed me.

“Anonymous is good,” I told myself. “Yes, that’s the way to go.”

I thought about the times over the past nine years since we moved to New Hampshire where we’d be parked at a trailhead while hiking or merely walking in the woods and Atticus and I would return to our car to find people waiting for us.

The license plate gave us away.

ATTI-48.

It seemed harmless enough when we moved north from Newburyport, and it summed up our lives nicely enough. We were haunting the forty-eight four-thousand-footers religiously. But when I ordered them we were known only to the hiking community.

Times have changed.

Whenever Atticus and I shared the woods together, it was mostly just Nature and us. The soft sighing of the breeze through the trees, or the bellowing of winds above treeline. The murmur of streams, the rush of rivers. The challenge of a steep, rocky trail where every footstep was managed carefully, the comforting flat path through a flat forest. No matter what we faced, it was Atticus and me – and the elements.

So peaceful.

Although it was kind of people to sit by our car and wait for us to say hello, after miles in the forest my introverted self takes over. For however long we were in the woods introspection and reflection took over and to be jarred back to having to be “on stage” once back at the car always felt awkward to me.

Saying goodbye to the Atti-48 plates was the right thing to do.

Still, as the day wore on and night fell, and stars took flight, I thought of what those old license plates mean to me. Atticus never had a collar (until the very end when he was deaf), and he never had tags. There was nothing left behind for me to memorialize since, like me, he wasn’t into things as much as experiences.

However, as I sit here looking at Will’s red coat hanging on the hook above my desk, it now feels comfortable to have ATTI-48 right next to it.

As for the other plate (for there are two of them), it’s going to a very special place and the only other person I’d want to have it. It will soon be taking up residence in Steve Smith’s store, The Mountain Wanderer. Steve was our first friend up here, and his books fed our curiosity as two unlikely hikers took to these enchanted mountains. His guide books led us to where we needed to go.

His store is located along the Kancamagus Highway in Lincoln, and it is a gathering place for hikers looking for maps, books, advice, and conversation. It is the heart and soul of our hiking community, and its humble ways stand in stark contrast to the solipsistic hiking sites that now are filled with selfies instead of photos of mountains. Steve, and The Mountain Wanderer harken back to what is most important: the mountains, their lore, and their history.

I like knowing that Steve will have ATTI-48 with some of his other memorabilia. And he tells me people will enjoy seeing it in the window and fans of Atticus will smile knowing it is there.

As I wrote to a friend last night, I’m at a very tender place these days, halfway between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I stand on the threshold of an exciting new year where our second book will be published, and a third one will be written. I don’t linger too long with nostalgia, but occasionally it catches up to me and whispers in my ear, it’s gentle lips brushing against my cheek.

It’s been quite the year and switching that license plate out and replacing it with something completely different is just one more step away from a past that was fertile and unforgettable.


And yes, I understand a 2017 black on black VW convertible will stand out in a region known for “hiking vehicles,” but at least it won’t be quite the advertisement our old vanity plates were. But as I write this I cannot help but think of it as another page being turned. A page from a very extraordinary story in my life.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Lessons of Miss November


It helps not to have a television, or to visit big box stores or the outlet chains. Without those, a natural rhythm unfolds. The world slows down. I can feel it exhale and inhale. Holidays remain holidays, celebratory resting points throughout the course of a year, and not something highlighted in a mailed circular or a trite phrase in a Hallmark Card. Here in the mountains, where nature infuses our lungs with kiss after soft kiss of her ever-changing breath, the bare essentials thrive without distraction. 

Thanksgiving is upon us. The focus used to be on an abundant turkey dinner that pulled a flotilla of pies behind it, and bookshelves decorated by the wax fruit of my family’s cornucopia, and the decorative pilgrim and turkey candles (that were never lit). These years, however, for me it’s about how the forest has slipped out of her clothes and stands naked. Those of us who truly love her, love her most now - without the make-up, the coiffed hair, smoky eye shadow, painted lips, or fancy clothes. Miss November has arrived unabashedly and lives out loud. Her verse is as simple as "take me as I am." 

