Blurred Lines

Last night, just after dark on Ash Wednesday, I took the dogs out for a little ramble. The first thing I heard was a coyote in the distance, and then, later than usual, church bells, signaling the seven o’clock service for the Lutherans. Each, in its way, calling the community to assemble. It was a curious juxtaposition: the two sounds, one of civilization, one of the wild, both of God.

We walked in the dark, the dogs and I. Old man Pete and I walked gingerly, careful not to fall on the ice. Puppy Auggie raced and slipped, and slipped again, joyous and without care. Moses loped ahead, making sure all was secure. It was warmer than it had been, but the wind cut, and the coyote made us watchful and tense. Pete paused to point into the dark ravine. We all stopped to look, and then moved on.

With my hood up, I could hear strange sounds behind me. With my hood off, I could hear the unfamiliar crunch of my new boots. The sky was clearing, and a few stars shone. We walked only a little way before returning to the warmth of the house to sit by the fire.

One way or another, we were not alone.

The Island by Night

When I am on the Island, every night, before bed, the dogs and I go out for a long walk in the dark.

There is nowhere else on earth where I could walk alone, in the dark, in the woods, and feel so completely safe. It’s true I have my dogs with me, but they are even less worried than I, and frequently slip away into the trees to leave me to the sound of my own footsteps. On a cloudy night like this, it is so dark that only the melted dirt paths of this January thaw distinguish where to walk from the white snow everywhere.

Moses, who still carries the echoes of lupine ancestors in his soul, likes to disappear into the woods, projecting my course, to silently stalk me, later to charge out onto the path in front of me, in an unnerving fashion. It is a delightful game for him.  Auggie, his apprentice, has begun to follow him deep among the cedar trees.

Their stealth is remarkable, and their ability to judge the intersection of vectors is proof that dogs understand geometry. Each has a red light-up collar: Moses with a slow blink, and Auggie with a fast one, so when they walk with me I can tell who is who. But when they dissolve into the woods and turn dead-on, their collars are no longer visible, and I cannot hear the sound of their padded feet, their bodies long and low, in stalking mode, until they are immediately in front of me, delighted by their prowess and by my praise. Their happiness shifts them from predators to pets, but there is an inner reality that is vital to remember.

These night walks are essential to their well-being and to mine. For them, it is a chance to reassess the activities of the local wildlife. The fox has been out since we walked this afternoon, and the raccoon and deer and possum. The turkeys are roosting in a tree somewhere near, and the deer are no doubt nearby, waiting for the dogs to go in before they come to feed. Their game with me exhilarates the dogs and empowers them.

For me, it is an expansive moment of the soul. Alone, in the dark, but utterly unafraid, I walk along almost invisible paths, listening to the lake, to the occasional cries of owls or foxes, and I feel that I am in my life.

Nowhere else on earth.

Idle wishes

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Over the course of the nearly twenty years we have lived here, there is a particular route I often took with the dogs, through the woods, and around an open field. It used to be an uncivilized, practically forgotten place, where we never met anyone except skunks (see preceding posts), raccoons, and the occasional squirrel with a death wish. But, sadly, the woods have been upgraded with wood-chipped paths, new signs with rules that forbid unleashed dogs, and other niceties which are not improvements. There are always people there, now, so we don’t go very often anymore. There aren’t many places where big dogs can just run free without other dogs around.

When we do go, I choose odd times of day and bad weather, hoping to improve the odds that we won’t encounter anyone, and we can flout the rules with wildly happy, romping dogs. There are a few other stalwarts who seem to take the same approach.

One is a runner whom we have met on multiple occasions. He is not a young man. He has a long, grizzled beard, twinkly blue eyes, and a deeply genial and sincere manner. He drives a beat-up old pickup truck, which I have come to know. There is a place in the trail where people coming from opposite directions can suddenly encounter one another without warning, and the first time we met, it was there. The dogs were happily rummaging and trotting ahead of me, when suddenly there was a figure running toward us.

Immediately, I called Moses, the scary one, to my side, and he obeyed. But Pete, who is deaf, and Auggie, the headstrong puppy, would not come. Auggie throws himself at life in general, but also at turkeys, deer, strangers, and me, in particular. I once looked out into the woods and saw Auggie joyously flying first at one line of turkeys–all four feet in the air–and without waiting to see their startled flight into the trees, turning to hurl himself at the other line behind him. There is no malice in it, just pure exuberance, and even after two levels of obedience, it’s a personality trait that I am having the devil of a time training out of him. He has a characteristic German Shepherd stubborn streak that makes him very different from Moses.

