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, June 25, 2015

Every Rock, Every Stream . . .

In the first half of the nineteenth century some of the world’s greatest landscape painters came to the White Mountains. Some of them would be the nucleus of the Hudson River School of painters and none was more significant than New York-based Thomas Cole. He was one of the first who saw these great peaks as a place to retreat to where an ever-changing world couldn’t reach as easily and saw the need to protect it. 

One of my favorite Cole quotes states “Many a mountain stream and rock has its legend, worthy of the poet’s pen or the painter’s pencil.”  

During the first few years of our hiking up here, starting a decade ago, I wouldn’t have appreciated Cole’s words as much. I was more intent on getting to the top of each peak to celebrate the view, but also our accomplishment. You could say my appreciation for this region was tarnished by my ego that wanted to go faster, farther, and do more, more, more.

But then something happened and things changed. I somehow came to the conclusion during all my hurry to collect personal achievement that I’d lost touch with how much I was missing along the way to prove how strong and fast and accomplished I was. During our first visits up here, when Atticus led me along twisting paths and across rocky streams, there was a buzz of excitement whenever we entered the woods. That’s all it took, to leave one world and enter another. There was an innocence found along the trails. Oh, how I loved leaving a busier Massachusetts’ life behind to get “lost” in the woods.  It almost felt like I was playing hooky. As the world I knew rushed ever onward back home, Atticus and I were sitting by streams, enjoying the breeze and the shade of the forest, and the way the sun glistened through the green canopy to create the illusion of diamonds and jewels in the flowing water.  

Back in Newburyport, back running my newspaper after a few days up here, I’d often mentally return to those little breaks by the streams, or those moments when I’d stop pushing through the woods and just breathe in the clean air as the trees towered around us and I felt small but also like I belonged as Mother Nature wrapped her arms around me.  

For the past seven years I’ve rejected the mania I was caught up in and decided to enjoy the mountains more for what they meant to me personally, instead of trying to keep up with others who were also into achieving something. And as soon as I let go of the ego in my hiking, I learned to appreciate each walk in the woods, whether it was twenty minutes or twenty miles.

Now, here we are several years later and Atticus is thirteen. He’s still quite active, but he’s retired from his hiking days, for the most part. There are still mornings when the air is cool and fresh and inviting when he decides he still wants to go “up,” and so we do. But I never expect it anymore. This has allowed me to fully appreciate what Thomas Cole said about “many a mountain stream or rock…”

These days I find myself marveling at what nature has provided. Now, instead of hurrying to the next checkpoint, we can sit for an hour in a woodsy valley watching red squirrels and their twitching tails, listening to the industrious woodpeckers (who pay no attention to us whatsoever), holding the tiniest toad in the palm of my hand for closer study, or simply noticing the leaves twist and dance in the wind.  

It’s funny, isn’t it? No matter how much we dream of summer in the coldest days of the winter, when it arrives there is never a disappointment. It’s always as good as we imagined it. The seasons don’t disappoint. Nature never fails to live up to its promise. Unlike the world we are creating, things are come better than advertised in the natural world. That’s the way it was with my Newburyport daydreams, too. No matter how perfect I saw things to be up here, the reality exceeded the fantasy.  

This morning a young bear was busying himself with something under a tree. He had no idea we were within twenty feet of him watching his rump twist and turn while he head was down below at the trunk. When he finally sensed us, he turned around with a look of shock and started to run off. Perhaps it was because Atticus and I were sitting, and not chasing him, or something else altogether, but after five quick steps, the bear looked over his shoulder and stopped as well. He watched us, always ready to run, but he never did. And we sat taking him in, taking in everything around him.  He would eventually move on, but at no hurry and as he lingered, we couldn’t get enough of him.

These are the things I never did see before. I think we’d be moving so quickly forward that the animals stayed hidden because of all of our noise and rambunctiousness.  

