“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Day 24: Zoe and Cindy: Or, Meditation on the Quilt

Cindy came to clean our house yesterday, removing the last evidence of holiday family fun: stray bits of wrapping paper, crumbs on the floor, crumpled up and stained green tablecloth and napkins.  Cindy says she can always tell when we've been happy in our house because we "throw more food around" in the kitchen.  Yesterday the floors were in particularly bad shape and she gave me that smile that said, "I'm glad you had a good time."

I met Cindy about a dozen years ago when she took my fiction-writing class.  She was finishing up a double major in English and Economics (her honors thesis had to do with the budget and funding cycles of the Adirondack Park).  She maintained a 4.0 or near-4.0 average while still running a thriving house-cleaning business and putting her two youngest of five kids through college.  We don't get that many non-traditional students at St. Lawrence University, and I think those of us who had Cindy in class were all a little in awe of her.  Later, after she graduated, she considered moving to the city and working in the finance industry, but soon realized she liked having her own business up here.  The North Country had been home to her family for generations, and Cindy is the family historian.  Then there was a certain gentleman whom she later married.

When I called her up about a year after she'd taken my class and asked her if she would consider adding us to her list of customers, she said yes without hesitation.  I had been afraid she'd say no because she'd told me back when she was my student that she only cleaned houses that had history and character. I haven't seen the other houses, but I think they are all really big, gorgeous old homes on the North Country historical register, expensive and well-situated, whereas ours is just plain old.  She had been to our house when I had the fiction class over for pizza and salad and I remember being hyper-aware of every stain on the rugs when I showed her around.  Of that occasion she just remembers that I introduced her to avocado as a salad ingredient--she'd only eaten it before in guacamole--and now she puts it in her salads too.

Cindy has known Zoe since we took the pup home in May of 2003.  Zoe loves her, and when we're outside at lunchtime doing what my husband and I call "the midday romp," in which she strolls around the back yard along the river bank, rolls in the snow, or runs and catches a stick, sometimes the only way I can lure her back into the house is to say, "Let's go see Cindy."  Yesterday it was very cold and windy when I took Zoe out, and I was glad to have Cindy there as bait.

Over the years, Cindy has witnessed the way my husband and I interact about a number of things, including one matter we have never agreed on.  When I take Zoe to be groomed at Bows and Bandannas in Potsdam, Zoe always comes home with a bandanna, unless they have run out.  I'm not one of those people who dresses up their dogs with antlers and bells for holiday photos, and Zoe doesn't even have a sweater, but my feeling is that if I have paid for something, it's my call as to how much use it gets.  Kerry thinks the whole bandanna thing is too cloyingly cutesy and way too demeaning for our rather reserved, dignified dog, and I can see his point, I really can, but hey, she does look pretty darn charming in those bows.  So our compromise is that Zoe gets to wear the thing for 24 hours, and then, generally when I'm not looking, he slips it off and puts it in the trash by his desk.  The trash by his desk isn't really trash: it's paper, mostly, discarded envelopes and such, and if I wanted to, I could take the bandanna out when he's at work and put it back on Zoe, but even though I've often been tempted, I've never done it.  A deal is a deal.


Sometimes I think Cindy is a teeny bit psychic.  For example, once, a couple years into her time working for us, she said she'd dreamed that I had gotten really exhausted from being on a major book tour, and that I took Zoe off to Europe, and she thought this meant I was about to write a book that made me really famous.  That next year I did wear myself out a bit going around the country giving readings, but that's because the book was published by an independent press with no publicity budget, so I had to cobble together the whole tour myself on top of teaching full-time, and it took a lot of energy.

But then, a good five or six years after Cindy had had this dream, we took Zoe to France.
Zoe in front of Chenonceau Chateau, in the Loire Valley, May of 2010

Later, I said to Cindy, "Your dream from all those years ago came true, but not the way you thought it would, exactly."

She agreed. "I didn't realize it would be your teaching that got you to France.  Sometimes I think we get the life we want, and get to do the things we love, but not in the exact way we thought it would go."  I wondered if she was thinking about her own life then.  She'd always wanted to be a small business owner and to live in a beautiful place.  She does.  But as in my situation, she didn't have to get rich or become successful in the conventional way she'd initially thought it would have to go in order to make this life materialize.

I've mentioned in numerous other posts how this past year of 2011, when I got to teach in France again, my husband couldn't come, and Zoe stayed home with him, and how I then took another group of students to India.  I was away from home for about six months and I really got homesick at the end.  And I missed Zoe like mad.

When I returned, Cindy presented me with a welcome-home gift.  She had made a dog quilt so that Zoe would have another place to lounge.

I looked at it closely, and then my eyes misted over.  It was beautiful, and it was made with Zoe's old bandannas!  Over the eight years Zoe has been in our life, the every-eight-weeks groomings, Cindy has been removing the triangles of cloth from Kerry's trash bin and saving them.

The day she gave us this gift was the week I noticed Zoe had developed a limp.  Later, after the diagnosis, I asked Cindy if she "knew."

"I have had three quilts going for a long, long time," she said.  "And something told me I should finish Zoe's first.  Plus you were coming home."

After Zoe's cancerous leg was amputated, and we took her home from the hospital, she spent long hours resting on this quilt.  It was soothing against her shaved skin.

Now I keep it on the bed in my writing & yoga & meditation studio where I read and take naps and look at the river flowing by.  Zoe relaxes on it when we've been outside.  Maybe it smells of her youth?



3 photos of Zoe in my studio by Tara Freeman
To design a quilt, bandanna by bandanna, over eight years takes a certain kind of long-range vision and patience and faith.  It's probably the same kind of planning and step-by-step adherence to practical matters that helped Cindy raise those children and get them through school.

I've always believed that everyone we meet has something to teach us but sometimes, when I find myself face-to-face with another person's generosity and kindness and humility, I understand that I am, within the dynamic of this particular relationship, mostly going to be the student, and I count my lucky stars (and triangles).

Cindy and Zoe and Natalia; photo by Tara Freeman

Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 23: Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part 3: Or, Are we Sea-Worthy, or One Storm Away from Ship-Wrecked?

One of my students spent a semester at sea early in her college career.  This experience seemed to add to her reserves of personal strength and wisdom, plus she came back with lots of juicy stories to dine out on, literally. (If you hadn't read it, check out one of these lovely stories in Day Eight: Lettie Discovers the Zen of Orange-Eating.)  A friend and colleague is about to teach on the semester at sea because she wants to see more of the world and happens to like boats.  She's a little scared, but I know she'll have a marvelous time, and I look forward to hearing about her adventures when she returns.

Never say never, but I'm 99% certain you're not going to see me applying to teach at sea.  Nor, when I'm in my dotage, will you find me on a cruise ship rocking to the oldies with the other oldies.  Boats make me seasick, and although I love to swim and to paddle around in the canoe with my husband, especially with Zoe between us like the queen of the Nile, the big vast ocean, to me, is a sublime entity best enjoyed on sand or on a balcony with a glass of wine.

