Saturday, May 31, 2008

Free to Be You and Me

We can tell time without clocks. This, for instance, is the time for purple phlox. When it blooms in the roadside meadows, it is that time again. It is also time for Nelly to jump.

It was errand day. I loaded my garbage, my recycling, my books for the coming local library fair, my child, and my dog into the car. God bless the designer of the station wagon.

How I love my sweet library, my home away from home. Perhaps it feels that way because

it was once a home, an eighteenth-century stone house with its little additions that grew outward like squash vines creeping in the night. Inside are wing chairs to sit and read by the old fireplace that still bears the black reminders of ancient fires that fed people who are now ancient ghosts. How could they not rest peacefully to know that their house is beloved by so many? They are kept company by the ghosts of great writers.

When it was built, the road out its door--now with trucks and a steady stream of cars heading north, heading south, which has caused what it usually takes eons to accomplish, the crumbling of the rock in its walls--was a quiet brown lane.

I support this little library with all my heart, because it is where I go to feel I belong to something, where I go when I need a book, and it is also like another home to my child. So when they have their June fundraiser, I bring them bags of books I no longer need, record albums and stuffed animals (handy timing, given my impending move), and several copies of my own books to sell in the Local Authors tent.

It was hot on errand day, and we were in a post-dump state of mind: sticky, worried we still carried the odor of decomposition on our clothes. I scouted a place in the shade to park the car as I drove in to the library lot, so I could leave Nelly for a minute while my son and I ran in to get the book we'd asked for through interlibrary loan, to drop off our contributions for the sale. Nelly, too, knew what it time it was, because she realized she knew this place (and didn't love it half as much as we): Time to Get Left in the Car.
I had not yet come to a complete stop, much less rolled the windows up for little Miss Houdini's Daughter. Then I see a white streak heading across the back lawn of the library.

She pauses by the shed behind the parking lot, stares at me (one can interpret that stare any number of ways, of course), and once I have a chance to put my eyes back in my head, I call to her, and that's when the jig is really up. She races next door, and all I can think is, She's not going to survive Route 209.

Out loud, though, I said, "Honey, I'm not going to panic." See, panic belongs to my old life; panic used to feel like a drug. It felt wonderful to finally relax into it and let it take me away. But while it might have been salutary for me (or was it?), it was certainly not for those who had to witness it.

So, calmly, we got out of the car and walked to the library door. I now had no idea where Nelly was. It felt as though it was my heart out there running loose, my heart, too near to heavy traffic. I knew it was my heart, because I felt a big empty hole in my chest.

The door to the library had been left open in the warm weather, and just as I was (calmly) explaining to my librarian-friend that I'd lost my dog and that she might come in, I looked down, and there was Nelly. The man at the computer next to me (it's a small library) asked what she was. "Devil-border collie mix," I told him. "How did she get in here?" he asked, bemused, as she continued to look up at me with bright eyes and panting tongue: So, Ma, where do they keep the steak here? When I told him, he said he'd had a dog who once jumped out of car windows too--only his did it at 40 mph. But he still hadn't quite put this story all together about whose dog this was. "Oh, that's your dog," he finally said.

"Oh, no," I hastened to reply. "This one, she's free. Free to a good home."

Saturday, May 24, 2008


The moon is strange and stunning tonight: a round body, hanging low, with a directed look on its face, almost as if it positioned itself here in order to look through my window. (Do not think I am not hyperaware of the narcissism inherent in writing this, as well as of my recent passage through the weird halls of . . . of . . . well, I won't name it. Only a little while longer, I pledge. To myself, to you.) Maybe it has something to tell me. Maybe that something is that I will never understand what it has to tell me. I don't speak moon.