The other day I heard from a woman who was new to hiking. She wanted to know if I had any advice for a novice. I told her to do her own thing and not get caught up in lists or what everyone else is doing. “Do what makes you happy. Take the gifts the mountains are offering you specifically and appreciate them.” Then I shared the Thomas Cole quote with her.

The mountaintops are very grand, but the rocks and streams along the way, they are pretty special too.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Surprised By Joy

There are moments I am surprised by joy, even on days when I am already happy. It seems to me that these periodic bursts of bliss are tied into nature. Such was the case this morning as we walked the woods below White Horse Ledge along a spider web of trails crisscrossing the Bryce Path. 
Although early, a hint of the warmth to come later in the day could be found in the sultry scent of the forest. It’s a musky delight that comes from the earth and trees and the slightest (almost imperceptible) bit of haze in the air.  It’s like leaning into a lover and finding the hint of perfume on the nape of her neck. The woods still felt cool, but I could tell it wouldn’t be that way for long.
A gentle breeze stirred loose pine needles and sent them tumbling down to earth around us. Atticus stopped as if to inhale the scent of a wild animal every now and then.  The dirt underfoot wasn’t damp, but it wasn’t dry either. The best way I can describe the coming of the day’s heat is the same way I’d describe the coming of a storm in late afternoon. The subtle shift in electrons, the receptors in our skin that allow us to feel atmospheric changes, and, of course, the smell of it all. 
To be afoot in a forest to witness this change has a primitive appeal to it. It had me reflecting on Thoreau’s, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.” And this had me thinking how grateful I was to have some of that savage still within me. 
As has been his style lately, Atticus tailed behind, unlike the first ten years of our hiking together. It’s his age. He still enjoys the trails but the pace is different. He rarely takes the lead, and that only happens when it’s cool or else he wants to make sure we take a certain trail.
When we came upon the Bryce Path a second time, he surprised me by taking a left turn and heading up toward the saddle that sits humbly between Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges. It’s a short section of trail, but steep enough to make you stop, grab hold of a tree on occasion, and gulp for air, and then gulp down some water as well.
In that saddle, which has a feel of the medieval to it, with its pockmarked sign slightly leaning to the right, one almost feels transported to the days of old when knights were horseback would come trotting by, the air was thicker, but still refreshing enough to be pleasant.  We made for the top of Whitehorse Ledge, the taller of the two, and the one that is private because you cannot drive to the top of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see Atticus bounce along the climb, looking back over his shoulder for me, stopping every so often to wait for me whenever I rested.
Halfway from the saddle to the summit, we came to a ledge where we have sat many times in the past, often watching a full moon rise above the eastern horizon. Below us was the emerald green of Echo Lake and across the busying valley sat the mountains of the Green Hill Preserve. The air was denser, the temperature rising. But gosh, how it felt grand to be out there in the aging day, following my aging friend.
Once on top we shared the view and some water. Then I paused and thought of my friend Annie who is in Sloan Kettering today, hoping she remains cancer free after seven months off treatment. A few prayers were sprinkled over the valley and sent high above. Then, without any longer delay, Atticus was on his way again, curling round the backside of the ledge, on to the southern boundary, and eventually reaching the forest floor after a rumble through the boulder field. 
When we reached the car, we were both happy to have been out there, but also happy to be done. The drive home with windows wide open was a blissful reward.  Now to be home writing about it, with the air conditioner going, is another. That’s savage within me is taking a backseat to the civilized man now as I sit at my old writing desk and Atticus snores contentedly nearby. 
We stopped peak-bagging several years ago, about the time I decided to count experiences instead of mountaintops. That’s when we set about hiking for the beauty of it, letting our desires take us instead of following the strict orders of one list or another. Now in this summer of no expectations – due to Atti’s age I often say he’s retired – I am surprised by joy more often than ever. Each walk in the woods, whether it is half mile or five miles, comes as a gift. Nothing is taken for granted. We enjoy it all, and luxuriate whenever possible – especially when we come to streams where we wade and Atticus drinks and it feels a bit like heaven after a good walk through a forest which is now greener than I could have imagined it being back in the naked cold of winter.
On days such as this I realize we’ve come to what may be the most appreciated hiking chapter of our time together. It’s the one where so little is expected and so much is appreciated. It’s a time for us, and not others. To walk in the woods because of the love of it, and the passion our feet feel as we walk slowly and deliberately, at times surprised by joy.    

