A little girl wants a beautiful show dog, but she gets funny little rescue dog, Pete, instead. He’s not beautiful; he’s trouble looking for a place to happen. Based on the story of a real dog, this charmingly illustrated and delightful tale about an unwanted dog ends with love and an unlikely hero, while teaching children not to judge by appearances. Perfect for ages 0-7. Fun for parents.
Now available, a special, limited edition hardcover version of MY DOG PETE, autographed by the author.
Price is $22.00 each, plus shipping.
We have only a small number of these available, and perhaps only for a limited time. You can buy a paperback or ebook version on Amazon for a lower price
This piece will appear in my new book of Essays And Still They Sing coming soon from Beaufort Books.
There comes a moment in grief when you begin to feel that you are being judged for it. People tell you that life goes on; that you need to stop looking back. I know that, because although I would never say it to anyone, I have often felt impatient with people who get into their problems and lie down in them. I have wanted to tell someone to get over it. In my own life, after various hard blows, including some difficult losses, I have managed to accept, to pick up the pieces of my life, and to move on. But it’s closing in on two years later, and I still have not gotten over Moses.
Life has a way of teaching us our faults.
His full name was Moses, Prince of Egypt. My husband and I argued about the name all the way to Iowa when we went to pick him up for the first time. I was insistent. It had to be Moses. It wasn’t a particularly religious choice. I had just watched too many reruns of The Ten Commandments, and wanted to be able to shake my head sadly at a naughty puppy and say “Oh, Moses, Moses, Moses.”
The name suited him. Despite having been bitten by one as a child, I had wanted a German Shepherd my whole life. I had even made a German Shepherd a character in my novels. Readers who met Moses always assumed that my character Elisabeth’s big dog, Rocco, was based on him. But Rocco was really an expression of longing. He came first. Then came Moses. Sometimes I have the sense that I willed him into being.
And he did, after all, lead us out of the wilderness. Our beloved Golden Retriever had died after a futile battle with lymphoma. Our other dog, Pete, was grieving, and our house felt empty, so we decided to sign up for the twelve to eighteen month waiting list for the perfect German Shepherd. Within twenty minutes we heard back: there had been a cancellation. Did we want a puppy on Saturday? I had the sense that it was meant to be: unplanned, the result of a series of unforeseeable events. And isn’t that what Fate is? The inevitable coming together of paths that seemed intended to diverge? Does it always have to be a human story?
From the beginning, I knew he would break my heart. I loved him too much. I can’t even explain exactly why. All I know is that there was a kind of destiny, an inevitability about him that I always felt. We belonged to each other. He was my soulmate. How to convey how much I loved him? How much I love him still? I know most people won’t think it normal. I can’t help that. It just was. It just is.
When he was only a few months old I sat in our living room, holding him on my lap, hugging him and whispering endearments. He was already too big to really fit, but I had my arms around him like a baby. My husband walked into the room and said casually: “You love that dog too much. You know he’s going to break your heart some day.” To the surprise of us both, I burst into wild sobs.
I was afraid of him at first. I’d never had a German Shepherd before, and I didn’t have confidence in how to handle him. By the time he came along I’d trained four dogs, and felt that I knew what I was doing. But when he chewed a shoe and I slapped the floor with it, scolding to show my displeasure, he avoided that spot in the kitchen for three days. That’s when I realized how delicate his sensibilities were. If I hurt his feelings, I could lose him forever.
But the moment that really frightened me was when, at 9 weeks, I tried to pull him off the bed he had no permission to be on. He growled and snarled at me, and I was struck with fear that I had a dragon in the house I could not control. I called my dog trainer that day, and begged her to let us start early. He earned his first obedience title at six months, and his second not long afterward. It required retrieval and he did not really take to retrieving, but he obliged me because that was what he did.
This is not to say that he was a tamed creature, tied to my will. Quite the contrary. Moses did things because he knew he should, and when I asked him to do something that was wrong for both of us, he would flat out refuse. One night, in the dead of a Wisconsin winter, I had an emergency call about my elderly mother. It was well below zero, and I had to meet the ambulance at the hospital. Moses knew I was upset, and he saw his job as being with me no matter what. But of course, he couldn’t sit outside in the car for hours in sub-zero temperatures. He followed me out to the car, refusing to let me leave without him, and trying to climb onto my lap. My husband gently put his hand on Moses’s collar to pull him away, and Moses turned and very meaningfully put his teeth on my husband’s arm. He did not bite; he nevertheless expressed his feelings very clearly. Moses knew his duty, and he was not easily dissuaded from it. I had to drive away from him, knowing we both felt betrayed by the separation.
