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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Thousand Shades of Green

The colors of autumn are often easier to grasp for me than those of this fleeting and rapidly shifting stage of spring.

Autumn delivers red, orange, yellow, and brown in a stunning display.  But in a White Mountain spring it’s all green, but there seem to be a thousand shades of green as new life pulses through the trees and shrubs. Even when it comes to the leaves on similar trees, I find there is a difference at this time of year.  Not every birch tree is at the same stage of development. Some are slower in delivering their leaves to the forest and are just beginning to bud, while others are further along and their little flags of mint green are larger.  I’ve noticed this especially with the beech leaves. Many are already full.  Not in color, but in size.  Others, meanwhile, are just barely curling out of their shells and tentatively reaching out to their new world. 

In the shady and sun dappled forest, it’s not as easy to see.  But once higher up with views out to other mountains or down into the valleys, the variation of greens is dizzying.  They are impossible to define. 

In looking back at the White Mountain artists of the 1800s, I realize they never captured this phenomenon.  They mostly worked from down below and looked up at the mountains, and their paintings seemed to capture full summer, or a bit of fall, some of winter.  But not these thousand shades of green.

Yesterday, when Atticus and I were on the ledges looking out, I thought of the dizzying array of greens and how impossible it is to describe.  I would imagine they would have been just as impossible to capture on a canvas. 

In another two or three weeks, this uniqueness will be camouflaged by a uniform lush, verdant sea.  All will be a deep green and we’ll have to wait until late September and the rolling out of the autumn rainbow across the ripples of mountains to see the trees march to their own drummers again.

For now though, we take it all in.  The shades, the shapes, the sizes, the wild impossible to capture population of greens.  We inhale with eyes wide and are left in wonder. 

It’s not unlike looking up at the stars each night.  If you get to a place where you can see the sky perfectly, where mankind hasn’t diminished their view with too much light, you lay on your back and there is a tapestry of infinity above. It boggles the mind and forces us to surrender to nature. 

I was thinking about this yesterday and last night read again Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”.

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander' d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

I find comfort in knowing not everything can be captured or defined.  Not really.  It’s often the essence of the big picture which delivers us to wonder and not the definition found in the certainty of the microscopic view. 

Oh, and if you are looking for Atticus, he is indeed in the photograph, just not as central to its theme as he usually is.  Sometimes, it’s nice to just blend in and become part of the scenery.

A White Mountain Spring.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Letter to a Friend

Dearest friend,

Early the other morning, when the faintest hint of light filtered into our backyard, Atticus and I drove down Rt. 16 to the southern side of Chocorua and walked through the awakening forest on the lower reaches of the mountain. 

While you’ve been away the mountains have begun to bloom.  This past week the colors of the forest floor were vibrant and hopeful and they far outshone the ceiling where treetop buds slowly emerged like stars waiting to shine.  It’s the only week of the year that it’s like this and it's such a treat to behold that I wished I could stop time, or at least make it linger a bit longer until you return to the mountains you love.  Alas, there is no stopping nature, nor is it possible to make time wait for us.

The air was cool and damp and the dawn smelled fresh.  Dew drops clung here and there like tiny crystals as we moved silently along the trail.  On either side, the speckled leaves of trout lilies appeared and infantile beech leaves were shed their shells and began hanging like perfectly creased sleeping green bats. Underfoot there was mud, running water, dry earth, and both slick and dry rocks. 

When Atticus and I first came to the mountains on weekends it was to escape a busier life. As you know, we quickly got caught up in peak-bagging, but then things changed after a couple of years of that rigid madness when I returned to reason and remembered why we'd come north.   