Yes, it's another 3 a.m. night. (And why, please tell me, it is always 3:00, and not 4:00 or 5:00?) I tried to get back to sleep--after all, I'd only had three hours--but lay for an hour debating gains and losses of moving to this town, or that. A fabulous elementary school vs. a place I know no one. A safe place for Nelly vs. a 45-minute drive to a decent grocery store. Uh, a fabulous elementary school vs. leaving behind everything we know and love: a library that's like our second home; our activities; the people who have saved our asses over and over and over again in so many ways; our friends, oh, our friends. Versus houses and taxes that will feel like carrying that moon on my shoulders.

I don't know what to do. I don't know what I can do. (Will you tell me, O pudding-face moon?) I don't know where to look, so I look everywhere and find nothing. Nelly sits at my feet, wondering why, since I got out of bed after a period of being in it, I am not moving to give her her yogurt and kibble. Well, not at 4 a.m., old girl. She lies on top of the map of the Catskills I have unfurled, and whines softly. There are some things she can't understand, either.

But maybe she too is trying to tell me something: Just pick a spot, it'll be OK. Is that it? Is that it, Nelly? Well, I myself do prefer the wilds of the deeper mountains--more things to chase, you know. But suit yourself. Do what's best. I'll be with you.

The weight of two dependents leaning against me, counting on me to do what's best for them, has given me a permanent limp. I don't know what's best! And I'm supposed to! Help! Back and forth I go; back and forth. I am dizzy. Turned around. On Thursday I had the actual sensation that my head was going to explode: I tell you, it was the oddest, most fascinating thing I have ever experienced. There was still enough going on in there for me to realize that it was unlikely to literally splatter its contents on the roadway as I walked Nelly to the little patch of woods that we regularly poach walks from. (I stay low behind a silent stone wall so as not to alert the nearby property owners; I practice what I was told was the Indian way of quieting the footsteps in the woods: walking pigeon-toed. Even though I suspect this was specious schoolkid gab. And it doesn't work for me anyway, though I'm no Indian, notwithstanding my childhood desire that I was adopted.)

The real estate broker who's trying to help me find a house thinks I'm bonkers. Well, aren't I? Especially with so little shut-eye. Yes, yes! I'll confess to anything! I transported those illegal aliens across the border. Just let me sleep!

It is time to consult the Magic 8 Ball. Shall I move to Phoenicia? Reply hazy, try again. See? It is always right. Hazy. It is all so hazy.

Even the dawn, breaking now outside the window, is hazy. Trees emerge from the mist like soldiers, steadfast.

Try again. So this is what I do. I become lost in despair and anger, then I remind myself that I have been given a gift, a chance to change myself. Today is election day: vote for the forces of light, or darkness. I have this choice. Sort of like Democrat or Republican. Or Green.

And so I pull myself up. I am ready now to move forward. And then it feels like I've stepped in gum carelessly thrown to a hot sidewalk. My heel is suddenly reluctant. It is the thought of leaving my friends. Everyone I know that I depend on (and who, when the tide turns, I long to have depend on me). Even though the list of people to whom I can turn for help with Nelly has dwindled considerably, what with all the little kitties and big chickens she would love to have at.

A friend reminded me of the fact that if I base my decision on where to go on not leaving my friends, there's nothing to stop them from leaving me. I mean, people move, yes?

If dogs had their way, no one would ever leave anyone. This time we put in together, these walks, these meals, these talks, would form a bond as strong as any chain. Dogs have their loyalties. Deathless ones. But we are people, and we leave. That's what we do.

Will all this turn out OK? Very doubtful. I don't like this answer, so I cup the ball once more and think hard about my question. As I see it, yes.

There. That's better.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Silver Linings

One good thing that will happen as a result of the end of oil--our headlong, greedy, unthinking reliance on free-flowing fossil fuel--will be freedom. Our kids will be able to ride their bicycles where they please, regaining a sense of autonomy that is crucial to their development. And their happiness, born of speed. (Heck, maybe grownups could ride their bicycles where they pleased, too: for almost ten years I rode everywhere in New York City. Then something changed. Something that felt . . . homicidal. Suddenly all those cars were acting like they wanted to get you. And I became scared. Then my bike became stolen. Voila: the end of an era.)

