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, November 13, 2014

John Updike, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thomas Merton: My Thanksigiving Column for the NorthCountry News

"The stripped and shapely
 Maple grieves
 The ghosts of her
 Departed leaves.
The ground is hard,
 As hard as stone.
 The year is old,
 The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
 In its distress,
 Displays a certain
~ John Updike

There is a song of November and I think it is as lovely as the trees are barren.  Updike sums it up well.  Sure there are gray days ahead, more darkness and freezing temperatures are on the way, but the forests are so beautiful this time of year.  The streams murmur and run clear and cold.  The night sky black but adorned by stars so brilliant it takes your breath away.  And the quiet is peaceful and calming, especially on a mountainside now that the crowds have gone. 

High up there are varying levels of snow but below three thousand feet the mountains are simple bare and plain.  A simplicity exists away from the heat and humidity and the bugs and the people, and a certain bare-bones familiarity that exists before winter hits us full on and covers everything in white for the next four or five months.  I’ve fallen quite in love with November for these very reasons.  And now that it’s easier to breathe, so has Atticus.  He no longer slinks about like an old dog who is closer to thirteen than twelve.  He’s back to bouncing along the trails knee deep in a plush carpet of crinkling brown leaves on the forest floor.  He’s young again, happy to be out again, and having to wait up for me once again.  How can I not love this time of year for that reason alone? 

On Thanksgiving Day Atticus and I will head off and find a mountain where there are no cars at the trailhead.  I’ll make a list of a few and if the weather is dry and the views clear, we’ll climb a mountain by ourselves and eat our dinner on a ledge with views to the sacred lands before us.  How fortunate we are to live in a place where this is possible and to live without the constraints of having to be somewhere else to please someone else.  This was part of our reason for leaving behind a more civilized life which also felt like a more stultified one.

We all have our reasons for seeking out the mountains.  For me it’s as much about spirituality and peace as it is about the beauty and exercise a hike contains.  I find myself in these mountains again and again.  I find reasons for gratitude on the flat and steep trails while breathing easily or with so much difficulty I have to surrender to my own exhaustion and racing heart.  As a matter of fact, that’s where the moment of grace often hits me – when I have to stop because my breath cannot keep up with my desires and I’m hanging my head and wiping sweat from my brow.  There over the noise of my inhaling and exhaling sits the quiet of the natural world. 

This time of year there isn’t even much birdsong and the leaves are gone and the trees stand before me as naked as can be.  There’s nothing to hide, no one to impress, and they are nothing but who they are.  It’s ironic to me that when I often find the forest most alive is when all is gray – sometimes even the November sky. 

I read yesterday with a heavy heart that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who is perhaps the most spiritual soul I know of on this earth, is close to death.  At eighty-eight he’s had a brain hemorrhage.  There is no way of knowing how much time he has left before his body gives up and he becomes spirit and memory.  I often think of him and his spiritual soul mate, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, and mystic when I’m in the woods this time of year.  The two men only met once but they stayed in touch until Merton died a few years later in the late sixties. 

Both of these monks from different religions and opposite ends of the world found tranquility and grace in nature.  Much like many of us do.  They understood our place in the grand scheme of things and whenever life became too crazy they retreated to the simplicity of nature. 

Following Atticus on the mountain trails helped me to ditch my ego, my accomplishments, even the stopwatch I used to wear on every hike.  Following my friend I fell more in line with what matters most and let nature set the pace.  This is something both Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh came to understand.  It’s what I am always learning on the sides of mountains and why we seek out the peaks where no one else is. 

It’s during those moments when my body cannot keep pace I’m made to stop and just take a moment to wait and be silent.  Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote: “Breathing in, there is only the present moment.  Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.”  And that’s what I’m learning.  There is the trailhead, there is the summit, and then there is everything in betwee

As Thanksgiving Day arrives I hope that each of our readers finds far more to be thankful for than to be weighed down by.  May you have a day of simplicity and joy with those you love, doing what fulfills you. 