In the beginning, mountains didn’t start out representing checkmarks on a list for me, and when they  reclaimed their rightful place atop my priorities, things came into focus for me.  The forest was once again mysterious and magical.  The greens were rich, the scents so strong I was transported to a land of enchantment, and our time up here became more rewarding.  Other than that peak-bagging misstep, Atticus and I hike for the experiences, the views, and not so we can say we’ve climbed a certain a specific number of times so that we can claim a certificate or get our names on a website.  It’s because I stopped counting peaks that I cannot tell you how many times Atticus and I have been to the top of Chocorua.  It's in the double digits, I know that much, and all but twice have been at moments of the day and year when we had the tabletop summit to ourselves.

At busier times the mountain, gets to feeling a bit like Disneyland as a conga line of hikers march up the Piper Trail, and the rocky horn of the great peak looks like fruit being smothered by crawling ants.  (Then again, you already know this, and this is one of the reasons you've never climbed it.) 

But who can blame the crowds?  It’s a breathless place to be and so close (compared to other peaks) to the people coming north along Route 16 from Massachusetts.

As we climbed through the forest this weekend and the trees became shorter and twisted, the sun climbed with us and snuck peeks down into the trail at us.  Although it would grow warmer throughout the day, the air was still cool at that early hour and just below the final push, I turned to feel its golden warmth on my face.  That's when I felt Atticus's wet nose poke my shin.  This is what he does on mountaintops to take in the view while sitting in my arms when our eyes are at the same level.  I picked him up.  He leaned against me, looked over the scrub brush, into the sunlight, and sighed. 

I couldn’t help but watch him.  The tip of his pink tongue revealed itself and his gaze went to the south and east.  In that light I could see the gray that's been coming on.  It's worked its way up his body and after all these years it is just now finding its way to the crown of his head and the side of his muzzle. 
His eyes, normally so dark, were ablaze in the sunlight and it was clear he was happy.  He sighed again, let his weight settle onto my arm and into my chest, and we stood there awash in that welcoming spot for several minutes.  

When I put him down we scrambled up the last steep pitch to the summit, but it’s clear that this year it’s different than it's been in the past.  He's led and had to wait for me.  But lately, even in our walks around Jackson, there are times when he follows me.  I noticed it more so on the climb up Chocorua.  I stopped for him as much this weekend as he used to stop for me in years past.  I made sure he had plenty of water to drink and I gave him the option to turn back, as I often do, but he refused.  Instead, he stood up and led the way, then we walked together, and, from time to time, he dropped back again.   
On each of the other trips up the mountain, he stood proudly atop the rocky plateau of New Hampshire’s most majestic peak with a sparkle in his eye and looked down at me and waited for me to join him.  But this time we arrived on top together. 
We shared more water, I gave him some treats, and then we shared the view with him in my arms again. 

Since we've first started hiking, I'm happy to say that
I’ve lost track of the checkmarks . . . but not the experiences.  Each of the mountains we’ve climbed is another paragraph in the story of our lives.  One by one they add onto each other and build and build what we share.  But when I was holding him the other morning and we slowly turned three hundred and sixty degrees, it hit me that there will come a time, perhaps not too far away, when it will no longer be the two of us up there.   

As I wrote at the beginning of this letter, there is no stopping nature, nor is it possible to make time wait for us. 

Atticus is now twelve.  We climbed Mount Garfield, our first peak, when he was two.  Reality and memory have the ability to swirl together and create sadness in us when considering how those we love age.  From this end of the journey, the seasons and peaks flash by like clouds on the wind.  When I look back on them all after a decade, especially from atop one of our favorite mountains, it hits even harder.   

I do not know how much longer Atticus and I will be able to do this together, but I know we still have mountains before us and summits to reach.  I’m just not in as much as a hurry to get to them these days.  
Time changes us.  Our bodies, our expectations, what we are grateful for.  I figure in order to get to those waiting peaks, we’ll have to reverse our roles in the future.  There will be an increasing number of days when Atticus will be following me.    