At nine months Auggie was already well over ninety pounds, and once launched, he is a projectile who can take a person down. Now–to my horror–in his customary expression of puppy enthusiasm, Auggie ran to the man and joyously flung himself at the his chest, paws first. I was expecting threats and anger, but instead the man laughed gently. “Hello, puppy!” he said, and kept running to the sound of my increasingly urgent commands mixed with profuse apologies. “It’s okay,” said the man as he ran past. “I like dogs.”

Since then we have met several times a month. Never at the same time. I take care now to take a different route so we can’t accidentally encounter anyone. When I see the runner, I call the big dogs and keep them off the path until he passes. He thanks me each time.

On Christmas Eve, on one of our solitary walks, we met him again. There was a little bit of fresh snow on the ground, and the dogs were filled with energy and eager to run. We went off on our different paths, and all was well. We were almost back to the car when I heard myself being called. The runner was coming toward me with his hand extended. “You dropped one of your leashes back there.” I thanked him, surprised that he had come all the way back, out of his way, to do this nice thing.

The logistics would have been tricky, and it would probably have been a little odd, but I would like to have given him a Christmas present.  He’s a fairly random stranger, but I feel as if our encounters are important. Life’s texture comes from these small things.

Christmas Story


We had a baby born to our family early this morning. The first of a new generation on my side.

It is a muddled winter dawn. I lie in bed pondering the miracle of birth and feeling grateful for the health of mother and baby, as two great horned owls sing to one another in the woods.

There is joy in all creation.

Merry Christmas.

Signs of Life

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In Wisconsin, snowdrops normally bloom in March, and, true to their name, burst through remnants of snow. This year, the only snow left is what has been plowed into mountains at the edges of driveways and parking lots, and even those are nearly gone.

But the snowdrops are here all the same, though rather early. And none the less welcome for that.

I’d rather have flowers than almost anything. Except, perhaps, snow.

 

Special Giveaway: North of the Tension Line

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It’s cold out. There’s not much to do, so why not enter a contest to win a free autographed copy of North of the Tension Line?

Submit a comment to this post explaining why you should receive a copy. Wide readership and/or a willingness to be a shameless shill are highly recommended.

Winner solely determined by the author’s whim. All decisions are final.

TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog: Where Writers Write: JF Riordan

Exile desk

TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog: Where Writers Write: JF Riordan.

TNBBC is a blog that features small press and indie books and their authors in varying playful question formats. Among these is the request for writers to show where they write. I was pleased to be asked, and was deeply tempted to discuss the drinks of choice for the characters of North of the Tension Line, but in the end I settled on a photo essay on where I write. I recommend heading to TNBBC for the chance to meet some great under-appreciated writers and their books. Believe me when I say we will all be grateful.

Big Fur Hat

In her last years my mother was always cold, and she complained about it regularly. She always admired ladies she saw with mink hats, and since she rarely asked for anything, a few years ago, I decided to get her one for Christmas.

After some searching I found a company called–Big Fur Hats. I spent a ridiculous amount of money–had she known, my frugal mother would have been horrified–to buy her one. I was pretty pleased with myself when I presented it to her, but I could see instantly that she did not like it. Gamely, she tried it on, and I think she wore it once or twice, but she hated it, I could tell.

The Big Fur Hat (BFH) is mine now, and it is an essential part of my equipment on Washington Island. I don’t care what I look like there–which is part of the fun, I admit–so I wear it when the dogs and I go for our walks. I look ridiculous. Nevertheless, it is a lifesaver, especially when the wind is blowing. Without it, I would be forced to shorten our walks, the source of the dogs’ joy, and my inspiration.

There may be lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is.

Big Fur Hat

A few weeks after blowing all that money on the unloved BFH, I found a vintage mink hat in a consignment store for $12. My mother loved it.

That’s mine now, too.

Last Day North of the Tension Line

January sunset

Today is my last day on Washington Island. The ferry leaves tomorrow at 8 am and we’ll be on it.

Normally I like to walk the deck and chat with the crew, but the dogs are with me, and there’s something about the ferry ride that scares them. So we sit together in the car, and I talk and sing to them. They like that, and they usually sing along. Pete, who is undoubtedly the coward in the family, is mostly unbothered by the motion, but that is enough for Moses. When we hit the ice fields the noise frightens them both and they tremble. It seems to get worse each trip.

Last night I walked home from a dinner party in the dark with the wind screaming from the lake. Its noise and power were awesome–in the old fashioned sense of the word. The dogs leapt with joy to see me, and we went out again to hear the wind and look at the moon and the clouds. They ran ahead of me through the snow, sniffing at deer tracks. The wild remoteness of the Island is oddly comforting to me, and I feel safer here than anywhere else on earth, even when the wind leaps and howls as if it would tear us off the ground and spin us into space.

I like to say I live in exile from Washington Island, and most people think it’s a joke. But leaving this place tears at me, and even though I will be happy to be home again, a part of myself will be missing.