Onward, by all means,
Tom (& Atticus)

Monday, November 03, 2014

Considering Will

It's Monday morning and the forest has a different look and feel to it after the strong winds we've had.  Gusts still ride high over the tree tops sounding like a runaway ghost train but the sun has returned and red squirrels and chipmunks are active and their chatter is comical.  Pine cones are everywhere, knocked from their perches to the earth where death will become life.  They crunch underfoot and the pine tar gets on everything.  Once a week I massage and clean Atticus's pads with olive oil to get rid of debris and to recondition them.  This time of year I do it twice a week. 
Ten days have passed since Will left us and I'm avoiding our Facebook page to some extent. This is when it helps to have great moderators.  The kindness and love is evident by the vast majority of people who post, and also appreciated, but this being social media, projection also is present.  We all experience death but it's a personal experience.  I've never been a big fan of people saying "been there done that" about anything, and because I think of death as a miracle of its own - which may differ from what others believe - I tend to avoid the typical calling cards of cliché when it comes to something equaling a sacrament to me.  Life and death are worthy of so much more than clichés. 
My goal in loss is to learn and grow from it, to take joy from those who we traveled with who are no longer with us, to make their presence in our life into a gift I can always carry with me. 
Several times last week people wanted to believe that Atticus was mourning.  He wasn't.  He still isn't.  He's buoyant and free.  I'm not mourning either, not really.  As I told Christine Heinz on Twitter this morning, we did what we set out to do in taking in Will. 
I thought his visit with us was going to be much shorter than it turned out to be.    That was a plus to me.  When Will reclaimed himself it was a joy to behold.  His eyes were young and expectant.  When I'd walk up to him and he looked at me and I couldn't help but smile. 
In the very end Will was far less than what he'd come to be with us.  He couldn't sit like a lion for more than a few seconds.  He'd topple over without being propped up.  He was rotting from the inside out (I'll leave the details too various myself).  You saw him mostly as fresh and clean and sweet and so alive over the last few months, but that's because of the photographs I shared of him.  He was still sweet, but he was also dying.
I've not been crying very much.  I have thoughtful moments and much to digest.  I will cry for Will down the road when I talk about him at events, I'm sure, but not out of sadness.  It will be because of the gift of the experience.  It's what the mythologist Joseph Campbell aptly named, "the experience of being alive." 
Will came to us at fifteen.  My job was to be by his side and give him what he needed when he needed it.  That was everything from patience; to food and water; to bathing him when he fell in his urine and feces and couldn't get up; to stretching exercises and massage; to experiences with nature; to flowers and music and sweet and savory smells; to reassuring touches; to love and acceptance and shared growth; and finally to let him leave this physical world when his body no longer worked and I didn't want to compromise him for my own sake. 
The decision to say goodbye is so very hard, but in Will's case it was easier because it was clear to me.  I considered the entire journey to be textured and genuine and fortunate for Will and me.  Sitting in a beautiful mountainside field with him in my arms while he snored, then standing to hold him while Rachael let his sleep become permanent was and will always be a sacred experience.  I can think of no higher honor than to recognize a friend for who he or she is and what his or her needs are and help them to where they need to go. 
Will needed to be loved and believed in. He needed someone in his corner over the last chapter of his life.  He had that.  I can't speak for him but I imagine he has no regrets and he felt nothing but love. 
Over the past week I've heard from friends who knew Will two and a half years ago from when he first came to be with us and they couldn't believe the impressive change in him.  There weren't many he didn't try to bite those first few months - even the ever-so-gentle Tracy at Ultimutt Cut Salon, who understood his hatred of being put in a crate and never forced that on him - had to be careful of his teeth in the beginning.
When Will first arrived here he smelled of death.  Much of that had to do with his mouth and his rotten teeth.  Our vet at the time, Christine O'Connell, went to work on that but could only get a fraction done while he was under anesthesia.  There were several places where the gums had receded so far tips of the roots were barely concealed and you could push a small object through the opening between them. His mouth hadn’t been taken care of for years – if ever.   
Exercise specialists we went to clearly saw what I did, that Will had not had much, if any, exercise for a long time before he came to us.  They concluded his unnaturally stiff hips were a product of being crated for far too long for far too many years. 
His mouth would never improve, but his willingness to accept love and offer it did.  His joints improved too, until the last weeks when they appeared as though they had been tightened to the point of pain by a wrench.
One of the joys in sharing our journey with hundreds of thousands of people is that Will, once unwanted and neglected, was celebrated.  He became a model for adopting animals who seem like lost causes.  He was proof you can't judge a book by its cover.  I was thrilled that for the past year and a half he's received flowers and blankets because of many of you investing in him. 

Will was so miserable and broken when he arrived that over the first two weeks I was close to putting him out of his misery.  I pitied him.  In the last week of his life, I knew what had to be done but pity was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d say what I was feeling had more to do with celebration. 

I can’t speak to what befell Will before he came to us, only to what the evidence revealed.  But even then it wasn’t to judge those he lived with before because that didn’t matter to me.  What mattered was what we were going to do with the shattered puzzle of Will.  Together, he and I worked to put him back together again, with an occasional assist from Atticus.  But as I always say, in the end Will rescued himself.  We gave him a helping hand but in the end the final choices were always his to make. 

