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.