I felt so much pride having this magnificent animal walk beside me. Moses loved going to the Fourth of July parade. The parade begins every year with a long line of historic fire engines, followed by the latest and most innovative, as the proud company of volunteer firefighters marches along. Moses would sing with the fire engines, a long, lovely howl that made people turn and smile. He would sit upright and bark at the three gun signal that began the parade, and he would duly accept the admiration of anyone who stopped to see him. When the parade was over, we would walk with the crowds down the street toward the park, and people would reach out their hands to touch him as he walked by, like Aslan in the resurrection.
There was a fierceness about Moses that is not in my other dogs. It lay beneath the surface, but it was right here for anyone to see. People respected Moses. As he deserved.
While we were remodeling our house, a five man insulation team arrived one morning without notice. My husband and I were at work, and only the carpenter, who adored Moses, was there. The insulators opened the door and walked in. According to the carpenter, who laughed while telling the story, Moses chased all five of them “screaming like girls” into the powder room, where they all crowded in, slamming the door behind them.
They called their manager while Moses waited outside the door.
Moses had a passion for butter. When he was young, he would steal whole sticks of it from the plate on a high shelf next to the stove. After we broke that habit, he sang for his butter, his paws dancing as he looked from the butter dish to my face and back, carefully explaining what he wanted.
More than anything else, Moses loved the lake. He was the first of our dogs brought up to swim, and he took to it immediately. But it wasn’t swimming that was his passion; it was splashing. His jumps to catch the water we splashed at him were stupendous. He leapt out of the water like a mythical beast, and his yearning to splash was relentless. If I were lazy and lounging on the dock, he would swim around the edge to me and paddle his paws to splash me, hoping to start a game. If I ignored him, he would urge me with increasingly louder moans of protest and pleading, splashing harder. He was impossible to resist.
There’s a Christina Perry song from a silly vampire movie that I used to sing to Moses. I remember the last time we were at the lake, a few months before he died. The music came on, and I whispered it to him, holding him in my arms, tears rolling down my face.
I’ve loved you for a thousand years.
I’ll love you for a thousand more.
I see now that I knew at some level it would be the last time we splashed together. Somehow, some part of me knew he was dying.
He had been in pain from an injured back, and it was slowing him down. I took him for exams. I asked every medical professional we saw—and there were a few—to reassure me that he would be all right. He’s not going to die, is he? He’ll be okay, won’t he? They all, with varying degrees of patience and curiosity assured me. Why would I even think that? He was only 7 years old. His back hurt. That was all.
But they were wrong. Somehow, in the deep connection Moses and I had with one another, I sensed that something, but it was nothing that showed up on any tests. It was just arthritis pain from a back injury, nothing more, I was told. Of course he didn’t feel well if his back hurt. We did acupuncture, chiropractic, and laser therapy. I took him for swimming therapy. He had varying levels of pain meds.
But he didn’t look right. His eyes were glassy. His fur seemed without luster. And all the while, the tumor was growing unseen, waiting to break his heart, and mine.
What hurts me most is that I wasn’t there. We had slipped away for three precious days to spend Christmas with our new baby granddaughter. While we were away, Moses had an upset tummy, but, like so many German Shepherds, he often did. We used to joke about such a big scary dog having “princess tummy”. We also live in the woods, and the dogs tend to eat things that require periodic doses of antibiotics.
He was sad when we left. He knew what suitcases meant. But we were unconcerned because he would be in his own home with his brothers and someone who cared for him. Over the course of our trip I spoke with the dog sitter multiple times. She was kind and reassuring. He wasn’t sick, but he was moping. He wasn’t eating, but he was drinking a lot of water. I was more worried about reassuring her than I was about Moses. We’d dealt with these tummy troubles before. I called the vet and arranged to pick up some antibiotics on the way home from the airport. We didn’t know he would already be there, cooling on a metal table.
Our dog sitter, never imagining we would go to the vet first, waited at our house, dreading our return. She didn’t want to tell us on the phone.