I’m glad we’ve shared Will's life with you, and his passing, but I also know enough to stay away from too much that is written about him by people who never met him, or interacted with him for a very short while.  It’s sickening to have someone you love be dissected by those who knew very little and who cared nothing of him over the past two and a half years.  Thankfully it’s also rare, but when it happens it’s noticed, occasionally by me, more often by others.  This is the price of making public your life with someone.  I understand this.  But it’s also one of the reasons I’m careful about wading into uncomfortable waters and why I’ve never visited other websites about dogs.  Too many armchair quarterbacks.  As of late some of them have appeared on our own Facebook page (and others), but our moderators quickly move to change that. 

On the positive side, there has been an incredible amount of response in celebrating Will’s life.  I know many feel sad about his dying but I cannot do anything about that.  I can only say that I’m not feeling the same way and I have a hard time imaging Will was ever very sad over the past two years of his life.  It was a grand final chapter and I’m happy for him and proud of him.

Life and death are very personal, but if we can share these personal experiences and people are reverent enough to simply witness what they see and not judge it, some good can come of it.  I feel confident much good has already come from Will and his journey and that many can only continue.  Knowing that others will do get chances at new life because of Will is something to celebrate.

Thank you,

(To help other animals in need we've set up a memorial fund in Will's name at the Conway Area Humane Society.  Some have asked why I chose C.A.H.S.  There are many reasons, but they start at the top of that organization.  I believe anytime an unwanted animal finds a new home there are limitless possibilities for happy endings.  That said, I've learned quite a bit about rescue - the good and the bad.   It's hard work.  I support C.A.H.S. because of Virginia Moore, the executive director. In a field where some put themselves above the animals they are supposed to be helping, Virginia has the perfect perspective.  She restored my belief in those who get rescue right.) 


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Will & Me

Whenever my breath catches this week and I think about the impossibility of letting go I remind myself that this is what I signed up for.  I brought Will here to live with Atticus and me where the air is clean and the waters run clear and cool, where birds and mountains soar in skies ripe with dreams, so that he could die with dignity. 

Whenever I tuck him in at night and play a song for him with speakers on the floor so he can feel the vibrations of love like Beethoven did when he cut the legs off his piano so that he could compose his Ninth Symphony, with his ear pressed to the floor while going deaf, I think of what it must have been like that first night Will was dropped off in a kill shelter.  Vision failing, hearing worthless, bad hips, broken body, and broken spirit.  To be left there alone with those strange smells, in a cell of hopelessness and betrayal.  The thought will always haunt me. 

I think of the emptiness and confusion of those first days and nights in the shelter, then in the care of various members of New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue over the next week before he joined us.  My heart goes out to him and I’m so happy we took him in. 

But here’s the thing – I didn’t expect to love Will so.  He wasn’t supposed to last that long.  It was supposed to be easy to bring in this old soul and give him a place to live out his life with dignity. I thought it would be no more than two to three months and he would appreciate it and be as sweet and happy as I was led to believe he was before he showed up. 
But that wasn’t Will. Will was angry and determined to strike back.  One of the first morning’s here he stood on his hind legs and used his front paws to steady himself on top of the coffee table. He made himself as big as he could to let me know who was boss.  He was fierce and feral and was bearing his teeth and looking at me with eyes that could kill.  He was so aggressive that when I brought him to Four Your Paws Only to fit him with a harness, we put it on him as if we were handling a ticking bomb for fear of his wrath.  That harness was needed during those first months.  He couldn’t climb stairs and had to be carried and he would have none of that. 

He’d thrash about with that head and those teeth that caught me far too often.  The harness was a handle for me to carry him safely.  More than to protect him, it was to protect me. Whenever anyone asked why I kept the harness on Will all day and night, I told them it was because it was the only way to live with him. 

The first time I heard his heart whimper with joy and relief was a few months later.  Atticus and I went on a tour for the paperback release of Following Atticus.  Leigh Grady took care of him for a week.  By this time he’d calmed down quite a bit but still had the occasional temper tantrum, and I was always aware of where his teeth were.  When we returned I picked him up in my arms and that once-snarling little beast tucked his head down under my chin against my heart and he whimpered softly and uncontrollably.  I don’t pretend to know very often what dogs or other animals are thinking but it was clear he was happy we’d come back for him.  He rarely left my side that next week. 

I’m not sure when the biting stopped.  I think it was between six and eight months.  One day I realized it was gone.  He’d still react out of habit after that and open his mouth and peel back his lips and then he’d remember he didn’t have to do that ever again. 