Just as beautiful in its inadvertent gift will be the chance for dogs to regain their liberty, too. No more chain-link fences, ropes forever around their necks. Just as in the old movies, they will be beholden to only their own agendas, and will make their daily rounds to the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker (tallow, don't you know).

We need to collect thoughts like these, because what we are going to go through will be painful in the extreme. Even more so because it is unknown what shape it will take, and I'm not just talking about what they'll figure out to replace the plastic that covers every item of food we buy. Do ya think about that, huh? No, I'm talking about the forcible remolding of our society and our economy. Yet all of us are just along on this thrill ride; no one really knows, and no one can control it now.

It is incredible just to hold the thought in the mind, like a smooth piece of marble, that it has been only about ninety years that our America has been reorganized as a wheel with the automobile at the center; you'd think we could just maybe back up a little (checking the rearview mirror first, of course) and return things to the way they were in 1910, say. Problem solved! But that world, I fear, is more distant from us now than they were from the world of three hundred years prior to that. I mean, where are we going to lay hold of thousands of draft horses and plows?

(Then, you can amuse yourself with this happy notion: Around the turn of the century, pretty much all produce was organic produce! You didn't have to shop at Whole Paycheck or buy fruit shipped halfway around the globe just to ensure it hasn't been doused with carcinogens. You just went to your kitchen garden, or the local greengrocer. "USDA Organic" indeed.)

The unknown chills us, to the primitive marrow. It wakes us at 3 a.m. Disaster hides in its dark folds. I should know (and now you know too, ad nauseam, I'm afraid; but just hang on a little while longer, I beg of you--the light is beginning to dawn!). The unknown is scaring me with its devilish grin, whispering from the corner of my nighttime room. I am working like a ditchdigger to feel excited and happy about my little adventure of being launched into space. The glass half full, and all that. Yet it is. At the same time my fear is justified. I can't erase it just because certain onlookers are impatient with what I feel, would like me to feel something different. They're not inside me. I am. And I will arrive at the certain gifts hiding within the storm clouds on my own time. It will be quite a party then.

Tell Nelly not to feel her fear, for instance. Well, I try, but it falls on ears deafened by terror. The lawnmower next door backfires, and I see Nelly glance around furtively. The whole carriage of her body drops suddenly; she is an inch shorter all round. Her head is held lower on her neck, and her tail arcs down, the exact negative of the ecstatic curve it draws over her back when she's happy. I try to tell her it's nothing. Do not be afraid. But she does what she must. And so do I. I know light-hearted relief is just around the corner for both of us.

Her tail is a plume, but a crooked one: what happened to Nelly's tail, in embryo perhaps, that lopsided it so heartbreakingly cutely?

And did you ever think what it would feel like to have your spine continue another foot out behind you, waving, balancing you? Weird, man. That's weird.

It's also weird to move through the changes in life without trying to resist them. Strange things happen, an alchemy of the bloodstream, I think. This morning I held a friend in my arms as she shook with sobs; I could feel the pain moving volcanically from her center and exiting through the shoulders, which moved like the things in nature move--with a force in them that can't be stopped. Her brother is dying. He had just gone to pick out his own burial plot. That must be weirdest of all. Looking at your death as it walks steadily toward you.

What is odd for me is that she and I did not speak for a whole year. Why? Well, now I forget. My own river of grief washed away all marks of it. And she became one of a series of bridges I mended, connections and re-connections with other people forged to great strength and number over the past nine months. I don't know why. I felt driven to do it. It is one of the things that now glints silver from the sky.

None of what happened in the past matters. All there is, the meaning of life (there! I figured it out for you!) is other people. So come back, if you've been pushed away. It really doesn't matter. All is forgiven. It is so easy to do. And all is forgotten, too--one of the side benefits of aging and stress. I can't remember anything anymore. Except that it doesn't get better than this.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ticked Off

The night is interesting. It is not simply an inside-out day, showing the stitching on the seams. It is another world.

