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.

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 clichés 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.


Mary said...

This sums you guys up perfectly!!!

"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."

Laura Wheeland said...

So good to hear you speak of the animal(s) you,live with the way you do. Our friends.

Dave said...

Words to live by.

gretieful said...

Thankyou for your stories,Tom and Atticus.....riveting and heartwarming to the core.I have never related so closely to another persona and their dog before.I grew up with dogs and have almost always had one.....thankyou for the inspiration and communication between species that none other recently has made me aware of this loss and possibility I still have with my dog,(S).Please send your address so I can send you a letter!!!!!Blessings and may the angels keep you and Atticus listening and safe on your journeys.With love and peace always,Darcy H. Heidt

Betty F. said...

Hi Tom,

Keeping it simple ... thank you for sharing another beautiful entry from your blog. I always look forward to reading about your time hiking or simply walking with Atticus.


Carter W Rae said...

Love your comments on life and a great view of the walk that gets you there .... Best to you Tom !! From us :-)