We celebrated when he made it to the first day of autumn that first year.  Then Will made it to winter and through the winter and each season that followed surprised me until I stopped counting seasons.  Then came a year and we stood in the booth with Roy Prescott at WMWV talking about Will’s one year anniversary on the morning show.  Two years came this past May and I began to wonder if we would ever be saying goodbye to him.  Of course by this time I didn’t want to.  He has become the best company.  In some ways he is more interesting than Atticus because of his special needs. 

Atticus has been easy since his first few months as a puppy.  We are like a couple of old bachelors who have lived together forever.  We know each other’s ways and pretty much all that we do is seamless.  It’s unspoken grace.  Will has been anything but that. 

This week a few people who don’t know Atticus personally have asked how he’s doing.  They expect the worst. “I’m sure Atticus knows what’s going on...”  Or they say, “Atticus is going to miss Will.  I’m worried about him.”  But Atticus has never been close to Will.  I never expected him to be.  He’s reached out when Will has been in need . . . when he was having a seizure or choking, and put a stop to it.  But other than that he’s kept his distance. 
Atticus is kind and patient, he’s polite and thoughtful, and his job in our attempts to help Will reclaim his life and his soul was to lead by example.  Animals have often been calmed by Atticus’s presence.  I don’t doubt that’s why the bears come and linger around him as much as they do, or how the moose he’s met have stood calmly less than twenty yards away, or chipmunks tease and giggle at him from close range.  There is something about Atticus’s peaceful ways that allows others to be themselves and they become more like him.   

I tend to think that when Will leaves us Atticus will carry on.  His job, you see, has always been me.  I’ll be the one with the broken heart, with the tears rolling down my cheeks.  I’ll be the one who will steer clear of others for a while and contemplate this incredible journey through moments of tears and laughter. 

I’m not looking forward to the days to come.  Oh, I can be here for Will for the next two days.  That will be the easy part for I love him and I’ll do my best for my friend.  The hard part will be to come home Friday from that mountainside without him.  I’ll pass into an ache deep and vast and I imagine I’ll sit here sobbing with my head in my hands.  Not for Will, but for me.  The tears I have for Will, when they do come, are out of joy for my friend.  I think of what he’s accomplished, of the hundreds, if not thousands of people he’s helped and inspired.  And of course there are all those senior and elderly animals who have been taken into homes because of Will’s job as an ambassador. 

Will proved that age is not a disease and he’s taught many about that.  That’s a gift to animals for all time since it’s been passed on to more than 200,000 people on our Facebook page.  When our next book is published the message will go out to even more people and Will is going to live on forever. 

I think about that part of it with wonder.  From how Will came to us and all that he’d lost, then regained, and now all that’s he’s gifted to a world that had betrayed him at one time. 

I don’t deify dogs or other animals.  But I don’t look down on them either.  I do my best to treat them as equals.  That has been the equation that has worked well over these past two and a half years.  I think of Will as I have all my elderly friends and I’ve put myself in his place several times a day and tried to figure out things as we grew together.  I’m no expert and I’ve heard from some experts who cringe at my way of doing things.  But I figure that’s there issue, not mine. 

A year ago a publisher sent me a book on dog training and asked me for blurb for the back cover. I was thrilled to be considered for it.  But after five or ten pages I wrote the publisher back and told her I couldn’t do it.  “I just don’t agree with some of this stuff.”  For me it’s been simple with Atticus and Will, and Maxwell Garrison Gillis before them.  It’s been about the Golden Rule.  Treat others how you wished to be treated.  I’m not a genius but it’s worked well for us.  In the process it’s blurred the lines between species and allowed us to be something more than many of the terms used for the canine-human relationship.  It’s allowed us to consider each other friends.

Between now and Friday I’ll be holding Will a lot, just as I have always have since he’s allowed it, but this week it’s been a little different. Now as I look into his eyes I’m saying to him, “How do I say goodbye to you? How will my heart survive the blow it’s about to be dealt?  How will I not collapse in grief?”

But the answer to each of those questions is right in front of me, held close to my heart.  If Will could survive what he did, than I can survive this promise I made to my friend two and a half years ago when I said I’d see him home, no matter how long it takes. 

I can do this.  You see, I signed up for this and it changed my life and it changed Will’s as well.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Loving Will

When I first met Will I wondered why anyone had kept him alive.  It was cruel.  He had suffered through unknown levels of neglect and abuse, the same sin by different names, and he was filled with anger.  He lacked trust and didn’t want to be touched.  He hated being picked up, which was a problem since we live on the second floor and his hips were not made for walking or climbing.  He wasn’t anything I really thought he would be.  He was so much less.  On that first day he tried to bite me several times and was finally successful. 