Thursday, April 02, 2015

My Ten Favorite One Mile Sections of Trail in the White Mountains

While looking out on the deep snow in our backyard, my thoughts turned to the way the trails will look and feel when warmth returns to our mountains.  That had me thinking about some of my favorite hikes, which had me daydreaming about the trails, or sections of trails, that are my favorites.  But I wanted to whittle it down even further.   So here is something a little different:  my ten favorite one-mile stretches of trail in the White Mountains.  It was difficult to limit it to only ten, which made this list both a challenge but as fun to put together as a Christmas list.  I also have no doubt that given a certain mood on a different day, some of my choices might change.  Even as I get ready to send this off to my good editor, I am contemplating switching out a couple for others that are very special.
I’ve listed them in no specific order. 
*The first mile of the Attitash Trail heading from Bear Notch Road to Table Mountain.  The woods are enchanting – an ethereal place of fairy songs and wood nymphs.  Louisville Brook runs crystal clear next to much of the trail and you are compelled to stop and gaze into the rushing current.  At the end of a long hike, it is an excellent place to linger.  There have even been some days when our only journey consisted of walking a mile in along the brook to hear its song and wade through the cool water. 
*The mile that stretches from Little Monroe to Mount Franklin along the Crawford Path in the Southern Presidentials always reminds me of something from out west.  The high grass leans with the wind and the mountains fade off into an eternal blue heading toward various ranges to the south and west.  It’s enough to make you believe that these mountains never stop. 
*The first mile north along the Franconia Ridge Trail after the Following Waters Trail intersects with it is something that will hook you on hiking for a lifetime.  Looking toward Little Haystack is breathtaking enough, but to then walk along the ridge and see heavenly peaks and valley rising and falling is breathtaking.  You want to laugh and scream and cry and pray and shout “thank you!” all at once. 

