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)

Monday, November 03, 2014

Considering Will

It's Monday morning and the forest has a different look and feel to it after the strong winds we've had.  Gusts still ride high over the tree tops sounding like a runaway ghost train but the sun has returned and red squirrels and chipmunks are active and their chatter is comical.  Pine cones are everywhere, knocked from their perches to the earth where death will become life.  They crunch underfoot and the pine tar gets on everything.  Once a week I massage and clean Atticus's pads with olive oil to get rid of debris and to recondition them.  This time of year I do it twice a week. 
Ten days have passed since Will left us and I'm avoiding our Facebook page to some extent. This is when it helps to have great moderators.  The kindness and love is evident by the vast majority of people who post, and also appreciated, but this being social media, projection also is present.  We all experience death but it's a personal experience.  I've never been a big fan of people saying "been there done that" about anything, and because I think of death as a miracle of its own - which may differ from what others believe - I tend to avoid the typical calling cards of cliché when it comes to something equaling a sacrament to me.  Life and death are worthy of so much more than clichés. 
My goal in loss is to learn and grow from it, to take joy from those who we traveled with who are no longer with us, to make their presence in our life into a gift I can always carry with me. 
Several times last week people wanted to believe that Atticus was mourning.  He wasn't.  He still isn't.  He's buoyant and free.  I'm not mourning either, not really.  As I told Christine Heinz on Twitter this morning, we did what we set out to do in taking in Will. 
I thought his visit with us was going to be much shorter than it turned out to be.    That was a plus to me.  When Will reclaimed himself it was a joy to behold.  His eyes were young and expectant.  When I'd walk up to him and he looked at me and I couldn't help but smile. 
In the very end Will was far less than what he'd come to be with us.  He couldn't sit like a lion for more than a few seconds.  He'd topple over without being propped up.  He was rotting from the inside out (I'll leave the details too various myself).  You saw him mostly as fresh and clean and sweet and so alive over the last few months, but that's because of the photographs I shared of him.  He was still sweet, but he was also dying.
I've not been crying very much.  I have thoughtful moments and much to digest.  I will cry for Will down the road when I talk about him at events, I'm sure, but not out of sadness.  It will be because of the gift of the experience.  It's what the mythologist Joseph Campbell aptly named, "the experience of being alive." 
Will came to us at fifteen.  My job was to be by his side and give him what he needed when he needed it.  That was everything from patience; to food and water; to bathing him when he fell in his urine and feces and couldn't get up; to stretching exercises and massage; to experiences with nature; to flowers and music and sweet and savory smells; to reassuring touches; to love and acceptance and shared growth; and finally to let him leave this physical world when his body no longer worked and I didn't want to compromise him for my own sake. 
The decision to say goodbye is so very hard, but in Will's case it was easier because it was clear to me.  I considered the entire journey to be textured and genuine and fortunate for Will and me.  Sitting in a beautiful mountainside field with him in my arms while he snored, then standing to hold him while Rachael let his sleep become permanent was and will always be a sacred experience.  I can think of no higher honor than to recognize a friend for who he or she is and what his or her needs are and help them to where they need to go. 
Will needed to be loved and believed in. He needed someone in his corner over the last chapter of his life.  He had that.  I can't speak for him but I imagine he has no regrets and he felt nothing but love. 
Over the past week I've heard from friends who knew Will two and a half years ago from when he first came to be with us and they couldn't believe the impressive change in him.  There weren't many he didn't try to bite those first few months - even the ever-so-gentle Tracy at Ultimutt Cut Salon, who understood his hatred of being put in a crate and never forced that on him - had to be careful of his teeth in the beginning.
When Will first arrived here he smelled of death.  Much of that had to do with his mouth and his rotten teeth.  Our vet at the time, Christine O'Connell, went to work on that but could only get a fraction done while he was under anesthesia.  There were several places where the gums had receded so far tips of the roots were barely concealed and you could push a small object through the opening between them. His mouth hadn’t been taken care of for years – if ever.   
Exercise specialists we went to clearly saw what I did, that Will had not had much, if any, exercise for a long time before he came to us.  They concluded his unnaturally stiff hips were a product of being crated for far too long for far too many years. 
His mouth would never improve, but his willingness to accept love and offer it did.  His joints improved too, until the last weeks when they appeared as though they had been tightened to the point of pain by a wrench.
One of the joys in sharing our journey with hundreds of thousands of people is that Will, once unwanted and neglected, was celebrated.  He became a model for adopting animals who seem like lost causes.  He was proof you can't judge a book by its cover.  I was thrilled that for the past year and a half he's received flowers and blankets because of many of you investing in him. 

Will was so miserable and broken when he arrived that over the first two weeks I was close to putting him out of his misery.  I pitied him.  In the last week of his life, I knew what had to be done but pity was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d say what I was feeling had more to do with celebration. 

I can’t speak to what befell Will before he came to us, only to what the evidence revealed.  But even then it wasn’t to judge those he lived with before because that didn’t matter to me.  What mattered was what we were going to do with the shattered puzzle of Will.  Together, he and I worked to put him back together again, with an occasional assist from Atticus.  But as I always say, in the end Will rescued himself.  We gave him a helping hand but in the end the final choices were always his to make. 

I’m glad we’ve shared Will's life with you, and his passing, but I also know enough to stay away from too much that is written about him by people who never met him, or interacted with him for a very short while.  It’s sickening to have someone you love be dissected by those who knew very little and who cared nothing of him over the past two and a half years.  Thankfully it’s also rare, but when it happens it’s noticed, occasionally by me, more often by others.  This is the price of making public your life with someone.  I understand this.  But it’s also one of the reasons I’m careful about wading into uncomfortable waters and why I’ve never visited other websites about dogs.  Too many armchair quarterbacks.  As of late some of them have appeared on our own Facebook page (and others), but our moderators quickly move to change that. 

On the positive side, there has been an incredible amount of response in celebrating Will’s life.  I know many feel sad about his dying but I cannot do anything about that.  I can only say that I’m not feeling the same way and I have a hard time imaging Will was ever very sad over the past two years of his life.  It was a grand final chapter and I’m happy for him and proud of him.

Life and death are very personal, but if we can share these personal experiences and people are reverent enough to simply witness what they see and not judge it, some good can come of it.  I feel confident much good has already come from Will and his journey and that many can only continue.  Knowing that others will do get chances at new life because of Will is something to celebrate.

Thank you,

(To help other animals in need we've set up a memorial fund in Will's name at the Conway Area Humane Society.  Some have asked why I chose C.A.H.S.  There are many reasons, but they start at the top of that organization.  I believe anytime an unwanted animal finds a new home there are limitless possibilities for happy endings.  That said, I've learned quite a bit about rescue - the good and the bad.   It's hard work.  I support C.A.H.S. because of Virginia Moore, the executive director. In a field where some put themselves above the animals they are supposed to be helping, Virginia has the perfect perspective.  She restored my belief in those who get rescue right.)