Besides, just being human can feel like one wild ride on the roiling, seething seas, and even if you're a relatively even-tempered person, as I like to think I am, life in this era of literal and economic tsunamis is far wetter and rougher than many of us thought it would be when we groomed ourselves for adulthood. As a young person at the height of the Cold War, I often (for good reason!) indulged in bouts of gloomy, pessimistic thinking and I'm glad my worst case scenarios haven't happened (yet), but I never anticipated the rise of homelessness around the globe, the melting of all that polar ice, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, last year's tsunami in Japan, an entire decade of war with the Middle East, or even political candidates who are given the time of day even though they were mentored by folks who believe slavery was really a lovefest among Christians and wasn't all that bad, and who think Darwin wrote science fiction.  A lot of us have had to toughen up in ways we didn't think would be necessary in our idealistic youths when we thought all we had to do was work really hard and try to be good and things would just work out.

So, how do you toughen up enough to weather the storms without closing your heart, without losing that tenderness and compassion that makes life so exquisitely beautiful?  How do you create a vessel sturdy enough for the high seas that is also flexible and light?

I've had it pretty good in recent years, but I can still be stricken with fear and self-doubt.  It doesn't take much to make me feel like I've failed.  I happen to be one of those people with a deep fear of rejection: which makes my career choice, writing, just a little bit fraught.  I can't think of any profession that brings more disappointment, except for being an actor, where those rejections happen face-to-face.  But writing is something I can't not do, so like everyone else with the same addiction, I just have to suck it up.

And unless you're a centenarian who just adopted a puppy, if you let a pet become part of your family, you have to know you're going to get your heart broken--that it's just a matter of time.  I used to tell people that I was going to ensure that Zoe lived to fifteen, and that the year she passed away I would need to be to be medicated for at least six months. Suffice it to say that I don't think it's going to go down this way now.

Then there's all the illness and death around us.  Do you ever think, when you do the math, that you happen to have moved into one of the cancer hot spots on the planet, but no one told you? Or are the hot spots just getting closer?  So how will we weather the storm when we or someone we love gets sick, or just wakes up one day and dies without warning, as happened to the husband of a dear friend a little over a year ago?  Is there a way to rehearse sickness and bereavement before the real test of our characters begins?

My husband is healthy, except for arthritis, and I've been lucky, so far, with my own health, but when I got home in June from India, I had a little case of positional vertigo.  It was like I was at sea, always.  If I just turned the wrong way, even when I was lying down, I thought I was going to pass out.  It's one thing to get dizzy spells, but to be dizzy all the time makes you think differently about what it means to be grounded.  I made myself go to yoga anyway, where the slightest pose and subtlest bend felt more challenging than anything I ever could do back in my most bendy-limber yogini days, and gradually, after two months or so, the vertigo went away.

Now, when I walk across the floor in the morning to do something basic like put on my clothes, I say, Thank you feet. Thank you, toes.  You are some good, sturdy little dudes.  But in the midst of the dizzy days I tried to learn from being so incredibly off-balance.  It felt, well, emblematic.  If we put our equanimity in the hands of external forces--editors who like or don't like our writing, the health and wellness of everyone we love, the economy, the weather, functional inner ears--we're totally screwed.  Or at least we're going to have positional vertigo as a way of being in the world.

It's for all these reasons that I decided I had to make some subtle changes and commit to a few practices that I hoped would make my vessel a bit more sea-worthy in this next phase of life. Some people wake up one morning and stop smoking or start exercising or begin writing the Great American Novel or get out of abusive relationships without a prelude, but I'm not wired that way.  I need to rehearse, in my mind, so that I can believe and really trust that I'll do this thing and carry it through and not wimp out.  With a few days or weeks of lead time to prepare, jumping into new terrain, for me, feels a little less scary and weird.

A boat in Zihuatanejo: one of the thousands of boats I have seen, but never wished to board

Boats along the Mediterranean sea port of Collioure, one of my favorite towns in the South of France.  Matisse and Derain made some of their more colorful, gorgeous paintings there, and they became known as the Fauves.

Zoe at sunset near our dear friends' cottage on Georgian Bay, Ontario
I know so many people who are much braver than I am.  My sister, Mira Bartok, for one, who was hit by an 18-wheeler truck, had to reteach herself the alphabet, and lived to tell the tale (check out her gorgeous illustrated memoir, The Memory Palace), and helped me, as she did this for herself, reconnect to all the scary places of our shared past until they weren't scary at all, but became, in fact, places of friendship and love.  My former students, Derek and James, who both served in Iraq.  My friend whose husband died suddenly, but despite all the grief and sorrow can still feel gratitude for all the other good things happening in her life.  My plucky student, and now my colleague, who signed on to spend a semester with strangers on the high seas.  But since I began making a few tweaks to my daily routines, I do feel more peaceful, and more steady on my feet.  And in the meantime, to those of you who are ready to walk a new plank, whichever one it is for you, I have only one thing left to say.  "Yar!"

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 22: Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part 2

Sometimes I think I'm the only person in the world who a) is extremely sensitive to her environment, and thrives best in living and work spaces free of clutter and b) is naturally a slob. While I always think better and sleep better and create better around blank canvases, if I don't pay attention I will soon find myself surrounded with half-full cups of cold tea, piles of books, journals, sweaters, and socks.  In my writing space, I never know when I'll be looking for a certain quote, so I currently have nine books at my feet and I just cleaned up in here yesterday.

So when I first came home from six months of teaching in France and India, I took a hard look around and started to "see" the things I had stopped noticing before I left.  You know, the empty gift bag from who-knows-when that was temporarily left beside the jewelery box and the giant calcium/magnesium bottle, and now lives there? The Bactine that helped out with a paper cut six months ago and is still waiting for my next nick next to the alarm clock?  Anyway, I not only cleaned, but I de-clutterized.  Systematically, room by room.

I'm normally reluctant to read self-help books, mainly because they leave it all up to individuals to fix their lives and don't address social justice and stratified inequality: you know, the grand forces outside of individual control that are responsible for the lion's share of misery in this world.  However, there were two books that sort of fit that genre, quite loosely, that helped me out a lot.

One was The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.  She wrote in her preface that she feared one day that she was wasting her life.  She was on a city bus in New York, where she lives, and she realized that although she had everything she'd ever wanted--husband she loved, two lovely children, a career as a writer that was going well, close ties to her immediate family and in-laws, and so on, she still suffered from "bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness, and free-floating guilt."

She wasn't clinically depressed, but she thought she could be much happier.  And so she created "the happiness project," which began as a blog (one of the inspirations for mine) and systematically began to figure out, through lots of reading, trial and effort, how happiness isn't just something that you have or you don't based on luck, but that you can bring it into your life--that you can work it.

Her subtitle is Or, Why I spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have more Fun. 

Two things I really took to heart from her advice were a) to clean my closets and b) to have more fun.  The first meant really going through everything systematically and chucking what I didn't need.  I even rifled through my jewelery box and gave away earrings and necklaces that I hadn't worn in over a year.  I can't tell you how good it felt to clean and fold and bag up everything I wasn't using, including the cute purple suit I bought in London, circa 1997, and bring it over to Renewal House, our local safe haven for women fleeing violent partners.

