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, 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.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tom, your writing helps us remember what is important in life. Thank you!

Deb said...

I recently lost my 95 year old father and then but two weeks ago, his dog who had come to live with us 18 months ago. Your words and those of the poet ring all too true in my heart today...thank you. While they cut into my heart, they mysteriously also help it to mend...God bless you, Tom, Atticus and Will.

Nancy said...

Thank you. I find meaning in this for myself, my animal family members, this time of year and this time in my life.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Your words teach us so much...reminding us to enjoy the little things in life...the letting go, the pain and the beauty of living a life enriched with nature, animals and the true love and appreciation of life. Thank you for reminding us. Just let it go...!

cindidejnozka said...

Tom, you have helped heal a broken heart as my Sister-In-Law passed with cancer this morning around 5am. She was my favorite and I so wanted her to read Following Atticus before she left us but she was too weak to read. Thank you for sharing the essentials in life and reminding us always! xoxoxoxo hugs to the boys!

Ed C said...

Tom,
Always look forward to your blogs and always a joy to read.
When I see new one posted kind of like a Christmas present and the excitement of not knowing what it is before unwrapping. Always thoughtful and reflective and for me brings clarity to what is truly important in life.

Donna Jean said...

I love all your blog posts and your FA comments. They always give me something to ponder and learn from. This one makes me think about my elderly Mom & Dad as well as the recent post about how those who have left us still touch us even after they are no longer with us. As another tear rolls down my cheek, I treasure all the great memories I'm so grateful for. I have stored up so many and I try to pay more attention to the present so I don't miss anything that will some day be just another treasured memory. Thank you my friend for all your inspiring words and please give an extra hug to Atti & Will for me. You are all in my heart and in my prayers. Hugs to You too Tom...Onward by all means!

Carolyn said...

Tom
You say it so well
The part about living
Maybe I can't do this or that
Like run two hours on the trails,
But I can run a little then
Walk a lot
Take in the smells, the sights
Of my creator, with my precious dog,
And give thanks.
Carolyn

Carolyn said...

Tom
You say it so well
The part about living
Maybe I can't do this or that
Like run two hours on the trails,
But I can run a little then
Walk a lot
Take in the smells, the sights
Of my creator, with my precious dog,
And give thanks.
Carolyn

Pam Noble said...

I find I breathe slower when reading your blogs. A certain calm feeling. Thank you for your way with words

Carter W Rae said...

I think that in the wisdom of Creation the relationship with dogs in particular teach us to have a broad and peaceful relationship with life ... Appreciating each step with thanksgiving and joy .. You, Atticus and William have shown us that We are all grateful for you kindness of sharing .. Thank you! Carter & Stacy

Cheryl Cato said...

Lovely, thoughtful post that I find especially poignant as my sweet Gertie ages. At sixteen I doubt she'll be with me much longer. Her hearing and sight have failed and her back legs won't let her roam around as she once did. Gertie's nose still works great and she follows me about the house and in the yard, but the days of long walks are over for her and me. Gertie & I have another little fellow with us now who is four years old and he will be my walking companion. Thanks for the post about letting go of youth and life and making it easier to accept.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a beautiful outlook with which to start the day.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,
As always, thank you for sharing your adventures with Atticus & Will.

I sometimes think of the quote from Ferris Bueller,

'Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.'

Sarah said...

This meant alot to me. I am caring for two older dogs now, 16 and 14. The sweetness of this sometimes surprises me. They are indeed beautiful in the autumn of their lives in ways they never could be in spring. Thanks.

Linda said...

Although only hiking for four years now, it's become an addictive life-saver for both my husband and myself. We started late (60's) and tend to race the trails against time knowing increased age and decreased capacity tags along on each hike.

Your insight and reflections have echoed my growing philosophy and cemented my belief that despite changes (which are inevitable) it is up to us to not just survive them…but to thrive by creating alternatives or morphs of what we most enjoy doing. Keep on keeping on. Old. Trite. But true. Thanks to you and Atticus for this most wonderful read and entire blog.
Linda

Deborah Therien said...

May Sarton's 'Journal of a Solitude' hit home when I read what you had written of hers...I had never heard of her before your post. As a survivor of several dogs, (and cats)aunts and uncles, a dear sister, and two husbands so far, (and three of them quite recently),I have had to imitate the trees, only I didn't know that was what I was doing at the time. Her words now reach into my soul and tell me I have had to do just that to survive. I don't like it one bit but have had to 'learn to lose' in order to recover. You will be devastated when the time comes for Atticus, but you will do what is needed with the graciousness of one who knows that is what life is all about. As I have been with Will, I will grieve alongside of you and hope that YOUR journey is made easier by it.