This morning, Samwise, who has grown over the past six months into the body he will have for at least a dozen years to come, trotted ahead of me on the trail. Where the path turned along the river’s edge, he stopped and sat down, his head tilted to the side, his ears focusing like radar dishes. There are moments I see a calm in is eyes,  that belies his youth, but it is often overtaken by the wonder of things he’s meeting for the first time. He is a most curious fellow. 

What caught his attention this morning was a hum, and a soft vibrancy, the symphony of the leaves of the young beech trees that have decided to winter in the mountains. While most of the forest is somewhere between silver and gray, the beech leaves have just turned bronze. They are beginning to dry, and curl at the edges. Eventually the sun will bleach them and they’ll become ghosts in the sylvan landscape until they fall in the spring. 

What Samwise heard was the tapping of hundreds of invisible feet - dance steps. This is a trait of the mysterious beech. The forest air can seem as still as January ice, but a single beech leaf can catch a melody, a whisper, and start fluttering. A couple of months from now, when the wind barrels through the forest and the leaves are drier, they rattle with a frequency that calls you closer. 

This morning, hundreds of beech leaves were quivering and Samwise heard them. He moved closer, sat down again, and touched his nose to one of them. It so surprised him that he looked up at me. 

Old Celtic legend has it that when you see a cyclone of leaves spinning up from the ground that the little people are at play, or war. This is the time of year when I channel the poet William Butler Yeats. I fancied that the way the leaves were moving this morning was a sign that the wee folk were trying to get our attention. 

They had certainly captured Samwise’s. 

What he didn’t notice was the red squirrel sitting on a branch five feet above his head watching him. I smiled when he looked in my direction, and sat down next to Samwise, whose fascination  with the vibrating leaves continued, and even though it was cold we stayed for the show. 

When we eventually moved on, another turn in the trail brought us to a construction site. We  looked up at a massive pileated woodpecker who was drilling in an old maple. Rat-a-rat-a-whap! His head both manic and controlled. His industriousness in digging for his food was almost violent. I watched Samise's move his head slightly back and forth, back and forth, as if under the bird's spell. 

Call me a fool (although I feel anything but foolish) because I greet these trees and these souls in the forest, and I’ve urged Samwise to sit and study them instead of giving chase. My homily to him is a common theme: “This is their home, and we are visitors. Please be gentle.”

He is responding well. He'll sit for an hour watching the beavers, the lone slippery otter in the nearby pond, and the heron which turns from statue-still to a pterodactyl in flight. He studies things differently than Atticus used to. There is more of a spring in his gaze, a clever joy, whereas Atti was the essence of Zen. Atticus was so still, both in body and soul, that wild things approached him. Samwise has learned to be polite. He’s respectful, but cannot imagine anything wild, be it flora or fauna who does not want to get to know him. 

I reassure him that in being still, he’ll become approachable, and life won’t flutter away like an excited butterfly. It is a joy watching him take to these lessons while he gets to know Miss November in her undeniable grace. There’s nothing about her that is not right in front of us. She is the natural world’s antidote for all things Kardashian, vain, and vapid. November has a depth that mesmerizes. It is the reality we need in a world taken over by the fiction and drama of reality television. What you see is what you get, which is always more than enough in the natural world. 

Meanwhile, the unnatural world careens at us like Christmas decorations that appear before Halloween, and chaos and anger spout and vent themselves in politics. While our nation gives birth to a new and strange era, where violence of thought, word, and deed are not only acceptable, they are now also rewarded, I find myself needing these lessons I’m sharing with Samwise just as much as he does. 

I am aware that the only way I can approach the sharp edges is by softening my own. I cannot change what comes at me, only my response to it. 

Each month, a new teacher steps forward. Each season brings new lessons. We stretch and we grow. Soon, with each year, the friendship of two souls will be set in something more lasting than stone, something everlasting. 