The "more fun" part meant examining my 60-plus hour work week and thinking about how to use my time better and to actually have a life, or at least, part of an actual weekend.  I had to stop blaming my job for my chronic flare-ups of unhappiness and weariness.  Hey, it's not like being an English professor means punching in or sending Walmart shoppers to Aisle 8.  I am not exposed to asbestos or radioactive materials on the job, there is very little heavy lifting, unless you consider my various sacks of books, and my co-workers are smart, plus the people we work with, the young, are generally very lovable and open to what we have to offer them.  I don't have the weight of the global economy on my shoulders, nor do I have to perform delicate heart surgery--except sometimes, metaphorically.  So what was my problem?  And in this economy, I'm lucky to have a job, period.

So I decided to bring the joie de vivre I'd known in France back to the North Country, and I made Sunday lunch a tradition, even in the busiest, most fraught times of the semester.  (See Day Four: How Sunday Became my Favorite Day of the Week.)  No matter how much I had to do in the week, I would get it done by midday Saturday so that I could do my chores Saturday afternoon and spend Sunday enjoying a leisurely, home-cooked midday meal with my husband, with wine and dessert and the works.  I have stuck to this now for six months and it's kind of symbolic to me that Christmas and New Year's both fall on Sundays this year.

The other thing Gretchen Rubin advised in the book that really helped me was to "read memoirs of catastrophe."  Like her, I'd had Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking on my shelf for ages, but I was scared to read it--scared (talk about true magical thinking!) that the tragedy in this book was somehow contagious.  Grethen's reasoning is that we kind of have to rehearse how we'll handle the loss that is coming, because we are all going to have our fair share of heartbreak and grief, no matter what.  So reading about it first can help us prepare for that day when sorrow comes knocking on our door.  Not that anything ever really prepares you truly.  But maybe remembering that it is en route like some big raptor migrating between Siberia and the Florida Keys might, just might help us appreciate all the good things in our lives right now.

The other book that really helped me was Thich Nhat Hanh's You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment.  When I decided to meditate for a little longer than I was used to, and to do it every day, I would read a few pages of his book first.  He explains everything having to do with mindfulness so well, so clearly and simply, that I can open up that book to any page and find solace.  It always begins with the breath.  Breathing is, like, something we have to do, or we die.  So wherever we are, in whatever tight spot, we just have to return to the breath, to notice ourselves breathing, and maybe slow that breath down, and we are in the present, living.  Awake to our lives.

Stay tuned to tomorrow's blog, Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part 3, when I finish my thoughts here about preparing for change.  For now I have to get myself ready because Rebecca's about to pick me up and take me to her yoga class, and I need to brush my teeth.

My closet, back in the day, before the shoes started breeding

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Day 21: Pre New-Year's Resolve, Part One

At the end of December, if you're like me, you give some thought to what you might want to accomplish in the coming year and what might need to change if you're really going to do it.  Over the years, I've made the usual resolutions--finish the writing project, do more yoga --but sometimes these lists lack a certain, I don't know, sense of humor.  And, apart from anything else, they're so Me-ish.   They're all about what I believe I should be doing because my identity is wrapped up in being a writer and being healthy and semi-youthful (the latter of which gives me the energy to work long hours and wake up early to meditate and make art) but not the how and the why that contribute to states of being like happiness and clarity and peace of mind.

The problem with these New Year's resolutions is that most of them don't speak to the spirit behind the intention, the feeling we get when we create a new daily practice or recommit to one that is underway.  I've "finished" stories and essays and book projects, adhered to fitness routines, etc., but the books were never as done as I'd wished when I made these goals (i.e., they did not sell at auction, become instant bestsellers, get made into movies, and give me enough income to retire to the South of France, and ultimately, give me more free time, which is what I want more than anything) and I still have to trick myself into going to the gym by wearing a running bra and tank top under my clothes, even if my silhouette looks a little, ah, squashed, and putting great books on my I-Pod and denying myself a chance to listen to them outside of the Elliptical.  (For the record, Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens, and State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, were my gym buddies of 2011.)

Okay, what we're really talking about is the feeling we get when we do something that a) we really, truly need to do, like make art or bread or take good care of our bodies and b) the uber-goal that links all the individual ones.

I think that the uber-goal needs to come from a deeper place than whatever it is that fuels our ambitions.  It can't just be about whatever is good for our egos.  Having said that, I think egos get a bad rep in the world for being shallow, but they are helpful little guys who start our engines.  But I think what needs to be fueling the engine has to give us something that sustains us when--to belabor a labored analogy--the car breaks down, or when the outer world does not reward us for being so, like, totally awesome.

In other words, if you want to be a good writer or sculptor or photographer, you have to like doing this weird thing, even when, by the lights of the world, you have failed, and even when, by your own standards of that morning, you have truly and profoundly sucked at it.  You just have to like the way you feel sometime during or after the wrestling match with images, the workout or yoga class, and you would have to still want to do it even if a little future-reading genie came down and told you that you will never, no matter how hard you try, earn enough from your writing to retire to the South of France or be fit enough to catch your dog in the woods or do a headstand without the help of the wall.

For 2012 I have, as usual, a long list of things I hope to accomplish.  First and foremost, I plan to keep up with the daily meditation and see this blog project through, whatever it morphs into, even after Day 108 (if you are new to this blog, see Day One: Why 108 Days?) because I like doing it and it's fun and it's so NOT like anything I ever would have imagined I'd do, even as of a few months ago, that it feels daring and not at-all like homework, even though, on the surface, it sure sounds like it.

Project 2: I am excited about revising my novel, which is set in France, a place I love so much, and experimenting with point of view.  I'm hoping to lure in a certain editor whose work I admire.

Project 3: I have been plugging away at some travel essays set mostly in France and India and also at home, in the States, and I've published some of them already, so it feels natural to plan to write more and send some out to journals and I'm inspired to do so.  I kept journals on these trips and they have stuff in them I can use.

Project 4: I have a new camera and I'm excited to take better pictures.  In the past, a good picture for me just meant that everyone had a head, and no werewolf eyes.  Now that I'm writing this blog, my standards have gone up a bit.  And it's fun to work in a new medium.  And above all, it's really fun and inspiring to learn something new, to be a beginner at something.

My other goal is to do more yoga.  When the grading got crazy after Thanksgiving, I stopped going to my Monday night class.  But hey, tomorrow I have a yoga date with my friend, Rebecca.  And next week I can go back to class.  I'm on my way!

But what means more to me than all of this is to spend every single day with Zoe, because I don't know how much time she has left, and to get the most out of our daily walks in the woods and the mornings we co-exist in my writing & meditation & yoga studio.  She did her usual doggy meditation on the balcony this morning (see Blog 10: Can Meditation Alter Your (Dog's) Brain) while I did mine, and now she's napping on the rug.  When I share our mornings together like this--both of us meditating, then me writing while she naps--I am truly happy. 

