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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Taking Center Stage

Recently, my friend Wendy and I were corresponding about my fear of public speaking and she asked me if I was ready for Wednesday night’s event where there will be seven hundred people in attendance – weather permitting.  She wanted to know what I will do to get ready to step out of my comfort zone. 

The answer’s simple.  I choose to bring my comfort zone with me.  Yes, I have a fear of public speaking, and most would never know it, but no matter how calm and relaxed I look it simmers just beneath the surface.  (I’ve read that President Kennedy had the same fear and often vomited before his speeches.)  My way to deal with it is to face it.  I think it’s a rush to face a fear and each time I do; I get that much stronger. 

Before an event, I get the lay of the venue and try to have it set up so that Atticus and Will are being put in a position to succeed.  Charlotte Canelli at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood has been a pleasure to work with. We've kept in touch about what will work best for taking care of Atticus and Will, and that’s a load off of my mind. 

But that still leaves me to standing on the stage with Atticus by my side (and Will waiting in the wings with his personal protectors Laura Bachofner and Marybeth Cauffman) in the spotlight in the middle of my fear.  It reminds me of how I feel on a hike along a narrow ledge where another fear – heights! – heckles me.  I freeze, then say “f--- it!” and I take a leap of faith realizing that others before me have done it and haven’t plunged to their death, so I can handle it, as well.

So I will go out on stage, look up into the lights, down into fourteen hundred eyes, and I will leap.  Inside I’ll laugh and feel the thrill of excitement and think of something Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked him about the meaning of life.  What Campbell said was that people aren’t looking for the meaning of life, they’re looking for the experience of being alive.  Fears are part of that experience.  It makes our breath more valuable, creates a sense of being mindful and aware, all time slows down, all time speeds up – and all becomes timeless. 

I equate a lot of my life to the hikes Atticus and I take.  I used to be afraid of hiking in the dark and felt like a child who was frightened to take my head out from beneath the sheets.  Now, however, we hike often at night.  A week ago, when Will woke us up in the middle of the night by going to the bathroom and then falling in it on the kitchen floor, he called to me and woke me up out of my sleep.  I picked his little body up as he shook and cried; he was soaked in his own urine, stained with his shit.  I took my shirt off, pulled him close to my chest so he could whimper against my heart and know that everything was going to be okay, and I held him like that while I drew his bath.

After he was clean and wrapped in a towel, I cleaned the mess on the kitchen floor, lit a candle, and then steam mopped the floor.  After an episode like this one, which happens in the middle of the night from time to time, Will sleeps soundly and won’t budge until late morning. But after rushing in for the rescue and helping my little friend, I often have a difficult time getting back to sleep.  After I shower, I sometimes read in bed. Other times I get up and write letters to friends.  But on this night, with Atticus wide awake and sitting up on the bed with a look of expectation, I agreed with him, got dressed, grabbed my pack, and by 3:00 am we were parked at the trailhead of the Old Path, on our way into the dark woods headed for South Doublehead, and then North.

The night fear stood on the edge of my periphery just to remind me it’s there, but I remind myself that fear of the dark, much like a fear of public speaking, is nothing but ghosts.  And the truth is, I’m not afraid of ghosts.  

We slowly marched up the trail, and when it became steep, we still moved withpurpose and took breaks when we needed them.  Upon reaching the saddle between the two humps, a place where we’ve run into moose, bear, and a porcupine during past night hikes, the stars could be seen through the short trees and off of the backside of the mountain.  I turned off my headlamp and could see the moonbeams filtering through the trees. 

We climbed to the top the ledges just shy of the South Doublehead summit and emerged from the woods into a brilliant night, frozen but clear.  Beneath us, Jackson Village seemed tiny.  To the northwest Mount Washington caught the light of the full moon and stood there like a stunning bride – all of that white against the dark night.  I picked up Atticus and kept my headlamp off, and we looked towards our largest peak, the one the Abenaki referred to as Agiocochook (Home of the Great Spirit), and I smiled.  Such a gift to see the glow of this giant mountain looking at us as we looked at her while the rest of the world slept. 

We eventually made our way to the cairn at the summit of South Doublehead many warm memories linger for me from the various hikes we’ve made both during the daylight and at night, then doubled back to the saddle.  There were no moose or bear to be seen, but there were hoof prints in the snow going to the back of the saddle.  Then it was up into the shadows with my headlamp cutting through a tunnel of darkness before we came to the vacant and locked cabin on the top of North Doublehead.  We took the path behind it and looked at the stars hanging above Maine.  After a few minutes, we walked down the old ski slope and back to the car.