We sat by ourselves on top of Chocorua for an hour.  He, a few feet away looking north to the higher peaks, me, first reading your letter about the birch tree in your yard for a third time, and then with pen and paper in hand to write my response.  The gentle kiss of the breeze, the pleasing warmth of the sun, and the silence of the mountaintop made it a heavenly spot to sit and read and write. 

In time we heard some voices off in the distance.  Not long after we saw the approaching hikers.  Atticus came to me and nudged me with his nose to let me know it was time to go.  I packed up and when I stepped off the summit . . . he stayed behind.

“What’s up Pump?”

He answered with his eyes.  He always has. 

I knew he wanted me back up there with him.  He came close and looked up at me so I picked him up again.  We drank in one last long view before I put him down.  As he hopped onto the lower rocks and made his way down, I stayed behind and realized there are so many mountains left for us to visit still, and each time may be our last visit on that one mountain.  Something caught in my throat when that realization hit me.  I steadied myself, took a deep breath, and then slowly followed him down that pitch, and we began the walk back to the valley.

After I began writing this, your latest letter arrived. I’ve already read it once and I will take it out back to the river to read it at least once more.  But before I respond in full, I have to say that you’ve captured your surroundings so well.  You always do.  What I particularly moved by was what you wrote about the dust: “It is so fine that it dances in the air with the slightest breeze and swirls around with voices echoing off the steep canyon walls.  It settles into every pore of my skin and lays in the tiny wrinkles, creating the appearance of delicate, earthen-colored lace laying over my exposed arms and legs.”

Who knew dust could be so exquisitely captured in words?  This is the exact reason why I sent you Diane Ackerman’s “The Natural History of the Senses”.  Your ability to observe and record and string poetic words together gives you a kinship with her.  You both have the ability to turn the common into the treasured, and I believe you will become fast friends with her writing.

I know you will return soon enough and the mountain greenery of New Hampshire will be a welcome sight to you.  It's good to get away, but for people like you and me who have fallen prey to the enchantment of this region, there's nothing quite like it. 

We look forward to seeing both of you soon.  Until then, walk in beauty.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

It's May 6, Will Day

It is a pleasant day here in the White Mountains.  The sky is muted, the temperature cool, but there is a breeze that carries with it the song of spring.  That song is one of hope.  It’s of new beginnings.  That’s the way of the physical world.  It’s always changing, yet coming around again.  Weeks into months, months into seasons, and seasons unfurl to stitch together years. 

When it comes to animals, human and non-human alike, we have a limited number of springs, a limited number of years, before it’s time to say goodbye to our bodies.  But while we are all here, a new season can begin at any time.  We can change direction on a dime, make a choice to live differently, and, of course, fate is always sitting out there, just beyond eyesight and behind the next tree ready to unveil whatever challenge or gift (they can be the same) we will come face-to-face with. 

Much of what defines our lives are the choices we make.  Sure, life can throw anything imaginable at us, but we have a choice of how to handle it.  Goodness knows it can be tough.  It can seem near impossible.  There are days we have to remind ourselves to get out of bed, to take the next step, to breathe. 

But that’s the beauty of spring.  Not just the one that rolls around each March, but the one we can choose for ourselves each day.  With spring comes possibility, growth, and hope. 

I was awakened this morning at three.  Will wasn’t in his bed.  I don’t mind if he sleeps somewhere else (which he usually doesn’t), but if he does, he gets cold and needs to be covered.  I was drowsy and shuffled across the bedroom floor and didn’t put my slippers on.  Atticus raised his head to check on me.

“I’m good.  Be right back, just checking on Will.”

When I stepped onto the wood floor of the hallway I heard Will drinking from the water dish around the corner.  My next step was into a puddle of his piss. 

This is something I very rarely experienced with Atticus in his puppy months, but with Will it can happen every day.  Heck, it could happen several times a day.  A regular schedule helps, but even then, Will is old and his body is like ours.  Bladders can be a challenge for the elderly. 