I think really my overall uber-goal is mindfulness.  To continue on the path I started some years ago when I decided it was not a good thing to put my purse on my car and drive off.  Mindfulness, to me, means being fully here when I do whatever I'm doing--writing, communing with Zoe, having a conversation.  I can only get there in writing when I turn off the second-tier chatter.  Mindfulness is kind of a cliché and you might find a better word.  Focus.  Concentration.  An awareness of the present.  Ultimately, whatever we call it, when I'm in that state I am writing something only I could write, no one else, because it's mine and it's true.  And when I am in this state of mind, I spend less time second-guessing myself.

Another way of talking about this is to say that if your one overarching goal is to be true to who you are and to stop fighting with yourself so much--to find peace of mind, seek what the Buddhists call "right livelihood," learn to be happier in your daily life even as you try to change it--you'll infuse all the other ambitions and projects with this spirit.  And then it almost won't matter what the outcome is, but chances are, the outcome will be a reflection of the spirit you brought to the process, and it will surprise you.

For tomorrow's blog, Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part Two, I'll write about getting ready and clearing the field, preparing for change, getting rid of clutter, and some good things I stumbled upon, reading-wise, that helped me this summer before I began the first 108 Days.  But now it's time for me to run around the yard with Zoe, do a work-out, eat lunch, and clean up the mess that is my office on campus. 

The landscape I dream about in the South of France: setting for much of my novel
Good day, gentle readers, good day.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Day 20: The Call of the Wild

Zoe's best quality on a dog walk without the leash: she stays close to us on the trail.  She's an Australian Shepherd mix, and her herding instinct is strong.

Her worst trait: now and then, especially on a cold winter day, she likes to find dead things in the bushes and eat them.  If she smells something and goes after it, it is physically impossible to stop her, even if I have a posse with me, as I sometimes do.  She's smarter than we are, and fast.  What she does is run along near our path but inside an overgrown area we can't get to, close enough to see us and hear us, but not close enough for one of us to grab hold of her collar.  But at least these unscheduled snacks don't take up much time.  Before we can say, "We're leaving, Zoe," she has gobbled down the dead pheasant/squirrel/bunny and is back with the pack.

She hadn't done this in a long time--not this year, and certainly not since she was diagnosed with bone cancer and became a tripod.  But this past holiday weekend, when my sister, her husband, and their dog were on a walk with us at Indian Creek Nature Center, she found something tasty and went for it.  No amount of coaxing, shouting, or cajoling would stop her.  It was snack time. 

I wish she wouldn't do this, but I still remember how, when I picked her out as a puppy, the people working at the pound also said that she was "part wolf."

Several years ago, on a walk with a student and me in early April, she found a deer leg.  Zoe ran proudly with the leg through the woods as though she were carrying the Olympic torch, only horizontally.  I could not get her to drop it, and I could not get her to leave.

(Incidentally, she knows the "leave it" command and will let me put a treat on her paw without touching it.  But somehow that rule never applies to the Great Outdoors.  In the woods, Zoe seems to think that "leave it" means "Let me leave you in peace while you adhere to the call of the wild and enjoy your carcass.")

On that day with the deer leg, I had to get my student back to a crucial meeting with one of her other professors; we had no time for this tomfoolery.  We came up with a strategy: make Zoe decide to drop the leg on her own.  We had to make her fear of abandonment kick in or we would never be able to leave until she'd eaten the entire deer leg, which was twice her size.  It would be dark soon.  Plus my husband needed the car.  I had his Subaru wagon because my car was in the shop.

Of course neither my student nor I had a cell phone.

And so we tried to trick her: I opened the back car door, hoping she'd just jump in, and started backing out slowly, shouting good-bye.  "She has her head up," my student said.  "She's stopped chewing.  She looks concerned."  I wanted to see this for myself and in the instant I turned to watch, I got us stuck in deep snow-slushy mud.

A half hour later, in twilight, Zoe had dropped the leg.  I had sent my student (who was on the track team) to run the mile and a half back to campus to her appointment.  Then I had to pretend I was leaving Zoe as I walked away from the parking lot to get help.  By the time Zoe and I had found some men at Facilities Operations on the St. Lawrence University campus to rescue the car, my student had sent over a friend with a truck and chains, and my husband, whom my student had also called, had called one of our friends.  So now here we were, three trucks revving their engines, two humans in each vehicle, the very stuck Subaru groaning as it was hoisted and hauled, with Zoe in the back seat looking supremely calm and a little bored, wondering what all the fuss was about. 

This weekend it took longer than usual for her to eat the poor dead rabbit or squirrel or quail or baby owl, but sure enough, she came running toward us on the path after we had yelled "Good-bye, Zoe" two or three times for good measure.  The next morning, she threw up, as we knew she would.  She hasn't once gotten sick from chemotherapy, but the dead critters she swallows, practically whole, are hard even for a so-called part-wolf like Zoe to get down without incident.

I couldn't be mad at her, of course.  Watching Zoe turn into a wolf is beautiful, in its way.  And watching her do it now, as a tripod, and have her outrun and out-maneuver three fairly fit humans and another dog: well, it was something I would have been proud of her for, if I wasn't so worried about her overall health.

When I surrender to Zoe in these instances, I always return to a line from Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey: We are kindred all of us, ... killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us.”

Long live Zoe.  Long live the rabbits and squirrels and birds, and thank you, tasty critters who have already become meat.  Long live all of us human, animal, plant, and insect, indissolubly connected and implicated in the cycles of life on this nourishing, fragile earth.
Zoe looks very pleased with herself

What's in her mouth?


Zoe playing with Sadie, her "cousin"

Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 19: The Ghosts of Christmases Past

It's Boxing Day, which in England meant that the servants finally got to have a day off and the poor and all the service people received gifts from their various benefactors in a box.  In Canada there are sales going on, and my sister and her husband want to hit a few museums there and see the sights.  I may or may not join them.  Today seems like a good day for reflection.

Downstairs after everyone left last evening, I spent some time scrubbing the dried gravies and sauces from the last couple days off the stove in a sort of zen way, enjoying the physicality of the feat, erasing the burners' food memories but not mine, feeling exceedingly grateful for how our holiday has been going.  Our holiday get-togethers are happiest when, for the rest of the year, everyone is doing what they were born to do: the artist lad is making art, the scientist lad is making science (when he's not cooking gourmet feasts), the writer in this corner is writing, and the kind man who holds everyone together in our house is content with everyone's contentment (and reading a lot of mysteries and turning a wood bowl or two on the side.)

And Zoe, well she is currently off with my husband on the gentlemen's walk, a sacred morning ritual that happens 365 days a year, no matter the weather or the holiday. 