Will was tucked in just as we had left him, just as I knew he would be, and Atticus and I climbed back into bed where we were warm and safe after I had danced with that little fear of mine.  One of the greatest things about entering discomfort by way ofadventure is returning home again where all is appreciated even more. 

We drowsed off.  When we woke up to bright blue skies and the blinding blanket of white in our backyard that full moon, glowing Agiocochook, and the Doubleheads lingered like a dream. 

As we get ready to stand on stage this Wednesday night, we’ll begin by dropping Will of with Tracy at the Ultimutt Cut to have his hair washed and trimmed on Tuesday morning.  Atticus and I will head to a mountain and climb a peak and take it all in and feel the strength, peace, vitality, and tranquility of the mountain.  Of course, it will hurt some because we are both getting back into shape, and I have plenty of weight to lose to catch up to where we were before the cancer came, but it will be good hurt.  I’ll feel my body re-awakening.  On Tuesday night we’ll have a quiet time at home and I’ll pack up.  By the time we leave Wednesday morning, I’ll be excited for our little road trip.  We’ll stop in Medway to visit the graves of Jack and Isabel and introduce them to Will.  I’ll let him get down and dance around where their bodies sleep.    

In my prayers, I’ll tell my father about Tuesday’s hike, about the Wednesday night’s event, and I’ll read aloud to him the latest chapter I’m working on in the next book. He would have loved it all. Who knows, perhaps he is somewhere we he will still be able to enjoy it.  Either way I’ll share it because I know it would mean something to him.

We’ll head to Norwood, take a tour of the library, let Atticus and Will meet some excited librarians, and just before the event starts, we’ll find a private place backstage.  I pull out my iPhone, plug in my ear phones, and listen to music as I do before every event. 

When I step on stage, I’ll be stepping into a new adventure with Atticus, just as I’ve done everything with him over the past dozen years, just as we’ve hiked thousands of mountains, as I fought septic shock, and he fought cancer, we’ve ridden the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster, and faced storms both actual and metaphorical. I’ll smile and embrace the fear and underneath my breath I’ll think of the “experience of being alive” where fears dance with joy.  Then I’ll leap.  

By all the talking is over, the questions answered, the shaking hands and signing of books complete, and we step out into the cold air, and head to our hotel room, I’ll be spent.  In the morning, we’ll drive back to Jackson and our quiet lives.  We’ll stop, as we always do, at Lake Chocorua to stretch our legs and greet the majestic mountain that always welcomes us back to the region.    

In the days after a big event, I walk around like I’m hung over, even though I don’t drink. I’ll wear my sunglasses, turn off the phone, drink plenty of water, and Atticus and I will find some nice trails to explore where we won’t see another soul. 

It will be a lot like it was when we returned from Doublehead the other night.  The best part of the adventure is the contrast in finding the comfort of home again. 

That is how I deal with my fear of public speaking.  As I always do.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sharing My Life With Atticus & Will On Social Media

Atticus Maxwell Finch and William Lloyd Garrison, unabashedly themselves.

As a reader and a writer I do my best to avoid clichés.  I like original thought and choose the authors I favor for the way they make their words dance across the page.  As a writer, when I’m at my best, the words flow in an original pattern. When I’m not, I write, rewrite, and then rewrite again. As a last resort, there’s the delete key. I’d rather put nothing out there, than something that is tired and uninspired.  

My life is much the same way. I believe it’s important that we embrace whatever it is that makes us shine as individuals.  That’s one of the reasons I spend time with the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Einstein, and others who embraced the song of each soul. 

We all have a song, our very own, and by celebrating it we become part of the greater symphony that lends itself to the glory of life and focuses on what is possible, instead of the mundane. 

This same philosophy is at the heart of my relationship with both Atticus and Will. I choose to see each of them for who they are as individuals and avoid the cover-all, mindless clichés of breeds . . . or even of species.  To me, Atticus is simply Atticus.  Will is simply Will.  Just as my human friends are not classified by being straight or gay, married or single, Irish or African.  I don’t like blanket statements.  They ignore the tiny bits of miracles that make us all unique and potentially exceptional. 

When I see someone refer to Atticus or Will with one of these clichéd terms, it really is foreign to me. For in each of them I see a thriving individual with strengths, weaknesses, peculiarities, peccadilloes, and personalities as fragrant and special as the ones that make up all of us.

I reject most blanket statements about dogs, just as I do about people.  If ever there was a title that reflects my philosophy of what makes all of us, human and non-human animals, special it is Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  How fitting a title.  It’s no wonder that those I’m closest with and mean the most to me, all have their own songs. 

And this to me is the most interesting challenge of sharing small portions of our lives on social media.  I protect my own individuality and the right of those I care about to be individuals.  In contrast, much of social media can be clichés.    