During those first few days with Will living with us, Atticus heard me say quite a few words he wasn’t used to.  They weren’t directed at Will, just at the impact that comes from the surprise of stepping out of bed into a pile of shit (a rarity, but it has happened) or into the invisible puddle. 

But times change, we change, just as the seasons do.  Life teaches us about expectations. 

So at three this morning, my foot wet with urine, I didn’t swear.  I laughed.  This is why you have slippers, Tom, because of Will’s surprises.  Why aren’t you wearing them?  I grabbed some disinfectant and wiped it up.  While I was on my hands and knees, Will shuffled over and watched me.  I laughed again.  “Just once, you could help, you know.”

Of course,he didn’t speak but he looked up at me with those mostly unseeing unblinking big eyes and watched me.    

He followed me to the trash, then to the bathroom where I washed my hands.  He leans sometimes, so he often stops in the doorway of the bathroom and leans his weight against the door jam for balance and looks up at me.  That’s how he was watching me this morning as I towered above him.

I pet him and he trundled after me, those sagging hips riding low from too many years in a crate. 

Atticus raised his head when I got into bed and pushed himself back up against the blankets and me.  Will bumped into the bed with the side of his body making his way around it and then found his own bed right next to me on the floor, and settled down into it silently.  I leaned over, draped one of the blankets made with loving hands for him by people he will never meet, and draped it over his crescent shape.  He raised his head, gave a soft and satisfied grunt, and within a minute his snores rose into the room and passed out the open window. 

Four hours later and we were up for good.  Atticus and I were, at least.  Will joined us eventually.  Leaning against the wall entering the living area where I was typing and Atticus was eating.  He stood watching us. 

He sing-songed his body with its stiffness over to the water bowl, took a  long, loud draught, and when he turned to come to me, his back paws ended up in the water bowl.  No reaction.  This is typical for him.  It took him some time to decide what to do,but he walked out of it and over to me. 

I was on my knees again wiping up water. 

When Atticus and I took him outside to greet the mountain air, Will stood when I put him down and seemed to take inventory of his body.  He then squatted, started to waver a bit, I got behind him as would a catcher awaiting the pitch in baseball, and gently held his hips.  He grunted like an old man, did what he had to do, and I let go.  Before getting something to pick it up with, I blocked it from his circling body so he wouldn’t step in it. 

He went on his way and watered some dull weeds while a lone crow called down to us.  Atticus and I looked up.  I greeted the bird, “Morning, Crow.”  Will circled. 

I picked Will up, his head against my chest, little old dog satisfied grunts rising from within him, and I carried beyond one of our chipmunks, who was sitting up watching us from a few feet away, and we went upstairs for breakfast, leaving our little neighbor to find his own. 

Atticus always eats his quickly but gently.  He sits on the couch so he can have his space, his food dish balanced on the arm.  Will does his bunny hop, several of them really, as I approach with his food.  His front paws make it an inch off the floor and he looks like a wind up toy when he does this and I’m bringing him his food.  The excitement is palpable.  But rarely does he eat right away.  He sniffs it, walks away, then walks around the apartment.  He doesn’t seem to be looking for anything.  It’s exercise, I figure.  He returns to eat it when he wants.

After his circling this morning, he went over to his bed is during the day and looked at my direction.  I walked to the bedroom and brought it back for him.  He grunted and took a few tries to step over its soft walls and into its empty belly.  He didn’t make it.  Half in the bed, half out.  I picked him up, placed him in it, turned on music, and covered him while resting his head on a pillow of soft fabric.  The snores came quickly.

When he got up an hour later, he went to get his drink and emptied the bowl.  I filled it back up.  He drank some more.  When he went turned back to bed, he stepped in the bowl and tipped it over.  For the third time this morning I was on my knees wiping up fluid.  No complaining.  It’s part of what I do here.  I often laugh thinking about how silly I felt and thought everyone looked when I was a little boy in church and people were standing up, kneeling down, sitting down, kneeling down.  That’s what living with Will is like.

