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)


Carter W Rae said...

Tom from our little family to you and yours the choicest of Blessings and Joy to you from us Carter & Stacy

Linda Carr said...

I understood everything you said, I can't put into words like you,how I feel just out walking in the countryside or by a lake, no more hills bad knees but it doesn't matter I have the wonderful memories, thanks Tom & Atticus glad he is bouncing along again. x

Ed C said...

The last two sentences.
Simple but could not be more eloquent.
What it's all about.

carolyn bonier said...

I am so thankful for your posts and blogs. They enrich my life and take me to places I can never go.

Ruth said...

Moment by moment, breath by breath x

Debbie said...

I wish I could climb my mountains, but alas, I cannot. But when Imread your words, Imfeel as if I am there. Thank you.

Brenda said...

Wonderful read. I always stop whatever I'm doing whenever I receive your posts to FB (except when I'm driving, of course) 'Nice to know and very refreshing to read in stark contrast to the craziness and insanity at this time of year. Thank you very much.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Your brilliant, compelling words always paint such a vivid picture for me, one of beauty, and blessings for all that we have in life. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for life and all the abundance we have with life. My wish for you is a fabulous day of Thanksgiving, for you, and for Atticus as you move ONWARD up the mountains. Bon Appetit - Happy Thanksgiving!

Carole Jurack said...

Giving Thanks daily for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us because if we listed them all on Thanksgiving the turkey would be shriveled. Hoping you and Atticus have a wonderful day to hike and celebrate. Will be thinking of you. Thank you for your uplifting posts and always our best regards. Carole, Chris and Cash

dogsarebest said...

Having lived by those mountains several years ago, I remember the same clear feelings after the tourist season and how rather than the gray, one notices the utter peace there this time of year. Wish we still lived there, for that is where my heart will always be. Your writing gift and stories of you, Atticus, and Will take me back and bring that peace and joy again.

Theresa said...

Your words are so beautiful, I can't hike like I use to when I was younger, but I still long for those mountain tops and peaks, reading your post makes me feel like I am on those mountains once again. Thank you and Atticus for posting these beautiful stories.

Anonymous said...

Your heartfelt words touch me deeply and stay with me as I sift moments in my own life and I know this is good for me and for those in my life. Thank you and Atticus for crossing my path and giving me cause for reflection.

Candy said...

Nature always gives me time for reflection, so I' m with. May you and Atticus enjoy.

Christine Hartshorne said...

Hope you have a truly happy Thanksgiving Tom and Atticus. Your letter was really good reading.

Roscoe said...

Your comment about the stop watch and ego really speaks to me. I find life and nature care little about either.

The death of those who have guided and inspired us is always tough. I hope you can find some peace with it. For me I often find this situation motivating.

Have a great time on Thanksgiving and give Atticus a pat for me.

Happy Trails,


Michael Morse said...

Thank you for the words that made me slow down for the time that it took me to read them, and reflect on yesterday, and though far different than your day, was wonderful.

Kuba said...

It's always good to retreat to nature and disconnect. Hope you had a good time!