We have a quiet life in Jackson. It’s simple and devoid of much the kind of drama one finds in supposed reality TV.  When I see it coming, I quickly walk the other way.  I weed our lives as carefully as a garden.  In spite of this, life is not boring.

The other night I surprised a friend of mine when I told her, “Since moving to the mountains, I keep more to myself than ever, and yet I’m never lonely.” 

And it’s true.  I find the stunning beauty of life all around us: in these grand mountains, in our tiny yard, on our comfortable couch.  I believe it’s because I choose to see the extraordinary where in the past I often saw little more than the common.

Three of us live together in our home. We are as different as could be.  Just this morning Will woke up, looked at me, and defecated on the floor as if it was the most natural thing in life. He then trundled around the other side of the bed and let loose a stream of piss.  Atticus stood looking down on him from atop the bed in stunned amazement, as he often does when Will acts this way. Meanwhile, Will made his way into the kitchen looking for breakfast as if nothing happened.  I laughed aloud at the comedy of Will, and Atticus’s observations of Will.  Atti then turned his raised eyebrow towards my laughter. 

Oh, believe me, I didn’t always laugh when Will showed up and shit and pissed on the floor and then thought nothing of it. No remorse. No need for penance. For twelve years I’ve lived with Atticus and can’t remember the last time he did such a thing.  Although once during chemo, he did lose control of his bowels in the middle of the night but came to wake me up to take me to the accident and show me.  But when it comes to Will, what am I to do?  It happens at his age. 

I’ve scheduled regular visits outside for Will so that it rarely happens any more. But after a long night inside, these things sometimes happen.  The comedy lies in Will’s cavalier attitude about it, and Atticus’s equally stunned response. 

Of course when we go outside I carry Will in my arms and he collapses comfortably into them. Atticus trots down the stairs. Once outside Atticus moves easily, Will mechanically.  When we come back in to eat, Atticus dispatches his food quickly.  Will eats a bit, leaves it for a while, and comes back to it when he is ready. Breakfast can last for hours his way.  With treats it’s just the opposite. Will, if I’m not careful, will nip my fingers in his hurry to wolf down the morsel, while Atticus ever so gently takes hold of it and looks me in the eye while doing it. 

One of them sleeps most of the day. The other feels out of sorts if we don’t climb at least two mountains a week.  One sleeps with covers on, the other doesn’t.  One likes to snuggle down, the other is impatient and uncomfortable doing that. 

Atticus came to me at eight weeks of age and other than the imprint of his soul, he was a tabula rasa – a blank slate.  He has been carefully nurtured his entire life. Will arrived twenty-two months ago at fifteen wearing the results of years of neglect and abuse.  In the nearly two years he’s been with us, I feel as though I’ve been an archaeologist as we’ve uncovered his true life and let him shine for what he is – a mixture of nature and now of nurture.  Like Atticus and me, Will is a product of his what he was born with married with his experiences.

I understand that Will and Atticus are dogs and I am human.  We have different biological needs.  I pay attention to those, but the rest is not so different. The way I see it, we mostly want the same things out of life.  We want to be happy, healthy, safe, loved, and respected.  We want the right to be who we are and to make individual choices.  In a human world, although it’s not always easy, I do the best I can with it and it works for us. 

It’s a work in progress for us.  Life always is.  I’ve learned a lot from Atticus, and from Will, but each of them have learned a lot from me as well.  It’s a dance in four part harmony. There’s Will, there’s Atticus, there’s me, and there’s what the world throws at us.  This is the journey I protect and respect.

And this is why social media can be a struggle for me at times.  I have a hard time relating to those who use clichés to describe dogs or breeds or who say, “My Tilly is just like Atticus.”  Such thoughts are foreign to me.  Not only that, they wring out the best parts of life and leave behind the parched and the dry.  I would prefer to think that Tilly is just like Tilly, and no one else and that she has someone in her life that recognizes that about her. In contrast to this, I enjoy when people post about a dog in their lives but don't mention the breed.  Instead they mention the dog's name.  I automatically feel a kinship with someone who doesn't attempt to sum up a dog by his or her breed.

At the other extreme, I find myself uncomfortable with the clichés of those who deify dogs.  You know the old tired terms. I'm owned by my dog. Dog is God spelled backwards. Who rescued who?  I do believe dogs are miraculous, as are all animals, but that includes humans.  We're not so bad ourselves.  Sure we have our shortcomings, but every species does.  I prefer to see the relationship I have with Atticus and the one I have with Will as a two way street.  I'm partial to Carl Jung's philosophy, "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed."

When it comes to our lives on our little corner of the Universe, I like the way things are. Atticus is Atticus, Will is Will, and Tom is Tom. We are each unique, each special, each both strong and vulnerable, and each of us is filled with the stuff that stars are made of. 