When my sister, Mira, and I were children we spent Christmas at our maternal grandparents' house.  Grandma Anna was a Jew, and we still identify as such, but Grandma was an atheist.   Grandpa Steve, an Orthodox Christian from Macedonia, was the dominant force in the house, so we celebrated Christmas, a holiday he loved so much that he strung Christmas lights all over the living room and kept them there year-round.  The tree was aluminum and he stored the box for it up in the scary attic where his rifle hung from the wall.  I remember going up there with him sometimes and cowering at the top of the stairs, but I liked the smell of the mothballs and always wanted to route through the old cedar trunks of retro clothes and photo albums.  Like any good Yugoslav, our grandfather roasted lamb, and it was probably delicious, but after he had refreshed his whiskey glasses again and again while the meat cooked I don't remember ever being hungry when we finally all sat down at the mahogany table that my sister and I were charged to shine with cut-open walnuts every day after school.

Sometimes I would fake being sick so that our mother would stay back with me in our apartment a few blocks away and I could spend the day in bed reading Charles Dickens novels. But when our mother's chronic mental illness made it impossible for her to hold a job and we were forced to live with her parents, we were stuck with the holiday whether we liked it or not.  It was nice when snow fell and we sang "Silent Night" or "King Wenceslas," and my sister and I would feed scraps of things under the table to Ginger, our collie shepherd mix, and take turns playing the piano.  For a minute or two we could trick ourselves into thinking we were happy, and that we were just doing what families do.  Sometimes I think we were happy, my sister and I, as we were both born with that capacity in deep reserves.

In my twenties, I roamed.  One year my sister joined me for Christmas in Mexico, and the two of us and two German friends went to a park in Mexico City and had a picnic above all the families who glided along a canal in gondola-like boats with their picnics and music, and the day was warm and fragrant.  From our perch on high, we laughed wildly at any and all the obvious Lothario types. Fed up at getting whistled at and harassed as we wandered around Mexico City and Guanajuato, we used our unique, sisterly brand of humor for revenge, as was our wont.

Another year I had people over to my grad school apartment and we ate the ceviche with scallops I'd learned to love in Mexico.  I used Christmas colors--red and green peppers, green cilantro, with tomatoes and rose-red radishes and sliced limes as garnishes.  Orphan and Jew Christmases were my specialty in the roaming era, and I was usually the host.

Except for the Christmas we spent in England with my husband's family, we have now spent 21 years in this house with mostly the same cast of characters: my husband, the boys that became my stepsons, my sister and her partner (for the past 11 years, Doug), and two couples we consider family.  On Christmas Eve, Foodie Son (the scientist) cooks something delicate and rare or earthy and savory, or a combination thereof, and sometimes, when she's in town, our friend Cathy comes.  On Christmas Day, my husband and I do up a turkey and all the trimmings.  Our dogs always get a squeaky toy or two, which become part of the day's soundtrack.  Usually our friend Mo takes them on a walk with us in the woods to work up room for pie, but this year we just stood in the back yard talking while the dogs chased sticks and ate snow.

One year my husband and I were so behind with our end-of-semester grading that we couldn't find a tree anywhere.  So instead, we found a branch of something evergreen and called it the Christmas Twig.  But we made it beautiful (not hard to do, since space was so limited, and only the nicest ornaments made the final pick) and we did our usual: eat turkey at 2, open gifts one at a time, play Dictionary in the parlor.  The ritual never changes.

Last year, and the year before that, I was heading to Quebec City and then on to France in early January, and so Christmas meant I only had another 10 days or so left in our house and in the States.  It was fun to anticipate those grand adventures, but the to-do lists were endless, and I don't think I ever deeply relaxed.

This year I'm grateful to be where I am: to want what I have, mostly.  If I could change anything, you know what it would be (Zoe in complete remission, and then there's the matter of world peace) but for now, I'm just happy to be home in a state of complete, unadulterated non-planning.  Just being here.  With the people and pup I love, up here in the North Country.

I wish you all a relaxing Boxing Day, gentle readers.  And I hope this weekend gave you memories you will wish to keep.
Poor Zoe looks resigned, the poor over-loved, over-kissed pup. Note her new, tripod-dog way of sitting. Photo by Tara Freeman 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Day 18: A (Converted) Carnivore's Christmas: Part Two

Christmas Eve Fare, How and Why:

1.  Prelude:  Foodie Son spends several years in his youth living in Seattle, where he gets exposed to Asian cuisine.

2.  More Prelude: Foodie Son spends three months touring Asia after graduate school, before he begins his post-doc.  He keeps a food blog, takes cooking classes, and especially likes and learns the delights of Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.

3.  After the family takes a visit to the farm, 8 O'clock Ranch,  (see yesterday's blog, Day 17, A (Converted) Carnivore's Christmas: Part One), Foodie Son designs menu:

First Course: Vietnamese dip sandwich:  pork terrine with sriracha aioli and pickles, pho broth.

Main Dish: Ras al hanout rubbed lamb shoulder, smoked onion purée, boulangerie potatoes, lamb jus, arugula salad.

Dessert: Sticky toffee pudding, vanilla ice cream (an homage to his father's British roots)

Flashback to the visit to 8 o'clock ranch, and the sheep and goat crossing.

The baguette for the sandwich was also homemade.  The pork was made into a terrine and then covered with home-made coleslaw and cilantro.  The dipping broth involved hours of work as well.   Pho, the Vietnamese soup, was a favorite of Food Son's as a student because it's cheap and good.  Yum!


Lamb Shoulder from 8 o'clock ranch, fresh from the oven, waiting to be carved


Main Course, but you can't really see the creamy onion sauce which entailed Foodie Son's creating a kind of smoker by putting wood pieces in the wok and steaming onion over it.  Then it gets the cream and more.  The arugula was fresh and delicious as a side.  The lamb was beyond sublime.  The whole time I ate, Zoe leaned against my knee, as did the two other cute dogs in attendance.  Since I only have two knees, this involved a lot of pup repositioning beneath the table.  I try not to teach visiting dogs bad behavior, so I waited until the end of the meal for Zoe to have her taste.


Zoe is hyper-alert throughout the meal.  Perhaps the smell of lamb recalls an ancestral memory.
Finger licking good!
 Bon appetit, gentle readers!  Please write in to describe your favorite food items of Holiday Season 2011.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 17: A (Converted) Carnivore's Christmas, Part One

A how-to guide:

1.  Go to one of your nearby favorite farms with your family.


2.  While serious decisions need to be made, visit the pigs.
3.  Tell Farmer Kassandra what you are craving.  She will lead you to her lair, the meat locker.









4.  While your foodie son decides on a lamb shoulder, visit Christmas Eve Dinner's extended family and their pals, the goats.


5.  Urge Foodie Son and his father to point out their choices on film
6.  Write a check, gather your husband, son, and sister, and drive home.

7.  While unloading the food onto the kitchen counter, smile with the memory of your two decades as a quasi-vegetarian, and remind yourself that sometimes change is good, especially when you have a foodie in the family.



Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 16: The Winter Solstice Meditation

This year the winter solstice fell on Thursday, December 22, yesterday.  I had thought it was the 21st, but no, I just looked it up.  So beginning today, Friday December 23, every day for the next six months will have a few more minutes of light.  In other words, our future is getting brighter.