At 4:45 a.m., the whippoorwill starts calling. It is imperative, his call, and loud. For hours, it seems, he calls nonstop--or is it she?--rhythmically, insistently (whippoorWILL, whippoorWILL) and then, for a passage, speeds it up doubletime as in a frustration I know well: Answer me, please!

This is the way life starts: the day, the warming weather, the season of nest-building and life-giving. Is this why they made Mother's Day tomorrow, in the spring? The world is now greening at headlong speed, as if it cannot wait to be born.

A bird has made a nest in the back of the newspaper box; at first I thought a prankster had been at work, stuffing the box with dried moss and grass. It would come out with the paper every time I pulled. But it wasn't. It was instead a life-giving force that persisted, against the incessant destruction of the human hand, until one day it was a bird that suddenly flew out into my face when I reached in for the day's news (or "news").

This urge to build a nest and to live will continue in all things until it is finally impossible--the big human hand reaching into the box!--for it to go on. It's that simple. Even in me. It is why I woke at 3 in the morning, tossing in bed, finally to turn on the light and work for a half hour, then turn it off and toss some more, then to go at last what the hell downstairs, work spread out on the kitchen table, third cup of coffee by 5:00, a banana, and the thick dark and the whippoorwill outside the big plate glass window. There are things happening out there that I do not know. Things that I should not know.

I have the need to build a new nest for myself and for my young. But it feels (cue the violins) as though a hand keeps reaching in my box and pulling out my hard-won collection of material, strewing it on the shoulder of the road. I keep collecting more.

This is maudlin stuff, created in my head by the dark and the sleeplessness and the fear of change. That's elemental, the fear that rises when you don't know where you will go, what it will look like and feel like and be made of. It's frightening, though I hasten to add (for those who will kindly rush to tell me how much better it will be) that I also know it will be better. Even as I remain frightened. How's that for duplicity? Or human nature? I only hope that I do not have to wait yet another year for my life to begin. Or for my new nest to be built. I do not like living in the middle of transitoriness. Some people find it exciting to live in borrowed places, out of suitcases; to me, it's the definition of hell. A place where I never fully arrive because I know I must soon leave.

The light, at 5:20, is now coloring the sky a royal blue, the exact color of silk in a skirt I bought for a special occasion four years ago this week. I always thought of that skirt as a piece of night I could wear.

The coyotes are probably beginning to stir, to scratch at the places where the ticks are firmly attached. While the house was being shown yet again this morning, and I thus had to disappear yet again, a friend and I walked with Nelly into the back field and across the neighbor's property (once the realm of this old farm) to the woods. There is the melody of the stream rushing over the little falls made by the beavers' work. We trespassed on the moss-covered trails created by the custodian (obviously someone who deeply respects their magisterial quiet and insularity) of these woods. Occasionally we passed cairns, sculptures of rock balanced impossibly but precisely into towers, marking the turns, and we walked and talked, stopping before a bright green inchworm suspended on his invisible trapeze at nose height, or an orange salamander frozen at our feet, or a small purple wildflower like a violet but not. And when we came home, we were crawling with ticks.

I've since had a shower and changed clothes twice. And still I picked one off my back just before throwing in that towel on sleep at 3 a.m. I had taken three from my hair this afternoon, and a small one that had already dug into the soft place just behind the knee. Nelly, of course, was a veritable tick mop, sweeping all that lay in her path onto her long white hair, so they could get going and play hide and seek along her spine, rushing to the neck, ears, eyes. I took maybe twenty off her today, as she, not a patient dog, sat patiently--she seems to know what I am doing, and after the detachment (when some hair is inevitably included), she demands to see the proof that the pain was not in vain. I hold the moving thing out and she stretches her nose toward it, watches, then seems satisfied. I can go on.