The one obligation of a soulmate is to be present when you die. But I wasn’t there. Instead, while we were in the air, Moses lay down next to our dog sitter, put his paw on her arm, looked into her eyes, and let out a long sigh. Then he died.
I know it sounds overly-dramatic, but I will never forgive myself. People have tried to tell me that he knew he shouldn’t die in front of me. I don’t buy it. He felt abandoned. He didn’t know where I was. I let him down. I, who sang love songs to him, who loved and trusted him, for whom he would have laid down his life, wasn’t there when he needed me most, and he died not knowing whether I would ever come back.
Looking back on that last year, I almost did the best I could. I didn’t miss his cues. The mistake I made was believing everyone—good people who didn’t know him as I did— who told me he was okay. I should have trusted my own heart. He was telling me, and I didn’t take his word for it.
Grief is one thing that never dies. I will be haunted by his loss forever. My only hope is that those insipid rainbow bridge poems are true, and that someday he will run to me, and I will be able to kneel down, gather him into my arms, and whisper my love into those big fierce ears.
(From my talk as officiant at their wedding in Istanbul)
Anyone can fall in love. And most of us who have been married will acknowledge that it helps if love is the first requirement. The ancient vows that Sahar and Jeff are about to make confirm it: We promise first “to love”.
But, as we here make a commitment to support Sahar and Jeff in their marriage, we understand that love is not enough. I want to say “mere” love, although that would be at odds with every philosophy and theology in the world. But love can be a fleeting emotion. That’s why when we experience real love, most civilizations suggest that we add something more. We want to vow that our commitment is forever, and that we mean more than only how we feel.
Love, Honor, Comfort, and Keep. They are ancient poetic words, and they bear testament to an essential truth: Marriage is hard.
It would seem at first thought that in the commitment that they are making today, the challenges Sahar and Jeff face will be accelerated by their different cultural heritages. But this is only a detail. Because in many ways every marriage is a melding of cultures…of family…of values…of male and female.
Our work, as married people, is to accept the alien nature of the other. And, come to think of it, isn’t that the work of us all?
Because the fundamental requirements of all human relationships are those we practice first at home, and so, the relationship of husband and wife reflects our relationship with the whole world. That is not a coincidence.
We start with the imperative to love, with all that it entails, but there are also these other requirements:
Together, they form a hierarchy, with each of these actions dependent upon the other.
Honoring…it means we don’t hold one another in contempt…that our familiarity breeds, instead, respect, and generosity, and patience, and understanding.
And we cannot comfort without honoring, because offering comfort requires an essential respect of our beloved’s individual humanity and need.
Comfort requires, too, understanding the value of offering not what we need, but what someone else needs—which is almost never the same thing.
Comfort is an act of solidarity, but also an act of empathy: a moving out of ourselves and our needs, and into the needs of someone else.
If I need solitude, maybe I need to understand that at the same moment my partner needs affection. And the efforts we make to frame the world based on someone else’s needs is key part of marriage, and, indeed, of any relationship.
And “keep”. What does that mean? We keep watch; we keep time; we keep chickens.
But to keep one another….
It’s vigilance, isn’t it. It means we hold one another in esteem, with honor. We comfort. We pay attention. Sometimes at cost to ourselves and our pressing priorities. But…it also means to give shelter. We smoothe paths…we encourage… we understand foibles…we attempt to care, not just for physical, but for emotional requirements.
Come to think of it, it is a bit like chickens.
Which brings us back to love. These vows are all encompassed in the act of loving; they are the recipe for all human relationships: To Love, Honor, Comfort, and Keep.
It is more than a philosophy. It is an action; an endeavor; our daily work. And it is a challenge.
A healthy marriage—the keeping of these vows—requires fierce dedication, determination, and commitment, all entered into in the endeavor of love.
Sometimes blindly, sometimes fervently. But deliberately, reverently, joyfully, and not just with our whole hearts, but with every fiber of our beings.
Fall is late this year. It is already mid-October, but for the first time the woods have a tinge of gold, just beginning, and the sunlight’s yellow is intensified when it shines through the trees. These are the kinds of days I count as finite in my life. All our days are finite, of course, but some seem to belong in a category as different as a gemstone to a handsome pebble.
Life hasn’t seemed, really, to have returned to normal for us. The contagion levels are still high where we live, so although we have tentatively dined outdoors a few times—and enjoyed it thoroughly—the cold weather will end that small bit of normality. The world feels smaller.