He dug his teeth into my thumb, moving so quickly it was halfway in his mouth before I realized it.  A tooth punctured the skin and the flexor tendon.  Warm blood ran down his throat as his eyes glared at me while he held me captive. 

My initial reaction was to scream out, to yank back my thumb, even to strike out.  But I didn’t do any of those things.  Instead something strange happened.  At that moment I changed when I told him in a very calm voice, “I don’t blame you. You’re angry, in pain, feel betrayed and you’re frightened.  I’d feel the same way too.”  And we stood like that until he finally let go. 

The first few days were a nightmare. He tried to attack me as Atticus took refuge on the couch.  Luckily, Will’s hips were so bad he had a difficult time getting to me.  But he snarled and snapped.  And when I wasn’t extra careful he bit me again and again.  The first day I gave him a chew stick he walked around with it in his mouth.  He didn’t know what to do with it.  It’s like he’d never seen one before.  I reached out to hold it for him and he bit me again. 

Will thought nothing of tipping over the trash, standing on those week hind legs and placing his front legs on the top of the coffee table and snarling at me. There were so many times he’d look me right at me with his cataract clouded eyes and piss or shit without second thought.

It took a long time for him not to bite me and I will wear some of the scars on my hands for the rest of my life.  The woman I was dating then never once held Will in the seven months we were together.  The one time I tried to pass him from my hands to hers he tried to attack her.  But somewhere along the way we connected and everything changed.  These days he’s happiest in my arms. 

I often think that my contract with him started with a promise and it was one I made with him biting my thumb.  I told him, “I’m never going to leave you.  We’re going to see you get to where you need to be.” 

As for where he needed to be?  Well, Atticus and I took Will in to give him a place to die with dignity.  Before I met him I thought it would be a nice sweet journey with few troubles along the way.  But after I met him and saw what had been done to him, I didn’t think he’d last more than two or three months.  I like to think that instead of dying, Will chose to live with dignity. 

My gosh, has he transformed.  All three of us have changed in the last two and a half years, but none more so than Will.

The problem with assessing Will is that he came to us in such a sorry state that everything was an improvement.  Even now when he cannot stand in one place before his hips give out and he slowly lowers himself to the floor or the ground in an excruciatingly slow ten to twenty seconds.  He cannot move as he did just six months ago and while the yoga mats have helped a great deal, when he lowers himself to the ground and he sits like a lion with his legs out to the side he cannot get up again.  A few months ago that was only a handful of times a day.  Lately it’s been somewhere between thirty and fifty times a day.  And he's now taken to flopping over on his side without the strength or balance to keep him upright.  Even now though as his weight drops and his old skin continues to break down needing constant baths and medication, even as he cannot get up off the floor on his own, I look at him as being better off than when he first came to us.  He’s happy.  There’s still wonder in his eyes whenever he’s around me.  I scoop his little frail body up and swing him in my arms and kiss his head and cradle him to look into his eyes that cannot see much, but reveal everything. 

I was always more concerned with his soul than his body.  Our job was to give him dignity. To take the puzzle pieces and put Will back together again.  And as much as I did for him, as much as Atticus guided him on the rare moments he did (which was when Will needed it most), I give Will the biggest share of the credit. Fate delivers all of us to where we are supposed to be.  Our choices then define who we are.  Will chose to become Will.  He chose to live. 

Yesterday Rachael Kleidon, our remarkable vet, and I had a long conversation.  There were many tears.  (And now there are tears as I write this.)  We couldn’t be happier for Will.  His transformation.  How he decided to write the last chapter of his life and it’s clear that he’s now  lived up to his name. 

Later I lay down on the floor with Will and I offered him my thumb.  He cannot lift his head up all the time any longer.  Sometimes he needs help.  But I offered him my thumb, the one he bit the first day, and he took it in his mouth and kissed it.  Then lay his head on my other hand.   As we lay together the years and the pain revealed themselves in the softest groans of pain that he has become accustomed to. 

I knew. 

And I knew later when I watched a video of him just a few months ago when he was playing and having fun that he has aged so much since then. 

There are no more answers. I cannot introduce anything else to help Will.  Every piece of the puzzle has found its right place.  Will made it home again.  He’s who I always wished him to be, an old dog with dignity and a happy life.

My friend Donna Jean said it best last night, “He has had a whole new life in two and a half years but his poor body can’t keep up with his now young heart.” 