She herself will do what work I cannot, because it's impossible to find them all. What I find difficult to do with my clumsy fingers she uses her lips to accomplish, and she then rolls it around in her mouth and finally expels it, dead. Do you know how tough it is to kill a tick? This leads me to think it is some kind of knowledge lodged deep in the canine DNA: "How to Kill Ticks: Remember, They Are Special." I hope so, anyway, for the sake of the coyotes, who do not have the assistance of a primate in tick removal. Are they covered, slowly sucked dry by hundreds of them? How do they cope? Perhaps they help one another, carefully pulling them off and rolling them around in the mouth. Maybe it's their bedtime ritual, like toothbrushing.

At 6 now the colors outside are separating themselves out from the uniform black: there is the pale green, and the gray-brown of bark, the chrome on my car. Things look like they are coming to life, but it is really a second life, just the one we are used to calling our own. The first life goes on at night, without us. I may have just broken my own record on sleeplessness, which is saying a lot considering the nighttime torture (I don't use that word lightly) I've gone through in the past eight months. It is what it is. Anyway, there had been, until this last few days, a great improvement: See? All loss is eventually survived! But this fretful waking now is testimony to the importance of nest-building. Until I make a new one, I will not sleep, transitory and afraid, and will look out onto night until it gets light.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

It's Haunting

A ghost visited me the other day. Only I saw it. Nelly was having fun and games on the lawn with Sadie, a pal who is twice her size but half her age. Nelly led her around like a child's pull-toy on a string, exerting centrifugal force on the poor black dog who was powerless not to try to catch her. But the game Nelly was playing was Don't Be Caught--Not Nowhere, Not Nohow. She drew sinuous curves all over the surface of the grass, S's this way and that, changing direction in a quick bursts: Fooled ya!

And that's when I saw the ghost of Mercy. The most gorgeous, intelligent dog who ever lived.

Maybe she came back because right about now is the run-up to the anniversary of her death. I can't remember exactly, although my body must, having been imprinted permanently with the shock, a hot brand burning the flesh of the emotions. The thing my mind will never forget is the incessant calls of the mourning doves, just like now--woo-OOH-OOH-OOH--until I wanted to scream Stop! Don't you know you're torturing me? I had never really noticed them before, but that May, my hearing was suddenly changed. My senses were scraped raw so that everything (colors, sounds) was like vinegar on a cut. The whole world hurt.

Of course I had to get another border collie. I had to have her back. I ended up with Nelly, who is herself. But there she was, four years later, reanimating Mercy's game. In Prospect Park, our dog used to lead a string of other dogs a merry chase, just like this, switching back and forth, finally ending crouched under a picnic table, frustrated pooches circling with tongues dragging the dirt. Her eyes glinted with laughter. Ha-ha! Fooled ya.

No one could catch her, either.

I welcome her back.

Sadie on this day, of course, played a Sadie game. She betook herself into the back field, and dunked herself in my son's pond (the one I "gave" him for his own during our time here, the one he used to take his friends to when the grownups were otherwise engaged with margaritas on the patio during summer parties, the one for which he made a plaster plaque decorated with glass dragonflies and and declaiming, "Welcome, Friends, to my pond"). The only thing is, it's actually a mud hole.

Then Sadie burst into the house and shook herself vigorously. Mud splattered all the way to the ceiling the newly painted walls, the ones that are supposed to help sell this house to deep-pocketed city folks, along with the general cleanliness of its rooms. The floor, too, was now covered with the dog's interpretation of Jackson Pollock. Quite a good one, I think. I had three showings of the house scheduled for the next day.

As my son said, "Mom had a cow."

But my cows are getting smaller and smaller these days, I am proud to report. I am working very, very hard at "letting things go." It makes life, and everyone around me, much happier. Soon these animals will be the size of the toys my child puts in his play barn.

But once upon a time I had a border collie. She loved it here, as did I. And every once in a while she pays a visit. For which I am glad. Sad. But glad. Both at exactly the same time.