For now, though, I’ll let November take us by hand and by paw to lead us to an enchantment that has been choked in the civilized world. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Morning Reflections

It's not that early, but the stars and planets are still out. Slowly they turn and shimmer in the predawn sky outside my bedroom window as I listen to music and write letters. I'm not sure there are many better ways to start a day than with music, and maybe writing to those I love. (Well, I also find my religion when baking muffins, but not now, not while I'm being good and living mostly on whole foods as my insides catch up with my outside.)
I'm not sure what I was thinking back in May when I returned home from the hospital. I guess everything back then was about the necessities. How was I going to stand up? How was Atticus doing? When was I going to make it through a day without falling? I certainly didn't think this far ahead, and I never knew how long the trail would be to finding some physical semblance of myself. Because of that, I worked on my body, but more on my soul. I paid attention to the nuances of how I was feeling, and always . . . Always saying prayers of gratitude. 
I think that's how I survived, even when Atticus didn't. I prayed not in the hopes that something would come into my life but instead for what I was grateful for. No matter how small. 
"Thank you, God, for allowing me to wash the dishes without getting dizzy."
"Thank you for letting me hurt, because when I'm hurting at least I know I'm alive."
"Thank you for Cassie, my editor, who understands that when we talk on the phone about "Will's Red Coat" that I break down once in a while for no apparent reason and sob until I cannot breathe."
"Thank you for David and Lisa for allowing me to use the downstairs so that I don't have to go to a rehab facility."
"Thank you for my friends who are always within reach, whether it's Carrie and Gray taking me to the store, or Virginia to a doctor's appointment, or Roy for so much, or everyone else who is kind to me."
Then, when Atticus died, I still prayed, even through my grief. 
"Thank you for giving me a love that was something worth filling a book with."
"Thank you for allowing me to breathe today, to laugh, to cry, to remember. Thank you for letting me live, although I'm not sure why you did."
"Thank you for allowing me to start anew, but with everything I know now."
Hell, I even prayed thanks for having almost died numerous times because I knew that even in my weakness it made me stronger, and contributed to my story. 
There was much to be grateful for. 
Six months ago today I couldn't ride in a wheelchair from my hospital room to dialysis because I'd fall out of it whenever I fainted. They'd have to wheel me down a few floors in my bed or send a technician to my room for four hours of kidney cleaning on the days that were the worst. Six days a week I went through the drain of dialysis, and they were preparing me for a lifetime of treatments. The doctors would come by and try to smile and fail miserably, but I didn't. 
Six months ago, I couldn't lay flat in my hospital bed because I couldn't breathe and my lungs were drowning. I had to take oxygen through a hose. I could barely stand, and that was only with the help of a couple of nurses and a walker. Even then, when I couldn't read, or watch television because I couldn't concentrate, I'd look out the window, and I'd pray. Sometimes it was just two words, "Thank you."
One of my many nurses said to me, "Why are you so happy every day?"
"I have a lot to be happy about." 
When I wasn't praying, I replayed memories over and over. Always of mountain hikes with Atticus. On the worst of days, when the pain was the deepest, I'd think of our most arduous trips - those marathon treks through weather that turned bad, or up the steepest trails in the Whites at twenty-five below zero, silently pushing step after step with Atti. 
Yesterday, a chilling breeze came up when we were at Thorne Pond. I wasn't dressed for it. It ripped through my clothing and I shivered. Then I remembered all of those days in winter when it was just he and me and we'd emerge above treeline to dangerous winds and frostbite conditions. I'd feel the brutal cold and  I'd will myself to be warm. 
It's now the middle of October, and the sun is rising, and the sky is a slate gray. Samwise is eleven months old and being patient about going outside. The same crows that called to Atticus and me, and then Atticus, Will, and me, now call from the black ash tree outside our window for us to come out. I remind myself that I have to dig out my gloves and soon I'll have to start wearing my hiking shoes instead of my Keens. Is my phone charged so that I can take photos on our walk? What am I supposed to pick up at the grocery store?
Life is different these days. I have always lived in miracles, but the difference is today, while I still say my prayers of gratitude in a most basic manner, my heart is fuller than it's ever been. Life is more complete. I'm aware of all that has been taken from me, but more so of what I have gained. I have come to understand you have to lose almost everything to realize how much you have. Life, like the seasons, renews itself...and so have I.
I thank the Universe for friendship, love, and new adventures. 
What will the world show me today? I ask this knowing that I will be ready for whatever it is. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Experience of Being Alive