But it’s also more than that.  I see him catch the breeze in his open mouth.  I watch him following Atticus when he’s unsure when we visiting somewhere new.  I see how comfortable he is in his home and how he comes to me an nudges me when he wants something.  How he responds with a grunt.  I see him play and fake bite me after months of several bites that were real.  I see him when he wants to sit with me but can’t jump up on the couch so I pick him up and hold his head so he can look out the window before he slumps into my arms and falls asleep. 

A certain dog I know pretty well has climbed thousands of mountains in his charmed and challenging life.  Other dogs run like the wind.  Some swim or catch balls or leap for flying frisbees.

Will?  He’s mastered the art of being himself.  There are no apologies.  He’s comfortable in his own skin, even when his physical skin breaks down at times and needs to be shaved, washed, and medicated. 

Two years ago today Will came into my life.  The first ten days I wondered what I had done.  He was a wreck.  People had done that too him.  I knew I couldn’t save him.  All Atticus and I could do was to hold a rope and lower it into the dark hole he lived in.  It was up to him to grab it and pull himself out into the daylight again. 

In those first two weeks,Will was in so much pain, so angry, so miserable, that I often wondered why he hadn’t been put out of his misery.  That’s how bad he was.  I even talked with our vet at the time, Christine O’Connell about the humane thing to do.  He wasn’t expected to live, especially since he didn’t really seem like he was alive.  He was but a skeleton, a ghost, a faded memory of what someone brought home as a puppy full of promise, and he was done in by people. 

When I think of Will, and of other non-human animals and what we do to them, a line from the Little Prince comes to mind.  
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
wrote, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” 

That didn’t happen to Will. He was betrayed.  Many are. 

Two years after coming to live with us Will trips and bumps into things, he shits and pisses inside sometimes, he can’t always get into his bed, he knocks things over and I wipe them up.  But he’s alive.  Really alive.  He feels things, emotionally and physically.  He appreciates things.  When he eats he loves to eat.  When he drinks he does it like he’s been stranded in the desert for months, and when he’s loved, he soaks it up like a sponge. 

All relationships are reciprocal.  He gives what he can.  So do Atticus and I. 

Life goes on.  Moments become minutes.  Minutes turn to hours.  Hour to days. Days to weeks and months and years.  And all around us the miracle of life and its multitude of choices combine to create a symphony
.  This is Will’s.  Listen and be happy for him.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Two Years With Will And How It's Been Done

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.  Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”  - Thomas Merton