This is the day's meditation: the longest nights of the year are behind us now.

Unless you live South of the Equator.  For you--sorry, mates--that party is over.

If you happen to be traveling to the South Pole, you will see midnight sun this week.  But if you are in the Arctic Circle, up toward the North Pole, you will see no light at all.

This is the real reason why Santa travels south.  Poor guy suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Which explains the weight problem too.  But a trip south is like having a big light therapy box around your head.

So here's what I learned today:

In pre-Christian Poland, the tradition of the December solstice, which is currently called Gody, involved forgiving people you'd been in snits with, and the sharing of food.

Some Christians celebrate St. Thomas's Day on December 21, and in Guatemala, on the same day, Mayans honor the sun god in a flying pole dance (hmmmm).  One man plays the drum and a flute while he ascends, and the other two tie a rope around their feet, attach themselves to the pole, and then jump.  If they land on their feet, the light returns to the earth. 

In Northwest Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos takes place on the solstice.  It features purifying ritual baths, singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

The ancient Incas had a solstice festival too, but it was banned by the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century.  You can't keep a good Inca down, thank goodness, and the festivities were revived in Cusco, Peru, by a group of Quecia Indians in the 1950s, in a large theater which is open to the public, if you wish to travel there to partake.

The festivals of Saturnalia used to take place in ancient Rome beginning on December 17 for a week.  Rules were broken, grudges forgiven, slaves went free, or were given a few unexpected pleasures, and good fun was had by all: until it all turned into one big debauch and order had to be restored.

Saturn is Chronus, the god of time.  Since my greatest wish these days is to make time slow down, I plan to bow down to this god today and say, hello, sir, you with the long, white beard and the giant ticking clock, would you like some spiked eggnog?  I will gladly do a pole dance in your honor, if you give everyone I love some more time and a few more precious minutes of light.
http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice.html


This photo was taken by one of my Adirondack Semester students--please come forward!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 15: (Minor) Miracle on Bank Street

My husband and I were in the Chapters bookstore near the animal hospital doing some last-minute holiday shopping when my cell phone rang.  It was Donna, one of the two oncology nurses treating Zoe for bone cancer.  We had dropped her off in the morning and since then I'd kept checking to see if my phone was on or a text had come through.

"We took images of Zoe's lungs again," she said.  "Dr. Bravo wants to talk to you in person.  How soon can you be here?"

"Five minutes," I said.  I was standing in between a display of Godiva chocolates and CDs by Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, beside a long line of people waiting to buy stuff, my husband at the very end of it.  I looked around me at all this commerce and wondered how many people in the world were idling away an afternoon in some fluorescent-lit box store as we were, half-listening to those old upbeat lyrics about chestnuts and mistletoe and Santa on his way, that generic soundtrack of holiday retail, while they waited for a call they needed, but dreaded.

I tried to steady myself as we made our way to the car.  It didn't help that a freezing rain was icing up the sidewalks.

On Zoe's and my four previous trips to Ottawa for her chemotherapy, I was always the only human in the car.  Chemo day was Friday, my day off from teaching, but Kerry's courses are spread over the five days of the workweek.  The drive is 90 minutes each way, longer in rush hour, so on the last visit, when Dr. Bravo told me that she had seen two small nodules in Zoe's lungs, I had forced myself to imitate a calm, stoic person.  It was snowing and I had to get us home.  

But today my husband was driving.  "It's bad news, if they want us there in person to tell us," I said.  "Will you be okay if I . . . you know, fall apart a little?" 

The day we got the diagnosis, we had both held each other, sobbing.  But we were at the animal clinic in Canton then, only a half mile from our home.

"I'll be okay," he said.

In her consulting room, Dr. Bravo said, "What we're seeing is too complicated to talk about on the phone.  I thought you should see this for yourselves."

She fiddled around with the program of the computer to show the x-rays from 19 days ago, and today's side by side.

"There were those two nodules last time," she pointed out.  "One was here.  See, on this side, from today.  It's gone.  It's just not there.  The other one I had measured at 1.4 centimeters.  On this side, it's only .4 centimeters now."

If the nodules had grown since last time, it would mean the chemotherapy wasn't working at all.  Zoe had undergone two treatments with one drug and had just started on a second.  No one knows which one works better, so Dr. Bravo tries both--three treatments of each.  "And then what?" I had asked, on that last visit, imitating a calm person asking a rational question about the future.  "Just palliative care?"

"We have another drug that is taken orally that can shrink lung tumors," she had said.  "But this is not the result we would have liked.  It means the disease is spreading."

"So what do you think this means?" I asked her today.  

I wanted to hug her and kiss her.  I wanted to do a jig.  But I didn't trust those feelings of hope, of joy.  I knew there was more.  "Complicated," she had said.

She pointed to three tiny spots that were very hard to see, and not just because I didn't want them to be there.  She tried to enlarge them with the computer, but it didn't really help.  "These weren't there last time," she said.  "So we've seen one nodule disappear completely, and another shrink considerably.  But now we have to watch these.  Still, I think we're seeing good results here.  The second drug seems to be working.  It's attacking these nodules.  What I think is that the first drug didn't work for her and we lost time using it.  But the second one is.  And overall, she's doing well.  Her blood work is excellent.  She is happy and energetic.  She looks great."

"Doesn't she?" I agreed.  Zoe's eyes and coat are shiny, her appetite is big as ever, she runs and walks as she always has.  Her personality--alternately affectionate and aloof, cuddly or queenly, has not changed a jot.  

"So if you agree, we'd like to treat her today."

We did, they did, and we made another appointment for chemotherapy three weeks from now.  

When we picked her up afterward, she came bounding toward us, tail wagging, eyes bright.  There were some cute white Yorkies in the waiting room she wanted to play with, and as we left the hospital, the three of us watched a very tall man in a suit with a very small toy poodle sliding around, skidding and bobbing on the frozen grass into the parking lot.  I smiled at the sight of them struggling together while I hung onto the hood of our car for support.  The ground beneath us, the whole parking lot asphalt, was slick with ice.  How hard we try, all of us, human and canine, to get where we think we should be, on two legs, four, or in Zoe's case, three.  

It was almost a surprise to see Zoe, the eager, healthy-looking actual dog who was glad to be reunited with her people so she could get home and have her dinner and relax.  I had spent so much time staring at the blurry images of her innards, and visualizing them in my morning meditation, that I almost forgot who this was we were talking about: the living creature breathing out of these much-discussed lungs.

She's fighting.  We can't say she's winning, because we know it's a battle for time we're waging here, but she's fighting.  And she's happy.  And well.

Game on.  

I used to want the stars and the moon, and everything in between.  There's a print from William Blake of who I once was, not all that long ago: a child grasping for the night sky, clinging to the moon like it's a kite, crying "I want!  I want!"  But on this day, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, I took solace in absences, in the sight of a little something shrinking and another little something fading into nothingness.