In pre-COVID times, I would go now to the Island. It is one of the places where the golden light of fall permeates everything. The long, empty roads mean I can walk for miles without seeing a car, and the dogs, who return to me instantly when I call, can run off-leash. We wander through golden lanes, and my brain, usually obsessedly plotting and exhausted by the extraction of writing, is distracted by the resonating vibrancy of the color. I remember these walks repeatedly, and return to them in my dreams, and in my books. They are, I think, how I would spend eternity, if I could.
But we are mistaken if the wet days, the bleak and dreary ones, are not treasured, too. My dogs, who love to swim, but hate the rain, nevertheless run joyfully through wet weeds and brush, shaking themselves with vigor when they come in, smelling of mud. Dogs have a capacity for appreciation that my ideal self would try to emulate, but I am not a dog, and can’t seem to achieve their purity of mind.
My joy ebbs and flows with the seasons. I have never fully understood spring, with its mud, its dirty snowpiles, its cold rains, and its disappointed hopes. For me, joy comes when fall it is at its peak, and even still later, with the stark, purple cold of winter. Once the leaves and crops are stripped away the sculptural shapes of the trees and the shape of the earth is revealed, and the light pours down, undiffused. The world seems a brighter, clearer, purer place. That cold clarity purifies me.
In our mortality, I wonder whether there is, too, a clarity that comes as we can, at last, see the end. There is no need for the extraneous, just the focus of comfort, where we can; of love, if we are blessed with it; and the firm hope that when the seasons pass, the essence of what we are will always be.
It was pre-dawn and I had been working for hours. I had just stepped out onto the porch at the house we’re renting in Maine, and was enjoying the calm, when I heard a soft, rhythmic noise. Tock-tock-whoosh, tock-tock-whoosh. I thought at first that it was drops from the eaves after all the rain we’d had, but that wasn’t quite right. I stopped, listening, trying to identify it. The sound grew louder, and I realized it was moving and coming from the water. I leaned against the railing to look out at the lake, waiting for a craft to come into view.
It was a shell with one rower. Elegantly thin, moving at a great clip, and leaving geometric designs in the water that widened and faded in its wake. The sound of the oars reverberated across the lake. I thought about the rower’s early morning, rising to be on the water before the sun rose, and felt a bit of envy at the pleasures of deep exercise, alone, with the sun just hidden behind the mountains at the east side of the water. I rise in the dark, too, but depend on hot coffee—although, perhaps, the same combination of joy and willpower—to sit comfortably on a chair, my legs crossed under me, pressing toward my writing deadline. I count words every morning, gauging my progress. Only two months left.
As he rowed back twenty minutes later, his pace was still strong, but just barely slower. Tock-tock-whoosh. The sound rose and fell as he approached, then moved off into the distance, fading into the morning’s birdsong.
It was a moment of deep and unexpected beauty.
It’s surprising sometimes the things that can make life magical.
The house we rented in Maine is very old and very large. It has history. Perched on a small hill above the lake, it has sprawling porches, front and back, and lovely views. There’s a spacious kitchen, a laundry room, and five roomy bedrooms with four baths. There’s a massive stone fireplace in the living room. But it does not have wi-fi, and the cell signal is only one elusive bar, which seems to flit from room to room like a butterfly, and then disappear.
It has been a long time since I have left my phone sitting on the night stand, turned off, and walked away for the day. I feel released from electronic bondage. The impulse, in an idle moment, to look down at the phone is gradually being replaced by a willingness to look up, to think, to let my brain idle. That’s how writing happens.
I had become increasingly aware of the way my phone had taken over my life. I am continually scrolling through my messages. There’s not a scene that passes before my eyes that doesn’t make me reach for the camera. There’s not a drive that isn’t accompanied by a podcast. It’s too much. It’s too many voices. It’s too much externality. And none of those things are good for a writer.
This week I wrote in the mornings. I hung around with my family. We did a complicated puzzle. I sat on the dock and dangled my feet, and thought about things. I jumped into the cold lake. I cuddled children. I drank cocktails. I went to bed with a book.
It was a kind of detox, and it has put me on the path to getting my brain back.
The temptations to return to my old habits will be strong, and I imagine there will be a gradual regression toward over-use. But I have a plan to keep it in check, and at the moment, it doesn’t even seem appealing to go back to my old ways.