Life is more than the same old same old.  It has to be, if it’s worth living. It should be fresh, renewing, exciting, and filled with . . . well, life! At least that’s the way I see it, and that’s one of the songs of myself.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
     origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
     millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
     look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
     spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
     from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

                              ~ Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau...not bad company at all

If you are an author, there are many reasons to avoid the reader reviews on your Amazon page. Most importantly, what you've written is in the past, and there's nothing you can do about it now.  You write something, send it out into the world, and what the reader sees in it is up to them.  There's also the comfortable truth that not every book is for every writer.  Three of my favorite authors are Howard Frank Mosher, John Irving, and Tom Robbins, but I've not liked everything they've written. And lastly, it's human tendency to pay more attention to the negative than the positive, even if the positive far outweighs the opposite. 

Recently, though, when a friend informed me Following Atticus attained the Amazon milestone of receiving 1,000 reviews, I went to the page and read a few of the comments.  The one that caught my attention was not negative, but rather a mediocre review. The woman gave it three stars out of five. She wrote about how tough it was to rate our story. She called it "well written" and "an obviously loving story about a man and his remarkable dog". But in her opinion the Following Atticus "was WAY too pantheistic for me".

A smile spread across my face as I read this, and again later while contemplating her words during a lengthy walk in the frozen woods with Atticus while we kept company with the Swift River.

When a hardcore, Bible-toting politician in Newburyport once noted to me that I mentioned God in my writing but didn't go to church, she stated she was confused and wanted to know what religion I practiced.  I told her I didn't practice any religion. But she pushed, and she pulled and she demanded an answer.  Finally, I conceded by telling her while I refuse to claim any religion, if I was forced to choose one I'm closest to being a pantheist.

Madame Politician then stalked off in utter disgust, (to pray for my soul, I imagined at the time). A few days later her husband approached me with the same disgust in his face and voice to say he couldn’t believe I told his wife that I worshipped panties.  And this, in part, should tell you why I stopped covering politicians and went to the woods, where I feel a sense of God in everything around me.  Including during a walk along the Swift River with Atticus by my side.

Earlier this year, when Pete Seeger died, a popular quote of his circulated and it sums up how a lot of people who love the White Mountains feel. He said, "Every time I'm in the woods I feel like I'm in church." 

Can I get an "amen"?

There's is not a person who loves the woods who cannot relate to that sentiment.  Many of the prophets of old found God while submerged in nature.  It was Emerson, who along with his peers Thoreau and Hawthorne knew this region well, pointed out that we need not rely on the thoughts of prophets of old, but on our own senses and sensibilities to see a personal God. He wrote: "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"

hat personal experience is where I find my religion.  It's while walking an earthen path deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, standing atop lofty Mount Lafayette while being tossed to and fro by a strong wind, sitting by a crystal clear stream tucked away somewhere in the magical Sandwich Range, or encountering a bear in our backyard. 

Raised a Catholic, it took me a while to trust my personal experience. Being a political reporter, it took me a while to see the same divisions that bring out the petty in our politicians, bring out the petty in various religions.  I despise that people use God as a reason to argue or fight or to go to war over.  This has led to my decision to leave out the middle man and find God on my own.  (At this point, I have to add that I have no issue with the route others choose as long as they hopefully attempt to practice the Golden Rule – treat others as you wish to be treated.) 

While I have read the Bible, I also read the poetry of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Oliver; the essays of Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, and most importantly, I pay heed to my own feelings as Atticus and I continue to tramp through this special place we call home. 

How fortunate are we to have our own Garden of Eden, recognized as such by many of the great White Mountain Artists who flocked here in the 1800s? 

The White Mountain National Forest takes up more land than does all of Rhode Island. That’s one heck of a big church. 

I’m not a theologian. If you were to call me anything, you could say I am a
nemophilist. I love the forest for its enchantment and serenity, and everywhere I look in the natural world I see and hear the song of God.  And that, by rough definition, is a pantheist.

I like that I keep company with the likes of Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Heraclitus, Georg Hegel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Jennings Bryant, Claude Debussy, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, D.H. Lawrence, and Ansel Adams, just to name a few who are associated with pantheism.  More importantly, I like that I can see the Divine anywhere, and not just because I was conditioned to.

Now, as the temperature climbs into the twenties and that, in combination with the lack of wind, has it feeling even warmer during this incredibly frigid winter, you’ll have to excuse me.  Will (and his poor ancient skin) needs his bath.  Later I will escape with Atticus to church.  We’re off on an eight mile woods walk today, where every step will be a prayer, and we’ll be filled with the grace of nature.