We drove back in the freezing rain, stopping for Indian food to take home to our sons, and whenever we looked back at Zoe, she was just a normal dog in the family car, unfazed by all that was happening around her, curious as ever, but calm and trusting, watching the marvelous, ordinary world flickering by outside the window as we took each turn in the dark.
Photo by Tara Freeman

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 14: Waking Up in the Dark


Today I got up early to take Zoe to Canada for an appointment that I’ve been a little scared about. We leave in half an hour.  In this winter solstice week of long nights, I’m reminded of a beautiful essay one of my students, Erin Siracusa, wrote a few weeks ago in my environmental literature course.  She gave me permission to post it here, and I have cut it a bit to make it blog-length.  I am also including a photo one of my students in the Adirondacks took just as their time out there was coming to an end. 
“Awakenings” by Erin Siracusa
There is something perfect in these moments, before the sun is up, when there is only you and the darkness and the sound of your breathing filling the molecules of space. Your brain, half-awake, is only aware enough to go through the motions.
It’s 6:30am and you wait. You sit in the semi-solid darkness and you wait, like you will wait all winter for the return of spring. You wait for something you know will come and yet which seems intangible at this moment – a distant memory in this dark landscape, that world of light. I almost want to keep it that way. There’s something about the darkness, like snow, that is pure and silent and cleansing. The world is hushed with the blanket of night as with the first snowfall of the year.
When it starts it comes subtly, hardly noticeable. The first timid twitterings that push through the curtain of darkness like the curling green stems that poke half-heartedly above the late April snows. You might miss it if your not watching carefully, these faint murmurings, birds in the pre-dawn, green pushing against the white. 
And then, the earth moves.    
Early light will begin to tint the sky and singular chirps become refrains of call and response, subtle layers of bird songs, like the strings of an orchestra, melodies and countermelodies playing over and around each other. The musical trilling of the winter wren, the nasal yank-yank of the red-breasted nuthatch, the haunting reedy tremelo of the hermit thrush crescendo through the morning, bringing with them the dawn, singing the future into being. And I will be so encapsulated in the auditory world that I will miss the rising and the melting away of the darkness. I will be startled by the brightness and the colors that now hue the once monochrome landscape. And I will wonder how I missed it, the budding of dawn, the breaking of night. All at once, it seems, it is upon us and the subtleties lost to the early morning wind.   
 And so I will try to watch and I will try to be the careful observer. But the breaking of morning will be reminiscent more of the blushing of buds that announce the coming of spring, pushing and straining to come into the world.
And I’ll realize that this is what morning offers us, light in the midst of darkness, hope of renewal even as the world creeps toward the depths of winter.   And in this moment so long anticipated, I welcome the dawn, and I give thanks to the night, for it is only in darkness that we can be truly thankful for the rising sun. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 13: The Lucky 13 Meditation, Or, The Story of the Wedding China

When Kerry and I decided to get married, ten years after we'd become an item, we only gave ourselves a few weeks to organize the event.  It was going to be a simple ceremony in our home, inexpensive and informal, with only 70 friends and family members in attendance.

Still, there were things that had to get done that couldn't be accomplished nearby.  Because the North Country is a retail desert, we postponed the necessary shopping until our annual trip to New York City where we would fetch our younger son, who was in art school there, and take him home for Thanksgiving.

So, on a Tuesday afternoon in late November, we set out in mid-Manhattan with an ambitious shopping list: wedding rings, wedding dress, groom's suit, and the most challenging purchase of all: a china set for 12 because the rehearsal dinner was also happening at our house and we didn't have nice stuff.

We began the spree at 2 PM, with a strict deadline of 7 because, to add to the hustle and excitement of the day, we had theater tickets.  And off we went with our son in tow, practically running to our first destination.  Simple gold bands--done.  A long, burgundy dress from the bridal shop at Sax Fifth Avenue, surprisingly affordable, the only dress I tried on--done.  A gray suit that could be worn on other occasions--done.  It's a miracle to me now that we had enough disposable income to pay for all this loot and the theater as well, but maybe I'm blocking out the damage we did to our credit cards that year. 

Our son even got a winter coat.

Then we tried to pick out the china.  This wasn't going to be easy because my husband and I do not have the same taste.  I like color, and he likes everything to be modest and subtle.  Plus we didn't really know enough about china to know what was a reasonable amount to spend.  We looked in four stores and everything we both liked was well beyond our budget.  Plus, we were getting hungry.  We finally gave up and found a Thai place by the theater, grateful that we'd accomplished all that we had.

To be honest, we were so unaccustomed to buying stuff and had lived in our small North Country village for so long that we felt like country bumpkins lost in the big metropolis, overwhelmed and fatigued in all those brightly-lit stores.

Plus, as someone who grew up eating on chipped plates, buying china felt a little alien.  This purchase seemed to usher in the official end to the bohemian existence I'd built my identity around for as long as I could remember.

Also, I have a tendency to break things, which is one of the reasons why I knew I needed to bring meditation into my life.  Wine glasses never last long in my possession.  This summer I even managed to destroy the recharger for our I-Pods by squeezing it too hard.  So buying china--enough for 12 people--was something that gave me pause.  Our normal dinnerware is as solid as wood, which is why we still have it as I write this blog, 20 years on.

At an outlet mall somewhere off the highway, maybe New Jersey, when we were on our way north from the city, we found the perfect set.  It's subtle without being bland: a delicate pattern of pale blue and cream.  You can also put it in the dishwasher.

But just in case, we got 13 of everything.

It turns out that 13 is a great number, because every semester I have a group of students of about that size over for lunch, and it's nice to be able to serve them on dinnerware that matches without having to resort to paper plates. 

I'm pretty relaxed about using the good china.  In the ten years that have passed since our wedding, I always think it'll be no big deal, if I, or someone else, maybe an exhausted student, drops one of these plates or salad bowls.  Hey, we have an extra.

But no one ever has.  Buying 13 of everything was the insurance that we wouldn't break them.

My husband sometimes buys lottery tickets, but he gave up asking me for lucky numbers long ago when nothing ever came to mind.  I like the number 3, because, among other reasons, it's sort of a trope in writing to have things happen three times, like there's a beginning, a middle, and an end, but that's all I've got in my numinous number repertoire.

But today I'm thinking that Day 13 of any new habit you want to bring into your life--meditation, writing, blogging, walking, quitting smoking, knitting, or as my sister said will be her 108-day-project, eating pie--feels pretty good.  It's like the new practice has entered its teens.

The habit isn't old enough to drive, or vote, or serve our country, or major in neuroscience, and it's still got zits, and authority issues, and it wants, endlessly, to cut corners when doing its homework, but it's out of its infancy.  And that, just for today, makes me feel lucky.

 This is the wedding china.  I took this photo yesterday, after a lesson from the amazingly patient Tara Freeman on the new Canon rebel camera I bought for this blog and for future travel-writing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 12: The Taking out the Trash Meditation

It's Monday, the day we take out our garbage.  I bagged it and wheeled it out, and my husband left a "tip" in the annual holiday card which he duct-taped to the bin.