Dearest friend,

Today is the darkest of days for my friend Virginia and her partner Brenda. They are preparing to say goodbye to their beloved Kiko, a four-legged soul with the best black and white markings I’ve ever seen. She is gentle and kind and lives in their hearts. And, by chance, if it is not today, it will be soon. This morning, they are emptying themselves out in grief. 

Alas, there is no escaping death, or what it leaves behind. If we are lucky, we know what it is like to suffer this deepest of losses, because it means we have loved completely and surrendered our hard selves to another. If we are the dying, we should all be so fortunate to have been loved and to leave behind broken hearts left clinging to memories. 

I have offered Virginia a few words this morning, but nothing suffices. You know this from the grief you’ve experienced and how it changed your life. 

I will forever remember coming home for the first time without Atticus. I screamed at God through tears knowing that I too was so close to death, “Why not take me while you are at it, you bastard?” Yes, there were a few more cuss words in there as well, but I never worry about it. As I’ve told some of my rigid and respectable Christian friends, I am not respectable and have no desire to be. Mine is a less formal and more relaxed relationship with God. What’s a few cross words between friends?

Virginia and Brenda know they are making all the right decisions. How? Because it hurts so much. They are placing Kiko’s peace above theirs. 

I would like to be able to tell them that all will okay over time. Their scars will heal, and they’ll move forward. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. I have seen too many that can not let go of their sorrow, and they cease to live. When one they love dies, so do they. They continue to breathe, but that’s about it. 

I met someone a few years ago who told me that a beloved four-legged friend had died seven years earlier, and she still hadn’t found a reason to smile. Oh, my. What to say to such a person? I chose not to say anything and instead I just nodded and went on my way. 

We often forget the contract we have with life. We seem to think things don’t have a cost, and that there is no expiration date. But birth, life, and death are all part of the same contract. How we deal with it all goes a long way toward our quality of life. 

At my lowest depths in May, I couldn’t imagine how life could possibly go on. I worried about my heart, which had been so diseased and barely functioned. I thought about how the stress would shut down my kidneys, again, or how that massive blood clot that was in me would come loose and block an artery. As I lay grieving in the days to come, nothing anyone said offered me hope. They were kind, but this was an intimate dance I was in. At night, I’d choke on my despair and wake up gasping, swallowing a lung full of air to try to keep from dying there and then. 

That’s when it hit me. That’s when I knew I wanted to live. I was worried about my heart. I was fighting to breathe. If I were really ready for death, I wouldn’t be grieving so much. Instead, I would have given up. I wouldn’t have cared…about anything. 

The other day, a friend asked me, “How did you do it? How did you get beyond all you went through in that intense period of sickness and heartache?”

“I took a breath. Then I took another. I’d remind myself to get out of bed. I told myself I was alive for a reason. I thought of Atticus and believed that the last thing he’d want is for me to suffer in life. In a way, he was my inspiration to keep going."

My conversations with God continued. Some were heated. Some were kind. There were tears, and laughter, and swearing. But it was all good in the end. I asked about the purpose of life, and thought time and again of Joseph Campbell’s belief that we’re not looking for the meaning of life, but the experience of living. The good, the bad, the hard, the immensity, the emptiness of it all. That’s when I began to smile. I was alive. Completely alive. I wasn’t thriving, but I figured, there’s a reason for this, so I went on.

I was compassionate to those who had suffered loss, and wanted to huddle together and commiserate with me, telling me “I know how you feel?" In the end, though, they didn’t. What they knew was how they felt. So I went on my private journey, took nourishment from friends, and believed that I was not so important that everything should stop because of my weak and broken heart. 