*There is a haunting mile that stretches from the summit of Mount Starr King to summit of Waumbek.  There the wind sighs, and sometimes roars, from the north through the saddle.  What sits there are ancient trees and fallen trees and young trees and great draping ribbons of Old Man’s Beard, that moss that reminds you of the south.  To me there is no finer example of life and death existing side by side along a trail.  It is a mile of bewitchment, especially when the wind cries and wraps you in its mournful spell.
*Entering the Kate Sleeper Trail from the South Tripyramid Slide will make you feel like you’ve stumbled into fictional realm.  One where there’s a greater chance of seeing a moose than a person. That first mile you will find the allure of fallen red needles and wild green ferns and a sea of quietude.  Part of the charm of this trail is that it’s nearly always silent, other than the stir of breeze or wind, because there isn’t an easy way to get to it, or a reason to traverse it. 
*Coming off the Twinway and cresting the summit of Mount Guyot you’ll see a land of giants. These are mountains you’ve seen before, but not like this.  Not from this angle as you walk down about two tenths of a mile and then take a turn left for another eight tenths on the way to the Bonds.  This is the one trail I find myself daydreaming of the most.  Perhaps because it is a difficult place to get to at Atticus’s age and I realize we’ll most likely never walk this path together again.  I still remember the first time. My legs went weak and my heart raced.  “Such a place exists?” I exclaimed in wonder.
*Just before reaching above treeline on the Champney Falls Trail heading up Mount Chocorua, turn there is a short cut off to the left toward the Three Sisters.  It brings you out to the quiet open ledges where you most likely won’t see other hikers. (Although we only do Chocorua at times when others are not there, so we don’t worry about the attending summit throng.)  The summit horn is a stunning place to stand atop of, but to see the horn as you approach and traverse the Three Sisters above treeline is even more special.
*Officially, the trail over Mount Clay, which stands between Washington and Jefferson, is 1.2 miles, but what’s two-tenths of a mile between friends.  I’ve always liked crossing over Clay with views to the behemoths of the White Mountains such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, our four highest mountains, and contrasting views down into the Great Gulf.  (Then again, there are many trails in the Northern Presidentials that could make this list.)  Hold onto yourself on a windy day!
*Heading from North Kinsman to South Kinsman along the Kinsman Ridge Trail you move through a wonderful twisted forest shaped by wicked storms and when you get closer to South Kinsman the views of Franconia Ridge and Moosilauke open up and you feel like you are walking across a moonscape.  One of my favorite views is looking back at North Kinsman (it looks as though the eastern half of the mountain has been sheared off) and how the trail runs through the woods, marvelously close to the eastern edge.  Something about the sight of it taunts my fear of heights.  (One Christmas Day Atticus and I followed moose prints along the trail, but never saw the magnificent beast.)
*Climb up the Stony Brook Trail and when you intersect the Carter-Moriah Trail on the way to Mount Moriah, you’ll notice the woods have a medieval feel to them. Pockmarked signs along the trail, boards to balance on across the mud, and then comes the expansive tiers of ledges that have you looking down as you go up.  Below is the lush Wild River Wilderness one of the quietest spaces in the mountains, and there are views to Evans Notch and into Maine in the distance, but not a sign of civilization. 
This was such an engaging exercise, I asked hiking friends Ken and Ann Stampfer to add their own ten favorite mile long sections.  Their list follows below and they have also stipulated is in no specific order.

*Bicknell Ridge Trail to upper junction with Baldface Circle Trail.
*Crawford Path from junction with Webster Cliff Trail toward Mount Eisenhower.
*Davis Path from Mount Crawford to Mount Resolution (via Mount Parker Trail).
*Garfield Ridge Trail from Skookumchuck Trail to Mount Lafayette.
*Greenleaf Trail from Greenleaf Hut to summit of Mount Lafayette.
*Gulfside Trail from Thunderstorm Junction to Madison Hut.
*Mount Guyot to West Bond via Twinway, Bondcliff, and West Bond Spur.
*Kenduskeag Trail from Rattle River Trail to Shelburne Moriah.
*Kodak Trail toward Mount Cube after Hexacuba Shelter Spur.
*Willey Range Trail from A Z Trail to Mount Field.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Atticus's Different Winter Hiking Season

I think perhaps the gift that comes from Atticus turning thirteen is that as he has slowed down, I have too.  The difference being that I'm doing it by choice.  I now pay attention to different things on our walks through the woods.  Instead of being in a constant hurry, as we were for our first winters, when we were still peak-bagging, and being oh-so-proud of the latest epic adventure, I now take stock of the little things. Instead of hikes of more than twenty miles, or those where we reached the summits of three or four or five mountains in a day, now even the shortest walk in the woods is filled with wonder.  The gentle fall of snowflakes and the quietude that accompanies it.  The way beech tree leaves turn from yellow to bronze to brown to a ghostly yellow and how they flutter even when there doesn't seem to be a breeze.  Animal tracks, both big and small, and the stories they tell as we follow them through the snowy carpet of winter.  The warmth of the sun, even on days when the temperature is below zero.  The sound we make walking through the snow, the crisp and clean air we breath, even the taste of snow, which we both enjoy.  Gifts abound and they surround us in the natural world.

These days Atticus lets me know what he's up to.  He always has, but as the years have progressed he now cancels hikes, or stops after only a quarter of a mile, which he only did perhaps five times in the first few years of winter hiking.  For us the one mile round trip to Diana's Baths through a winter wonderland of frosted pines is enchanting.  The hike up short but scenic Middle Mountain gives us plenty of mileage for a day.  And then there are the times that surprise me.  The first that comes to mind is the ten mile round trip up and down North Moat a few weeks ago.  It was like the "old days" for us. 