There are some shrimp shells in the trash that are departing the house none too soon, and dead flowers from the floral centerpiece I bought for our friend and co-worker Charlotte's retirement party.  Some of the flowers, these pom-pom-looking green things whose name I've forgotten, and are still going strong more than two weeks on, so I left them in the vase.  Others were ready to be tossed days ago, but we didn't notice.

On the day the arrangement was delivered, while we were preparing for the party, we got some very bad news.  A dear friend who was supposed to be at this party with her husband had just been rushed to the hospital by ambulance and was awaiting surgery.  We were already reeling from the previous day's events.  Zoe's oncologist had told me she was worried about what looked like two tiny hardening spots in the halfway-through-chemo lung X-rays.  We will know more this Wednesday when we take her back to Ottawa for more tests.

But that night of the party, as the house filled up with our colleagues and Charlotte's family, and as Zoe made the rounds to lean up against her human friends, we still felt the happiness that comes from bringing a lot of people together, eating good food (the theme was Italian) and honoring someone we love who has worked so hard, day after day, week after week, year after year, to infuse our lives with the perfect combination of efficiency, beauty, professionalism, and care--someone who has never forgotten that our work lives are intimate, based on human relationships and exchanges, one after the other.  Charlotte's ability, as our office manager, to get along well with each of us, with all the complex emotional histories we bring to our professional lives is more miraculous than those flowers in the arrangement that refuse to die long past their sell-by date.  As people took turns toasting Charlotte, I was reminded again what it means to be part of a community. 

Today, as I carried out the bags of trash, I thought of a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh, my go-to Buddhist for finding solace in challenging times.  He writes in Your True Home: "Flowers and garbage are both organic in nature.  So looking deeply into the nature of a flower, you can see the presence of the compost and the garbage.  The flower is also going to turn into garbage, but don't be afraid!  You are a gardener, and you have in your hands the power to transform garbage into flowers, into fruit, into vegetables.  You don't throw anything away, because you are not afraid of garbage.  Your hands are capable of transforming it into flowers, or lettuce, or cucumbers.

"The same is true of your happiness and your sorrow.  Sorrow, fear, and depression are all a kind of garbage.  These bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature.  You can practice in order to turn these bits of garbage into flowers.  It is not only your love that is organic; your hate is, too.  So you should not throw anything out.  All you have to do is learn how to transform your garbage into flowers."



Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 11: A Reunion with New Friends in the Adirondacks

Yesterday I took Zoe to the Catamount Lodge, 35 minutes from campus, a hotel and conference center built like a large log cabin on several wooded acres in South Colton.  We were there to see the final presentations of my beloved Adirondack Semester students.  Zoe had met them once: on the last day she had four legs, which happened to be our first day of classes. They'd been asking about her ever since.

That first class, August 31, was the day before she was scheduled to lose her left hind leg where cancer had attacked the canine equivalent of her ankle bone.   I didn't tell the students then; we were just getting acquainted, and I didn't want them to be sad.  There was a plucky young lab in residence out there, Huck, whose human companion, Dave, is the assistant director, and I thought she could have one last good run through the woods while the students and I calmly discussed the opening of Winter, by Rick Bass, and Rick Bass's introduction to Rooted in Rock, a collection of essays about the Adirondack region edited by Jim Gould.


To be honest, it didn't go well.  Zoe was a huge distraction--the reason why we don't bring dogs to class.  She whined when she got bored, and she chased Huck in circles around our tree stump circle, which was kind of what I'd hoped she would do (the running part, not the whining), but it wasn't easy to have an uninterrupted conversation.  The students didn't seem to mind.  They invited her back repeatedly, but I never brought her out there again.

The students on St. Lawrence University's Adirondack Semester live in Tupper Lake at a remote part of a boy scout camp.  They live three to a co-ed yurt, they use a composting toilet, they cook their own food using vegetables and meats from local farms, they heat by wood they chop themselves, and bathe by jumping in the lake, which is quite cold after early September but feels refreshing after a session in their wood sauna. The water comes from the lake, their electricity from solar panels.  Their lives are low tech: they leave laptops (and access to e-mail and Facebook) at home.  The students canoe across the lake to get to some of their classes.  Two renowned woodworkers, Everett Smith and Michael Frenette, teach them to make canoe paddles and, for the ambitious ones, furniture. They write their papers for their classes by hand and do their homework by candelight.

I taught creative writing.  They also took courses in field ecology, Adirondack environmental history, and a wonderful hybrid class called Knowing Nature by the program director, a geologist, where they studied a multitude of ways of experiencing the natural world, including indigenous ones.  The program director also inspired them to meditate, and they spoke often about how this practice, new for most of them, was helping them live in the present during a time in their lives they wanted to savor.  

The epigraph for this blog from Rick Bass's Winter was our shared mantra this fall: "if you go slowly enough, six or seven weeks is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”  We were all in this together.  For them, this quote was a reminder to make the most of a rare opportunity to live simply with kind people close to nature, and for me a reminder not to sleepwalk or rush, especially as my time with my dog is so precious now. Driving out to teach them took an hour, which gave me time to notice as late summer reddened and yellowed into a protracted sun-drenched fall.  Partly because winter came late, time really did seem to stand still.  Often during class we would take a break to sit on the boat launch and listen to the call of the loons.

So I decided, yesterday,  to take Zoe to say good-bye to the students as we gathered together for one last time. 

After Thanksgiving, they had dispersed and spent three weeks doing internships around the North Country--working on small-scale organic farms, apprenticing with our fine woodworkers, helping feed the owls and wolves at a wildlife sanctuary, and working as teacher's aids in schools.  Now they stood before us to tell us what they had learned.

It was startling to see them all, so, well, clean.   It was the first time I'd seen the women in this group wearing makeup.  I had on mascara too, and regretted it as soon as they began their presentations.  

One of the men had built a bed for his parents.  He'd spent 70 hours on it, designing it from local wood, sanding it by hand, and when he and his mother and my colleague, Margaret and I looked at it, we all cried.  Another young man had built a table for his family-to-be; he is about to become a father.  One woman spoke of putting her hands inside a pig's intestines to keep them warm as she and some North Country homesteaders skinned and gutted a pig.  We ate the bacon she'd made from this pig.  A formerly-shy woman led us in the song of greeting and the song of parting she'd learned to sing to her Montessori students; her voice was resonant and strong.  And in a video at the end (this student's reunion with technology!) a radiant young woman from Staten Island who had never hiked before this semester let us inside the second grade classroom where she'd taught children to identify the trees on the trails beside their building.

Many times in the presentations the students talked about the same things: how they had learned, over these weeks of the semester, to live in the present, to acquire a sense of place, and to value their community.  The man who built the bed for his parents had us stop for a moment while he was speaking to take three slow breaths.  He said that he thought if we could relax, he would too.

After the presentations were over, Zoe and Huck, and the lovely white-and-black Aussie mixes that came with Michael, the woodworker, ran together in the snow, and into the woods that lead to a reservoir.  That was my last activity of the semester--running with my colleagues' dogs and Zoe in the woods--and I wanted those few minutes to last forever.