Back in the pre-covid days of festivals and conferences, my husband used to travel a lot, and my closet overflowed with tote bags. This essay appeared in the now defunct Weekly Standard September 26, 2018.An article in today’s NYTimesbrought tote bags and all their environmental baggage once again to the fore.
I seem to recall an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he predicts that the world will be subsumed not by fire or flood, but by an overwhelming mound of common pins. It hasn’t happened so far, but that may be because we have shifted the cultural weight, as it were, to a far more voluminous enemy: the tote bag.
My husband is on the festival circuit. He goes to exotic and beautiful places like Maui and Aspen, cavorting with celebrities and beautiful people, while I stay home with the dogs. It’s not as bad as it sounds, really, and it has the advantage of enhancing spousal appreciation, but it does have a curious byproduct. Every time he returns, he presents me with a tote bag.
Tote bags are nothing new. They have been the mainstays of museum gift shops and the low-cost premium for subscriptions to magazines and public television for decades. Environmentalists made them important by urging us to pile our groceries into their bacteria-infested depths week after week, rather than wounding the earth with the clean, fresh, disposability of plastic or paper grocery bags.
I love the earth. But I have questions about tote bags.
I have never had a statement handbag, but then, I live in the Midwest where things like that are considered ostentatious. I do find, however, almost against my will, that I have begun to select the tote bag I want depending on where I’m going and who I will be seeing. There is a hierarchy to tote bags that is more subtle than the kind of car you drive. Tote bags can brag without your ever having to say a word. They are signaling mechanisms to announce your affiliations.
The local grocery store gives out a flimsy, paper-thin canvas wine bag when you purchase more than one bottle. It’s okay if you leave that one behind at your friend’s house. I have a beautiful well-made canvas bag with a painting of the Flatiron Building that I purchased in a museum gift shop. It is sturdy enough to carry books and signals my cultural sophistication. This may have slightly more cachet than the thin fabric WNYC tote that seems to suggest that I am a donor (I am not) or that I am part of the East Coast intelligentsia (I am most definitely not). I have a bag from the American Enterprise Institute, proving that I am “Fighting for Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise.” That sounds nice. The TaxPayers’ Alliance signals my support for fiscal restraint, and the Hoover Institution is a nice way of encouraging people to enquire whether I have met Milton Friedman or George Shultz. I have bags from book conferences that suggest my writing bona fides. I have one that declares “We Can Change the World,” a claim whose sincerity I don’t doubt, but about whose particulars I am somewhat skeptical. Perhaps my favorite is my niece’s gift, a utilitarian lightweight “Totes Ma Goats” bag in which I carry my own books (especially my novel The Audacity of Goats) for publicity events.
But of all the tote bags, the most exclusive are those presented as swag to attendees of various high-level conferences, like the Aspen Ideas Festival. We now have three or four Aspen tote bags. One is beautifully made from military grade canvas with leather handles and represents philanthropy to a veterans group. A bag from an exclusive corporate philanthropic retreat has a lovely insulated pocket underneath to carry your properly chilled bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or possibly a can of bug spray that wouldn’t mix well with the potato salad.
Does Davos have a tote bag, I wonder? Do Davos attendees ever do anything that requires the use of a tote bag? Or do they bring them home as a bonus gift to their nannies?
As my husband’s spoils of conquest accumulate in the hall closet, and the door becomes harder to close, I have begun to feel the need for some form of triage. How many tote bags does one family require? I ought to sort through, choose the most exclusive, and chuck the rest, but I’ll probably keep the nice plastic one from the now-defunct local bookstore. It’s easy to disinfect.
It is a balmy, beautiful August morning. I sit drinking coffee by the lake, the dogs around me. Elderly Pete basks peacefully in the sun. Auggie snorts impatiently, waiting for me to engage with his ball-playing, and young Eli has left his watch post at the end of the dock to lie next to my chair. A lawn mower purrs in the distance. A door slams. Fish jump. Ducks quack and splash. Squirrels chatter. Birds call. A bull frog grumps.
All should be well.
But across the world chaos reigns. Death, destruction, fear, murder, torture, rape, and slavery threaten. People climb onto departing airplanes, clinging to the wings, in desperate fear of what is to come. The planes depart, and the bodies can be seen hurtling to earth, prey to the most horrific final fears as they fall.