I'm not sure what Atticus can do when it comes to mileage anymore.  But that's the point.  It's not important.  I wouldn't say that Atticus has retired from hiking, it's just that he's retired from extreme hiking.  Once the weather and trail conditions determined where we went in.  Now, along with that, I let my aging friend also have a say. 

I've never felt a reason to push him, but by setting the bars lower in what I hope to do, I'm opening up the possibilities that come with shorter hikes.  And still, Atticus and I get out and get to enjoy it.  I like that he still thrives during these outings and when I put myself in his shoes . . . well, I guess I'd be about eighty some odd years old, and to be able to do what he's doing now when I'm that age - I'll take it. 

To make the trails easier for him, we now hike more at night when the trails have been broken out by other hikers. What we miss in views we make up for in wonder.  To sit on an insulated pad together and look up at a crystal clear night with stars in abundance and the planets and the moon overhead is a gift not enough people appreciate.  Not just in winter, but any time of the year.  It's just that the view is prettier in December, January, and February than it is in warmer months.

If we are fortunate, we all get older.  We make adjustments.  But that doesn't mean there's any less wonder out there.  Emily Dickinson reportedly rarely left her yard in Amherst, Massachusetts, but she saw the divinity in everything.  William Blake wrote, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour."  Things don't have to be epic or huge to be transcendent.  The universe blooms everywhere - even right outside our doors or just down the street. 

Do we miss some of the higher peaks we'll never get to together again?  I can't speak for Atticus, but I do.  But part of gratitude is when you realize that what you have is enough.  In learning to slow down and relax my expectations, we continue to enjoy the trails and the seasons.  Both those that cloak the mountains and valleys around us, and the seasons of our lives, as well.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Atticus and I Walk the Line Between Being Extroverts and Introverts

The other day a friend told me I was an extroverted introvert.  As much as those two clash, I think it’s true.  After living in the center of a small city, often being in the middle of controversy with my newspaper, and feeling like a good size fish in a small fish bowl, I changed all of that, dropped the drama, and have learned to relax into the quiet and the sorely needed decompression. 
When I think back to those days running the Undertoad I sometimes wonder if it really happened at all.  It was an exciting eleven years, one never to be forgotten.  But heck, it was it stressful.  And yet it was also the life I chose.

Has it really been seven years since we moved north? 

I am a man who loves my friends.  I love to talk and laugh and it can be at loud levels.  But a side that has grown through the years also loves the gentle quiet of this mountain life.

Years ago I wondered how I would find the money to move north.  Now I wonder how I will find the money to buy a small farm.  I’m not sure how it will happen, but I don’t doubt it will.  It’s just the way things have always been in my life.  Catch a dream, set a goal, make it a reality.  “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”  That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson talking.  From what I’ve noted in my own experiences, though, it is true. 

Farms in the Mount Washington Valley are expensive.  Too expensive for what I need and want.  So my dreams take us over toward the Vermont border just west of our tenth highest peak, Moosilauke.  They take us north to the flatter lands in Whitefield and Lancaster, with inspiring views of Waumbek and Cabot, and the jagged northern peaks of the Presidential Range.  And they take us east, to the foot of Evans Notch – the quiet notch.  The very private notch. 

In summer these are all close to ideal, but each area can be isolating in deep winter.  We’d be stepping away from the comfort zone of the North Conway area, where some of our good friends live.  We’d be out in the middle of nowhere, compared to where we live now.  This used to frighten me.  But now it’s becoming more appealing. 