On Friday, or the first good weather day after that, Atticus, Rachael, and I are bringing Will halfway up a mountain and we’ll sit in grand field that in better weather is filled with wildflowers.  The views to the Presidential Range are stunning, as well as over to Wildcat and Carter-Moriah ranges.  We’ll sit there and we’ll play and we’ll talk.  I’ll play a song for Will and take him in my arms.  His eyes that still know love and wonder will look into mine and see the same thing.  Then he’ll fall asleep for the last time. Wherever he goes from there is up to powers to mysterious for me to understand. 
To do anything else would be yet another betrayal for a soul who suffered to many of them before his Jackson, New Hampshire days. 

Will touches us all.  I’ve always thought that while Atticus is who we want to be, Will is who we are.  He has known pain and sorrow and betrayal.  And he has been redeemed.  He has reached his happy ending, even if it is something that breaks my heart.  He will not be forgotten.  His will live forevermore in the words of our next book.  And he will continue to inspire. 

I have heard from hundreds of people who have taken in senior or elderly animals because of Will.  That’s Will’s legacy.     

Sometimes love is holding on for dear life, sometimes it’s knowing when to let go.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

An Unusual Guest On A Wild Night

We have been off center the last several days.  There was an accident in our little apartment and we’ve been left with some water damage.  The carpet in the bedroom is one of the casualties.  Mold formed quickly and because of it Atticus and I have been sleeping on the couch with Will tucked in one of his dog beds just below my head.  We have a small place, but a cheery one, and the kitchen and living room is combined with big windows on the east and west side and a glass door to the north that looks out on a quaint roofed deck where there sits a small table and two chairs with some plants along the railing. 

Two nights ago a wicked storm blew across the mountains and covered the bright moon with fast moving clouds.  When the rain came it was as if the sky exploded and heavy raindrops pounded on the metal roof of the house.  I sat up on the couch to look out from our second floor perch into the backyard to the skeleton of our black ash tree, which had dropped its leaves several weeks ago.  The heavy rain was mesmerizing.  I tucked back into sleep with Atticus behind my knees and Will snoring blissfully below. 

Sometime later I was startled awake by a crash.  One of the ceramic planters must have been blown over by the storm on our deck.  I walked to the door and took my headlamp off the knob and turned it on.  I could see the planter broken into bits but I also saw an enormous bear settling down on the deck, it seemed, to take shelter from the storm.  When the light flashed on him he jumped up and turned around, ready to race down the stairs. 

It was Butkus, who I had not seen in over a year.  He’s the largest and oldest of our local bears and the first we encountered some five years ago. I turned the headlamp toward myself so he could see me and gave him a casual wave.  He stopped, moved closer to the door to look at me, and then he sat down. 

We haven’t seen the bears for nearly two months.  There is a house that is rarely used right next door to us.  You cannot see it because of the trees and the way it’s back form the road.  But for the past two months a young man in his twenties was staying there.  He rode a motorcycle and revved it loudly shaking walls and the peace and quiet.  He came and went  at all hours of the night.  Through other discoveries (which I will not go into) I learned he was not a very nice fellow. Since the time he moved in the bears had stopped coming by.  They are funny that way.  Although they have always come and gone in Jackson as they please, drawn by the sweet and savory aromas of the inns and restaurants here, they watch closely and don’t reveal themselves often when things are different.  Whenever our landlords are up for a visit and staying downstairs they bears don’t reveal themselves.  Nor do they when the landlords let friends use their place.  But as soon as the downstairs is quiet again, the bears return.  Alas, this hasn’t been the case over the last two months. 

But the young fellow next door is now gone and I wondered if we’d see any of the bears again before they disappeared for the winter.  And here was Butkus, enormous and wet and sitting out the storm on our deck. 

I watched him for a few minutes and then pulled the comforter and pillow and my Kindle from the couch and sat with my back against the glass door, drawn by this incredible animal.  Soon Atticus was with me, his head raised up on my thigh watching Butkus.  Eventually Butkus lay down and placed his huge head against the glass next to where my head rested against the pillow.  Our eyes were only the width of the glass apart. It wasn’t long before both Atticus and Butkus were asleep. 

When I woke up, still pressed against the door where I sat with Atticus and Butkus the night before, the rain was gone and so was our neighbor.  Blue skies poured over the valley and the sun danced on the jeweled raindrops left behind.  A gift of a day followed the gift of the night before.