An American flag flutters in the breeze across the lake.
Here, there is comfort in powerlessness. With no recourse but to drink my coffee, I can stay comfortable. I can’t fix Afghanistan. I can’t save a single person. Lucky me.
I am ashamed.
And yet…and yet…this day, this calm, this comfort, this stroke of fate that brought me here, to have been born in a free state, in a liberal democracy…this is fortune. And to leave it unnoticed, to ignore it, not to savor it, is the very definition of sin.
I envy my dogs in their innocence.
There are no clouds in the sky, but there is a cloud over this day.
Yesterday was a spring day of transient weather, but during an episode of sunshine (and between chastising Eli for chasing the neighbor’s dog) I took photos of the wild flowers blooming: blood root, violets, bluebells, and trout lilies. Later before bed, I opened up the photos from one year ago, to see if there were any fun reminiscences of 14 month old Eli’s puppy antics, and there were photos of the same flowers, exactly on time, blooming one year ago. When we had a snow storm a week or so ago, I opened my photos to find the storms of years past. Same patterns, to the day.
My mornings are usually the same. I wake in the dark, pour myself coffee, and wander into either my office or our cozy library to write. My writing is usually more productive in my office, but my ability to observe the morning rituals of the woods is better in the library, and this is where I usually end up. As the dogs settle into their customary places, I drink coffee and write. I like seeing how the tilt of the earth changes the location of the sunrise behind the trees, and I gauge the time of year by its place along the long horizon visible from the ridge where our house sits. With the leaves not yet out, the sparkle of the lake down the hill forces me to move my chair so I can see, but in a week or so, the lake will have disappeared behind the foliage.
I can see the turkeys flying down from their roosts, the deer browsing, the plump raccoons waddling up their trees to bed. On a sullen morning like this, there is no burst of sunlight, only a gradual undarkening. On sunny days, the mists rise from the valley in a haze of purple. For the dogs, the scenes of life outside the windows are riveting, too. I like watching the rhythms of life, the interplay of the different creatures who wander in and out of one another’s paths, and the sameness of it—with only small variations to account for the seasons—is reassuring.
At this time of year, in a ritual I now understand, the turkeys are dividing themselves from the large winter flock into smaller family groups. The males parade up and down before the females in full regalia—spectacularly beautiful and with great pomp—making a mechanical thrumming sound like enormous insects—I think by vibrating a set of feathers that skim the ground like a 19th century train’s cow catcher. The females scurry back and forth, cackling, in some kind of hierarchical battle with one another. In the end, it is unclear to me who choses whom, but there will be five or six adults in each final group, and they will pair off to start families. Every morning there will be fewer and fewer remaining from the main flock, until they have melted into the woods for summer. We won’t see much of them again until fall, when they come together again. Finding a nesting hen is extremely difficult, but they nest on the ground, and stay in place from the moment the eggs are laid until they hatch, with no apparent help from the males—although I suspect they keep watch nearby in military readiness to fend off attackers. Turkeys are fierce.
The deer, who do their pairing in the late fall, are already heavily pregnant and browsing hungrily, as are the raccoons, whose cumbersome travels up and down very tall trees make me hold my breath in suspense. I recall one spring watching the antics of a raccoon family, as five or six babies, chirring excitedly, popped out from the hole in their hollow tree, while their mother frantically clung to the tree with her back legs and used her front paws to stuff them back in like someone trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. No sooner would she get one in, than two or three more siblings would pop out from another hole further down and swarm the tree trunk. They would fall with quite terrifying thumps to the ground, and call wildly for their mother. Then, while she made a laborious trip down to take them by the scruff of the neck to carry back up, more would fall like hail from the den above, while the sound of their frightened and excited calls came from above and below. She would try to carry two at a time: bringing one up a few feet, leaving it to cling to the trunk, returning to the ground to retrieve another, like a relay, while the first one promptly fell past her head with another resonant thunk. The cycle of babies was unceasing as they continued popping out, swarming, and falling with more thunks as is if they were in a cartoon. Mama’s increasingly desperate attempts to gather them up and stuff them back in were as futile as they were comically pathetic. This went on for more than an hour, and I can only imagine how tiring it is to be a mother raccoon. It’s remarkable how much noise a baby raccoon can make when it falls, and even more remarkable that they seem utterly unfazed—which is more than I can say for their mother.