This is my introverted side.  It’s the part of me that could be a monk, if I threw out the religious part and just held onto the spiritual.  It really is a world away from sitting on the third floor of a three story brick building looking smack down on the center of Newburyport and writing about it.  Back then it took us half an hour to walk to the post office and back – only a block away.  We’d stop and talk to people.  There was always information to get and to give.  The city lived in my head.  It was a constant hum of personalities and news. 

How did I spend seven years without at least one night out of Newburyport? 

Times have changed. 

My dreams take me a world away to a rustic farmhouse, a little red barn, some animals, faith that it will all work, the peace that comes from a marriage with nature.

One of the reasons my friend brought up the “introverted extrovert” thing was because we were talking about the upcoming event in Groton, Massachusetts.  There’s an eight hundred seat auditorium.  In a short time more than three quarter of the seats have been reserved.  By April twelfth there’s a good chance every seat in the place will be filled.

“How does that feel with your desire for personal privacy?” she asked.

“It feels great.  This is an event when Atticus and I will be there and it will be hectic and exciting and I’ll enjoy meeting a lot of people and seeing some familiar faces.  And when it’s done, we’ll be exhausted and more in need of solitude.  Atticus will sleep the entire three hours home in the car.”

“So you like these events?”

“Love them. That’s Tom the extrovert.  Loud, expressive, emotional.  Then it’s back to being quiet, defining boundaries, defending boundaries, and living with the rhythm of the seasons.  Atticus and I will enjoy the divinity of alone time on some of the quieter mountains.”

While reading bits and pieces of an interview with Pico Iyer the other day I came face to face with this comment and it felt like an old friend I’d just met for the first time: “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop but to bring that calm into motion.”  Iyer also said something that resonated with what it was like that first summer Atticus and I began hiking, “Almost instantaneously I felt that I’d stepped into a richer deeper life, a life that I’d half forgotten.” 
It was always there, but I never tended to it. 

Ten years ago, when Atticus and I did our first round of the four thousand footers we were both awakened.  It was a journey into the unknown together that led us to the known.  Such a mystery.  Together we learned and grew and discovered. 

We all grow older, and Atticus and I are doing that together.  He’s far older than I am so I pay attention to his needs, but this is something that has always been done by both of us.  As our journey continues, I’m not the only one who has changed.  These days he’s not as into the crowds and the rush and hurry world as he used to be.  Both of us have become countrified. 

As I sit here looking at a topographical map of the White Mountains hanging on the wall in front of my desk, I look at those place I spoke of before and realize that I am craving that delicious isolation that comes from finding a quiet place to lay our heads and to wake up every morning.  So what if Best Buy and Whole Foods are more than an hour’s ride away from where we are now and they’ll be further away from wherever it is we end up?  We have found a way to get by.  The quiet and peaceful life continues to call us further away.

As long as the tension between extroversion and introversion exists within me, I’ll know there are more surprises ahead for us.  That’s the part of the journey that enriches and forces us to grow through the light and the dark, through uncertainty and faith. It’s something called life.      

Thursday, February 12, 2015

I Heard From A Porn Star Yesterday

I heard from a porn star yesterday. 
I wouldn’t have known she worked in porn had she not explained it to me in her email and had I not noticed her website listed under her name at the bottom.  It seems she’s a big fan of our book, Following Atticus.  As I read through the email I smiled at the two books of the late monk Thomas Merton sitting next to the computer.

The woman is in a lot of films, none that I know the name of, but I discovered this, and other facts about her when visiting her website.  She crisscrosses the country appearing in strip clubs when she’s not posing for photographs or acting in films.  It’s a good living, she wrote.  She hopes to retire young and move to the country and have a little animal sanctuary.  In between her professional stops she reads – a lot.  So do many of her friends in the industry.  They’ve even formed a reading group and they take turns choosing a book of the month for each of them read. 

She wanted me to know how much Following Atticus impacted her life.  “I thought I was going to read about a cute little dog and I ended up reading about life!”

She asked me about signing books for the other woman in her book group.  She was looking for a case of hardcovers.  “They will love it as much as I did!  I’m also getting them to read your blog and your Facebook page.  You and Atti are awesome!”