The bears fascinate me.  We know enough to be careful around them and to make sure they have an exit plan, and so do we.  We don’t encourage them with food; they just pass by on their way to other places.  Occasionally they linger for a little while, but they don’t appear to be very comfortable with most people.  They obviously didn’t like the short term lodger next door, and they don't like the family that moved in on the other side of us.  Once when Atticus and I were sitting out back a few months ago Aragorn showed up and sat contentedly with us fifteen feet away for fifteen minutes.  Some of you may remember the photographs.  He only left when our neighbors came outside, unseen due to the summer foliage, but easily heard.  He gnashed his teeth and repeatedly snapped his jaws before growling and running down to the Ellis River. Last year when two of our moderators, Christina and Mike, showed up for a visit while Atticus and I were watching the “Jackson Five” (a mother and four cubs) playing in the yard, the bears abruptly left. 

I’m not certain why they come around us as they do.  I’ve always believed it has something to do with Atticus and how other animals are often drawn to him.  That’s how we met Aragorn three years ago.  He was a yearling and followed us home from a walk. He trailed us for half a mile before showing up in our backyard.  When I reminded Atticus, “Not all dogs are friendly,” Atti sat down.  In the bushes on the border of our yard Aragorn did, too.  When Atticus dropped into the sphinx position, so did Aragorn.  Since that day, of all the bears, it’s been Aragorn who spends the most time around us, always looking to Atticus, and occasionally to me. 

I’m reminded of our third floor apartment in Newburyport where there was a window box without flowers in it.  We couldn’t plant anything because the wind would rise up from the Merrimack River and rush up State Street removing any of the flowers there.  But one year a pigeon built as nest and Atticus, who was very young, stood up on his hind legs with the window open and watched her, his head less than a foot away.  When there were chicks in the nest he was fascinated by them and the mother thought nothing of leaving them behind to seek out food while Atticus watched over them. 

Pigeons are one thing, but bears are another.  Although I’m fascinated by all forms of wildlife, the bears most intrigue me because of how we share this yard with each other.  When young ones come along, I typically scare them away.  But the older ones know their boundaries with us and I let them come and go as they will.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

As Atticus Ages, I Find Myself Growing Up A Bit

Lately I've been keeping company during the late hours of each night with May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude."  I've encountered her poetry for years and whenever I do I appreciate her gift, but her journal is something deeper, more honest and genuine.  The late New Hampshire poet lived down in the Monadnock area and well understood the small towns that dot our state and the land and weather we all know intimately. 
Each night, I read an entry.  I portion it out so that I will not finish the book too quickly.  Each morning, as Atticus and I walk or hike, her words return to me while we pass through the colorful foliage, along earthen paths, by rivers and ponds, to ledges with views more breathtaking than I've ever noticed.  For this certainly has been the best fall foliage I've seen in years.  And just as the colors and the light have been luminous, so are her words.  How fortunate we are to live here, and how fortunate to have poets and writers who understand New Hampshire.  As they reflect this great area and the natural world that surrounds us, Nature reflects who we are as we surrender to her charms.  
There is something in Sarton's journal entries that pierce me.  A stark reality made beautiful.  It's exhibited in the way she sees the trees and her words offer lessons to each of us.  Perhaps lessons we already know, but need a gentle reminder to see clearly once again.  How appropriate she starts off in the fall and notes the changing of the landscape.  Just as we are currently witnessing as we look out the kitchen window, walk the dog, or drive to work.   
As Atticus continues to age I am faced with a new reality. He's twelve now; in the autumn years of his life.  He's not as quick or strong as he once was. His hearing is failing - a bit.  His eyes don't see as clearly as night, nor do they judge depth as accurately either.  But he's still well, still enjoys getting out and about.  If we are not out three times a day he stares at me as I write to remind me we need to be outside.  "Get a move on," I imagine his stern look saying.  "Life is calling."
As Atticus ages, I find myself growing up a bit.  For when dogs are young or in the prime of their lives, we are all children in their company.  But I am learning to accept things that the young may not quite comprehend.  One of them is understanding we won't be returning to nearly any of the highest peaks we've done together.  Not at his age.  And the next time I return to Franconia Ridge or the Bonds or the Presidentials, it will be without him.  Hopefully it will be years down the road.  But still I have been forced to accept the change we all must deal with when those we love turn elderly and cannot get around quite as easily as they once did. 
But amidst the loss, there is a grace to be found.  Look no further than the trees that blaze bright red, orange, and yellow everywhere we look.  May Sarton wrote: "I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep."  Then she added: "Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go."
It seems that is the lesson we are learning in Atticus's old age.  To let go of the past.  Past expectations.  Past performances on the trails.  We both are older than we were when we started hiking ten years ago, but while I'm middle aged, my four-legged friend is now becoming elderly. 
Acceptance has come in the form of appreciating nature whenever we experience it and wherever we can.  So what if we don't go as high as we used to or traverse for as many miles?  In the White Mountains we are blessed with waterfalls and valleys, ponds that are secreted away where the moose go to play and eat, and rivers both strong and gentle.  The air is clean, the wildlife abounds, and we are still free as we wish to be as we make our way into the forest each time we enter one, leaving the car and the rest of the busy world behind. 
Nature calls to us and we still respond.  Our age doesn't matter.  As we grow older we temper our desires and find new places to embrace and different ways of getting lost in nature in order to get lost in ourselves.   
Nature teaches us what we need to learn.  We merely have to take the time to pause and pay attention.  Right now the trees are reminding me that in the autumn they are at their most beautiful.  Looking to Atticus now as I write this, his eyes are a tad bit cloudier, his muzzle has a touch of gray in it.  Beyond that though, he shines as he always has.  Only this morning, in mountain air clean and cool, he bounced along a trail that traces the Saco River like he was a pup again.  Young and free and happy.
The passage of the seasons is much like the passage of life.  There are lessons to be learned and gifts to received, no matter the time of year. No matter the time of life.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Seasonal Meditation