"Thank you, God, for this morning. What strange form of teaching do you have for me today?” I’d ask.

Faith plays a part in my journey. The sun will come up again, even on rainy days, and, as Robert Frost reminded us when he wrote that he could sum up all he’s learned about life and in three words, “It goes on.” Mine did. Without much direction. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t walk very far. I definitely couldn’t hike. I didn’t have the concentration to read. 

But still, I tried. Each day, I tried a little more. 

Then, when I worked so hard to rescue myself and felt human again, along came Samwise. People like the narrative of “Who rescued who?” This weekend, a reverend heard me speak of the loss of Atticus and the arrival of Samwise and said to me with doe eyes, “Who rescued who?” I wanted to say, “I fucking rescued myself,” and that’s why Samwise came into my life. Because I chose to live again. But instead, I said, “Go F.Y. and that tired cliche.” I smiled when I said it, and she smiled in return as I reached to her and said, “Matters of the heart are too important for Hallmark catch phrases, no matter how well intended they are.” And we left each other in good spirits. 

Lastly, my story of loss has another part to it. 

A broken man chose to live again. Chose to rescue himself. Then he chose to love again, and Samwise came for that reason. 

But something else occurred to me. Deep down I knew there was something else to be learned and experienced. Atticus’s departure left a lot of room within me to fill, after all. 

I told my friends I was enjoying my monastic life. Some walking, writing, reading, teaching Samwise the lessons he’d need to understand, and continuing with my own lessons. I was healing, and reaching a contented place. 

When many suggested setting me up with someone for a date, I had no desire. It’s been three and a half years, and once you go through a relationship with someone with the traits of histrionic personality disorder, you tend to want to avoid that kind of toxicity ever again. You want to play it safe and not chance revisiting the madness. This was only reaffirmed when I became friends with two others who had dealt with various forms of narcissism and studies show that many of us who survive narcissists, never get involved with anyone again. I held no grudges against the woman I had been with; she couldn’t help being what she was. I was angry with myself for being fooled so completely, when what I thought was a most remarkable woman turned out to be the most regrettable decision of my life. So, yes, being alone was okay with me. I have Samwise and nature and good books and music and nurturing foods, and my health is returning. 

But God had other plans. They included you, dearest. Who knew that such loss and emptiness was preparing me to be filled with a new wonder? New loves a new chapter and experiences.

You seemed to come out of nowhere, and yet it feels like we’ve always known each other. Neither of us has any idea where this journey will lead as we move forward. Life offers no guarantee other than the invitation to participate. But right now, just as Samwise trusted that life had brought him to where he belongs, I too believe that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, just as I’ve always been. 

When I told my friend Jan about the news of us, she was jubilant for me, even though she is going through her own loss. She understands about the fallout from narcissism, and how many just try to get by without taking a chance again. But she is thrilled for me, and for us. For while you and I had pretty darn good lives to begin with, we’ve both decided to dance again. 

I have learned that the best way to get over loss is to surrender to it. Wallow in despair. Cry your guts out, ask all the unanswerable questions you can, and then you rescue yourself, and when you do that, you begin to live fully again, and accept the gifts that life is offering you. But it only happens if we choose to move forward, choose to move onward, by all means. 

As I told you last night, one of my close friends who had also suffered in a narcissistic relationship has been paying attention to what we’re going through. When a man reached out to her, where at first she thought of all the reasons not to respond and from what I know ignored him, now she has decided to jump into the pool again and give life with others another try. It would seem that the decision to live again is contagious. As is love.  

I will now say goodbye, and look forward to whatever song plays for us to dance to. The beat of life and hearts go on, from sorrow to song, we are all we choose to be. Thank you for being uniquely you. 

Now, you’ll excuse me. The rain has stopped, and the birds are singing, and Samwise and I are going for a walk. As we move through the forest, I’ll be saying my prayer while conversing with God, "Thank you for this morning. What strange form of teaching do you have for me today?”

From my heart to yours,
Tom