I let her know how she could get a case of books.  She’ll send them to me, have me personalize each of them (“Don’t forget Atti’s paw print!"), and then I’ll send them back to her so she can distribute the books to her friends.  During the month of April Atticus’s silvery cataract eyes and Muttluk covered paws, as seen on the book jacket, will be on adult movie sets and strip clubs across the country, packed away in travel bags with stiletto heels, thigh high boots, oversized bras, thongs, tassels, handcuffs, and various and sundry other items. 

This makes me happier than I can say.  Over the past few years I have learned of a marriage counselor handing copies of Following Atticus to his clients. “Treat each other like Tom and Atticus do,” he tells them.  I’ve also heard that we were chosen for a book discussion by therapists dealing with family issues.  There was a city in Michigan where the clergy had a reading group where priests, ministers, rabbis, and nuns read Following Atticus and then met to discuss it.  Many counties, cities, and towns throughout the United States have chosen Following Atticus for a community read, including Groton, Massachusetts, where we will be appearing on April 12
th to talk about our story. 

The greatest pleasure of any writer is to be read.  But from there it often gets interesting to see who is reading your story. It’s wonderful to have varied groups and individuals invest themselves in it and then learn what they took from the journey of a man and a little dog as they left behind one life to get to another in the mountains of New Hampshire.

I am reaffirmed by the different people I hear from that while we are all distinctive, there are common threads that connect us.  Words and feelings knit us together.  They touch our humanity.  It doesn’t matter whether you have a cross over your chest or enhanced breasts.  Inside is what is most important and within each of us is a beating heart.  

The only question that remains now is how many more men will show up at the Groton event now that I know some of the ladies from the porn reading group hope to fly in that day to meet Atticus and me.

PS:  Of course I assured her I looked forward to meeting her, along with everyone else in Groton. In a subsequent email when she asked if Atticus was as friendly as he seems to be I let her know he'd probably like her more than most since they have something in common he doesn't share with most of his fans:  they are both used to being naked on stage.

PPS:  In a couple of email exchanges after reading this post Atti's newest fan joked when she added that while Atticus doesn't wear a collar or use a leash, she does at times - when the movie script calls for it.  Funny!  Lastly she asked if she'll be able to get a photograph taken with us.  "Perhaps, but we don't do selfies."  "I don't blame you. I don't let my fans take them with me either -  selfies are tacky."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Angelic Lucidity in the Woods, in Friendship, in Connecting

The simplicity of the woods.  Sigh.

As I spend more time off-line I find myself more in line with who I am.  More letters written to friends, and more received from them.  Truths told and accepted.  Confessions, yearnings, reports of the day to day.  The joy in writing letters to friends is that we absorb these letters.  We ingest all before responding.  It's a conversation slowed down.  At least for me, it is. 

I thought of this while watching the twitching tail of a red squirrel, curious and protective of his home, as he studied our approach this morning under the blue skies and a relatively warm sun on the day after the storm. 

I long for connection.  True connection.  When it happens I embrace it and am grateful for.  That's the blessing of letters from those we are connected with.  It's a part of themselves.

This morning I wrote to a friend while Atticus and I walked alone in the woods.  That's how I write many of my letters, essays, and articles.  We walk, or hike, and the words bubble up.  I remind myself to put a certain thought, mood, or theme into what I'll be writing when I return to my desk. 

Steve Smith, White Mountain author and owner of the Mountain Wanderer Map & Bookstore, handles his wooded sojourns differently.  He takes copious notes with pencil and tiny notebook, pausing often during a hike. 

I'm told he has a room full of these notebooks from years gone by. 

Once, when sharing how we write about the trail, we compared notes.  So very different.  His details are for guidebooks and discoveries along the trails.  I take more of a romantic approach in considering the discovery of the self, of nature, and the soul of all things.  So different, but we connect with each other's writing. 