Earlier this morning I posted a photograph of Will from his first morning with us on our Facebook page.  The comments were numerous and kind.  Some emailed and others posted comments asking me how it worked out that a fifteen year old dog who was ready for death choose to stick around long enough to not only celebrate his two year anniversary with us on May 6, 2015, but also thrive and turn his anger into happiness, his loneliness into trust, and his painful past into redemption.
For those who posted, thank you for your kind words.  Many are far too generous with their praise. 
First off, I'm not a saint. Far from it...which helps me in many ways, I think.  For there were times in my life where I was also lost, just as Will was.  That made it easy for me to choose to look at Will from the very beginning in the same manner I looked at Atticus when he came to me as an eight week old.  And I don't mean as puppy, but as an individual. 
I have always tried to put myself in his skin and thought about how I would want to be treated if I was Will.  After that it was and, continues to be, trial and error.  If something works, we keep doing it. If it doesn’t, we try a new approach. 
It’s important to point out that I do not consider myself an expert (and avoid most experts whenever I can), but in the instances with Will and Atticus, and with Max preceding them, who, like Will, came to me as an older dog, it has worked out well enough that I have no plans to change our approach.
When dealing with those I care about, I choose to concentrate on their individual journey, or as Joseph Campbell wrote about, "the hero's journey".  I do my best to eradicate that which divides us and concentrate on commonalities while still respecting our differences.  That’s why the Golden Rule works for us.
Because I'm a writer, words are extremely important to me.  They represent and make concrete my thoughts.  They form my contract with life and the outside world and are the basis of human communication.  It's one of the reasons we are very careful with our social media postings and what we allow on our Facebook page as far as comments go.  You will never see breeds mentioned.  I think generalizing is silly.  And I definitely don't think one breed is better than the rest or has a better personality than the others.  It's the same with people.  I try not to judge people based on their background, whether it be race, religion, or political party.  I avoid the clichés.  (This is one of the reasons I was thrilled when the NBA stood up to Donald Sterling last week.)  So when someone posts that a certain breed has such and such a personality, it hits the ether long before we ever see it, thanks to the ingenuity of the moderators.
I often consider Will in the same manner I considered the senior citizens I worked with in a nursing home.  To me he's not my child, definitely not my baby, nor am I his dad.   In his life span, he's twice my age.  I respect that.  I choose not to minimize his existence and make him a subset of me or an accessory.  I know this doesn’t work for everyone and that’s fine if you like to practice it in your own world, but in ours, it is one of the cornerstones of our relationship.
Will, in my eyes, is pretty much who I am.  Who you are.  He's one individual on a journey.  One individual’s journey is not equivalent to another’s.  No one’s life has ever been like Atticus’s or Will’s or mine…or yours.  That's always what I think about whether Will's happy and dancing, sleeping peacefully, collapsed in a puddle of his own piss and shit and incapable of getting up, or angry, resentful, and striking out like he was when he first came to us. 
As my literary soul mate and I have been corresponding about lately, I believe that Will rescued himself, ultimately by his decision to live.  Sure, a nice lifestyle and a safe place, good food, caring, and medical attention helped, but in the end it was always his decision.  I equate it to the people I know who are down on their luck or addicted to drugs or alcohol or anger.  No one can save them.  Those who love them and care about them can get them to rehab, or to a therapist, but in the end the only one who can save you is yourself. 
So yes, Atticus does deserve much credit for his patience, and I made a choice to take Will in and do my best by him, but Will's the one who had the final say on the happily ever after part.  Will deserves the credit.  We simply gave him a place to live out his days, and a right to choose on a daily basis, and to be himself. 
In responding to a few comments that talk about love always being enough, I have given this much thought.  I'm a romantic and I always believed this when I was younger, but then the years passed and experiences added to more experiences, and ultimately, what I had to admit, sadly, is that love is not always enough.  Stories don't always have happy endings.  Just look around you.  Not everyone is living a fairytale life.  But happy endings do exist, so I chose to believe in their possibility and work towards them.
That’s what so great about Hemingway's famous line, "The world breaks everyone, and some are made strong at the broken places." 
On the occasion I have talked about my philosophy regarding Will, Atticus, Max, or individuals of any species, breed, race, sexual orientation, or religion, and done my best to ignore those dividing labels, some people get pretty ticked off at me.  This is where I return to my mantra:  I'm not an expert.
What works for us in our little corner of the world may not work for others in theirs because of their own belief system.  I don't have a problem with that.  I figure I'm happy enough in our lives that I don't aim to change anyone else.  I simply draw boundaries around what is acceptable to us so that people don't get very far when they try to change ours, or in the rare case where they decide to express anger about what I believe. 
I’m simply expressing these thoughts because some have inquired about how I came about succeeding with Will.
Thank you all again for your nice words.  I am thrilled we are about to celebrate two years with Will when at first we thought it would be only two months. 
While some deserve credit for getting him to us, and Atticus and I may deserve credit for taking him in and allowing him to be himself and grow as he needed to, the hero in all of this is Will.  Once he was an afterthought, an accessory dumped in a shelter; now he is indeed a hero. 
Will is writing his own story, I'm just putting it down on paper for him. 
I couldn't be happier for him, or more proud of his journey.