It pleases me to understand these patterns, perhaps because it makes me feel a part of the cycles of the earth. Later, less charming cycles will begin: the annual infestation of deer flies who torment dogs and humans equally with wicked bites, the mosquitoes, the unceasing battle against invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn plants, and one peculiar festival we have come to refer to as “personal fly season”, when a walk down the driveway invariably includes one—and no more—fly to accompany each individual, buzzing and landing on our heads. They don’t bite, but their relentlessness is exasperating, buzzing with a particular emphasis on entangling themselves in hair and crawling on ears. A hat is essential, and preferably a handheld electronic bug zapper, which sizzles satisfactorily when it encounters the enemy. Success makes no difference, since a new assistant ineluctably appears to take the place of its fried colleague.
It is usually at this moment that summer in the woods ceases to charm, and we gather everybody together and decamp to the lake. There, we will inevitably find a different cohort of creatures with their own summer patterns, and we will begin our own. It is a modest place, a rickety cottage with only the water as an amenity, but that is amenity enough. There will be the pleasures of a quiet summer morning on the dock, drinking coffee with a blanket tucked around our toes, of wet dogs and floating, of visits from friends and family, of cocktails at sunset.
There are also the millions of wet towels to drag home to wash, dishes and pans to wash in the tannic water, muddy feet from wet dogs, and the back and forth of various necessities from one household to the other. It’s joyful at the beginning, but by fall I will be tired of the discomfort and upheaval, and ready to settle in at home again. Even as I anticipate the joys of summer, I am already excited at the prospect of the beauties of fall, and its own patterns of renewal.
When we return to the woods, the deer, unmolested by barking dogs, will have browsed the hostas and lilies to the ground, the raccoon babies will have grown and wandered off on their own, the turkeys will be returning to gather their clans together for the winter. And the sun, whose slow track across the horizon will have continued unobserved by me, will be rising far to the south as the days continue to shorten.
My city friends wonder how I can live without the museums, theater, restaurants, and vibrancy of the city. But I wonder how anyone could live without this vibrant scene of the earth, the animals, and their own dramas.
I have lived in the city and felt my soul shriveling among the pressures of a life removed from nature. Here, I breathe, and my soul drifts out among those of the animals and trees, their calls and their battles, and I know I belong, too.
As I write, the horizon brightens, and I hear the last sleepy calls of the great horned owls conversing with one another. The dogs sit up, alert to the presence of the deer in the dark, the turkeys thrum and cackle, the sun hits the water of the lake, and I settle into myself, content, and glad to be alive.
When I’m walking the island, my mind wanders to many things. Sometimes they’re related to the book—I often work through plot ideas while I’m walking—but not always. I have learned through hard experience that if I don’t record the idea it will disappear forever. In fact, if my notes are too cryptic, they will may still be unfathomable. Yesterday I had a thought about the coronavirus and the Greek gods. I don’t know why. They were trapped in quarantine on Olympus and bickering together—it made me laugh. but there was another idea—What was it?
Maybe not so funny: that quarantine’s illusion of immortality—of time stretching on infinitely—took away that sense we ought to have of racing against a waning lifetime. Maybe it was a respite for a while? Maybe it was a relief not to have to keep churning. But that idleness—that missing sense of time passing—is precisely what made the gods so mischievous. They had no real purpose, no goals. They were, in a word, bored. And aimless. Okay, two words.
But for mortals, it was an illusion. Time did pass. As survivors, we are, of course, just as old as we would have been otherwise. Or maybe, had the pandemic not happened, we would have been out in the world and hit by a bus. We can’t know. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have spent the pandemic merely unmoored in time, there was great loss; if not of someone we knew and cared about, then of community, of ourselves, of our precious time on earth. I feel new sympathy for the unjustly imprisoned, who must have some version of this same feeling: the sense of having been robbed of time. But especially, I grieve for those whose lives were so directly affected by the illness itself.
But as with all forms of grief, we must choose to either lie down in it and never look up, or to get up and get on with things, knowing that, whether we choose it or not, some new grief or old will be waiting to pop out at us when we are unwary. But then, so will new joys, and new, unhoped for experiences.
We move onward, with resignation and hope together, and that purpose, which comes from our sense of passing time, is the blessing of mortality.