This morning I was contemplating something I read a few days ago about "moments of angelic lucidity." 

Marlinda Stull (if we are ever in Kentucky again I'm sure we will stop by Stull's Country Store in Payneville) sent me a few books recently.  One of them is "A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from his Journals."  It was a splendid gift, especially since Marlinda knows I like Merton.  He ranks up there for me with Thoreau, Emerson, Wordsworth, Muir, and Oliver.  Merton wrote: "The sense of angelic transparency of everything, and of pure, simple, and total light.  The word that comes closest to pointing to it is *simple*.  It was all simple.  But a simplicity to which one seems to aspire, only seldom to attain.  A simplicity, that is, that has and says everything just because it is simple."

Through the simplicity comes connection.  To thoughts, the natural world, what and who is important to us . . . to simplicity.

The pleasure of walking with Atticus in such moments, in all our moments really when we are away from those who label and define, is that there is no dog and no man.  There is no dividing line. It's one of the reasons I don't relate to the idea of breeds and avoid themes and terms and clich├ęs that come with dogs.  I understand Atticus is a dog and I am a human, but that really doesn't have much of anything to do with defining us.  We connect as equals in the woods.  Neither one of us deifies each other.  Nor do we look down on each other.  We simply are.  It's a connection, not a separation.   

I've told my agent I am the worst possible ambassador for pets.  It's because I don't use the word nor do I relate to how many talk of animals.  I like it this way.  Our way.  It's a connection.  There is no thought of words like owner and master.  There is no one over the other.  I'm not trying to make him my son.  He's no one's baby.  He's an adult.  He's himself, just as I am myself. It's simple.  It's Tom & Atticus, or Atticus and Tom.  

Some of you know this story already but it bears repeating.  A woman came up to me in a store. 

"You're a *breed deleted* person!"

"Not really.  I ended up with three dogs of the same breed by chance."

"Oh well, at least your a dog person."

"Actually if I would call myself anything I'd say I am an elephant person."

"But you live with two dogs."

"That's because I don't have the room for two elephants." 

But even if I did have an elephant, other than medical, physical, and nutritional needs, I wouldn't think of the elephant as the elephant.  I'd simply think of him as an individual who is my friend and if I had to call him anything I'd call him by his name. 

Years ago, when I lived back in Newburyport, I often had breakfast or lunch with three fascinating elderly men.  One of them was Doug Cray.  He was a retired New York Times reporter who had covered Kennedy and Johnson in the White House, not to mention volumes of other notable people.  You wouldn't know it, though.  Doug was as humble as could be.  After knowing him for several years I'd still find out about people he had spent time with. 

"Really, you traveled on the road with Duke Ellington for a month?"


"What was he like?"

"Oh, you know Duke." 

I didn't.  But what I took joy in was listening to how Doug talked of others.  It was always personal and intimate. 

One of the waitresses at a local coffee house adored Doug Cray.  We'd stop in during the afternoon for coffee and some kind of treat.  Before we'd leave Doug would say to the waitress, as he gently touched her arm, "You know, I'd like to get one of those delicious raspberry scones to take home to Barbara." 

One day the waitress said to me, "Doug is such a gentle man.  Know what I like best about him?"

"What's that?"

"I've only met Barbara a couple of times but he talks about her so personally that I feel like I know her well.  He never refers to her as his wife.  There's no ownership.  She's only one thing.  She's Barbara.  That's so personal."

I always liked that about Doug.

Although I've rid our home of so much "stuff", I have held onto things that truly matter to me.  One of them is Anne Criscitiello's first portrait in years after her dance with cancer.  It's a sketch of Atticus, Will, and me.  There's even a paw print of Max in it.  Ann sent it along framed and matted.  It's a keepsake.  In the matting she inserted a quote from Thoreau, "The most I can for my friend is simply be his friend." 

That about sums it up.  The connection.  The simplicity.  Angelic lucidity.