We were out in the dying light late yesterday, and in the new light of this gray New England morning.  We were walking.  Walking and thinking and reflecting.  I do some of my best writing this way.
Steve Smith, the author of several White Mountain guide books and a friend of ours, takes copious notes when out on a trail.  A section of his home is devoted to decades of tiny notebooks filled with his scratched observations.  We once compared writing habits and he was surprised that I do not take notes on a hike.  Instead I walk with Atticus and Nature and a theme is delivered to me. I ruminate on it and allow myself to actually feel it.  I bring that gift home with me to my writing table.  That's how it is when we hike, and now when we are hiking less and walking more.  This is how I write. 
Recently, while corresponding with a friend, I shared some experiences Atticus and I are going through that are new for us.  We have been discussing the aging process and how I notice signs that things are different for my friend.  As he ages we change the way we do certain things.  We grow together, even as he gets older.  So while his physical limitations accrue, so do the gifts of the experience of this friendship and shared love and life. 
I've come to realize that most of the mountains we've come to know intimately - the mountains who have helped shape our identity and this bond - will never see the two of us together again.  There will come a day when I return to them, but Atticus won't be with me. 
Fortunately, there is so much more he and I share than just our love of mountains.  We still enjoy our walks; our visits with the cool running waters of streams, brooks, and rivers; sitting on the side of a trail to catch our breath and let the setting of Nature catch up to us; and just being at one with Nature, or in our little home.  Atticus is supportive of Will by being understanding and patient.  But where Atticus thrives is when it's just the two of us out on an adventure either big or small.  Away from man made noise, and wrapped in the sounds of sighing trees, birds singing, chipmunks chirping, the grumble of bears we sometimes encounter, and of course, the rustling of leaves overhead and now underfoot as they fall from the trees.
Old age delivers lessons for us to learn together.  It's one thing to take in an aged Will at fifteen; it's entirely different to pay attention as Atticus ages before my eyes.  It's a process and together we handle it as a team.  I prefer to consider it a new mountain range to traverse.  

Walking through corridors of colored trees and watching a handful drift carelessly down upon us, spiraling to a quiet resting place to create new life in coming years; it’s easy to think of the passage of time. Of life and death.  There will come a day Atticus will die.  There will come a time when I do as well.  It’s something none of us can escape.  I learned this at an early age and I tend not to obsess about it, although I understand most other people do.  For some reason I do not fear death.  The adventurer in me thinks of it as a mysterious new beginning.

This was my contemplation while enjoying the glory of leaves as we strolled along the solitude of a country road, the only sound being the three crows who were following us from tree to tree and calling out their pleasantries or obscenities.  In the autumn we get a great lesson of how graceful that passage from life to death can be.  It's natural.   
When we returned home this morning I responded to a friend’s letter and wrote something I’ll share here with you as well. 
"Those we love, after all, are never really gone.  We may not be able to touch them any longer, but they can touch us and most likely always will." 
But death will have to wait, for today we live.  I don't mind visiting with it in my thoughts now and again, but these are the days for living.  I know that by the way Will is doing his best to jump up on me as I bring food to his dish.  He doesn't get very far off the ground with those two front paws.  He's more like a wind-up toy.  Yet his exuberance makes up for what his physical abilities lack.

So it's onward we go.  Onward, by all means.