“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

Monday, April 30, 2012

Part II, Day 24: Good Tongue!

We were on the other side of the road and when they saw us, they all came over
We drive to Vermont through Winter, Sequel II, and when Zoe asks to stop for a pee, she almost causes a bovine stampede.

Zoe eyes the cows from inside the car
Dr. Thompson (Don) says that Zoe's tongue looks really good.  I will ride on that news all day.  I used to be the kind of person who would brighten when someone paid me a compliment about something I wrote or how I looked that day, but now this thumb's up on Zoe's big pink tongue is all that I need to be happy enough to yodel.  Last time Don saw her, he and the other Dr. Thompson (Amy) agreed that Zoe's tongue had too much purple, which means too much stagnant Xi, a color/condition associated with tumors/cancer/various kinds of consolidation.

I don't know if the Chinese herbs are starting to kick tumor ass, as my friend Dan has put it, but something is working to balance out her constitution, and that's cause for me to rejoice.

Just say "aaah!" 
Finding the points
I show Don the knob on Zoe's head, a cyst that keeps bleeding.  We're not worried that it's cancerous because the oncology vet techs aspirated it with a needle three months ago and it came up clean, but ever since then, it has kept on bleeding, then scabbing into a big mound, then bleeding again.

Resting while the needles are in
"Want to take it off?" he asks.  "We can do it by laser, she'll only need a local, and then it'll be gone for good."

"Okay," I say, but I'm hesitant.  She's been through so much.  I was thinking today would be a feel-good fix, a put-in-the-needles and charge up the endorphins day, a reward for enduring with such grace the other needles that are an unfortunate fixture of her life.  Our mission on this visit to the vet's is to make her feel terrific, a fun prelude to a weekend in Vermont at play with our friends, canine and human.  Surgery, even a minor procedure, is a lot more than we bargained for, but my husband pressed against that nubbin the other day and she yelped in pain, so if we can fix one thing on her body that causes her discomfort, I'm for it.
Dr. Emily Bond has a nice bond with Zoe

"She looks great," he says, as he puts in today's acupuncture needles: the triple heater spot, the will to live spot, the appetite spot, and more.  "Good color, and she looks well nourished.  She's keeping her weight on."  I want to write everything down he says for blog purposes, but I'm too distracted trying to take pictures while also admiring Zoe's lovely tongue.

Later, Dr. Bond (Emily), whom Zoe adores, and Kate, Zoe's new best friend, prep Zoe for surgery.  I get to be with her the whole time.  I'm not giving you the one picture I took that was kind of graphic because I know some of you read this blog during the breakfast hour.  I have discovered that I have a very strong stomach, even when it's my dog's tissue we're looking at, as long as I know she's safe and that the end result will make her feel better.

All I could see was her tongue
Don turns on the laser machine and I can feel it from across the surgery table.  "It's 2,000 degrees.  She won't feel it, though, because of the Lidocaine, and it sterilizes the surface as it goes."

She's had surgery, and she wants more treats
Under the surgery tent, Zoe is eating treats as he works.  She is calm and steady the whole time.  Every time she looks like she wants to stand and assist Don in the surgery, we give her another treat.

 Today, like the other two times we've been here, Zoe ran up the ramp before her appointment began and couldn't wait to go inside.  But now that being here wasn't just about getting an endorphin surge and she's spent some time under a green tent getting a clump removed from her head, I'm not sure if she'll always be so thrilled to come here.  We shall see.  But when we leave the surgery, she wags her tail and darts into another room, on the hunt for a kitty.  She asks for more treats, and endures everyone's hugs and pats with good humor.

"She's such a good dog," everyone says as we get ready to leave.  I can't take any credit, really.  She has always been like this.  Calm and patient and good.  I give her some water before we drive away and watch as she laps it up with that fine pink tongue.   Funny the things I find beautiful now.  My dog drinking water in the back of the car while snow clouds gather on a late April afternoon is a sight that fills my heart.  "Aaah," I say, sticking my tongue out at her, not caring if anyone sees.  It's just another word for awe.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Part II, Day 23: Spring Melt

Zoe is one of the quietest dogs I know, but now and then she has a habit of barking at unidentified inanimate objects.

I witnessed this behavior for the first time in her old vet's office when she was a puppy.  In the lobby were two, child-size ceramic statues of a cat and a dog.  Zoe barked at them, then got down in fetal position and whined when they didn't bark or meow back.  The vet tech understood immediately our pup's confusion; she picked up the cat statue, which I think now might have been an optimist's piggy bank--i.e., huge--and showed her the bottom cork, and how the thing was hollow.  Then she lowered it toward Zoe's snout for her to sniff.  I guess it didn't smell like meat, or like something she could chase, and Zoe ignored it for the rest of the visit.

Zoe has barked at:
  • snowmen;
  • outdoor Christmas decorations, including a giant tableau of blow-up reindeer waiting for a bus;
  • the red sandstone jail 'liberty" marker that indicates the border of where night prisoners could roam to in our village, back in the day, for exercise--prisoners were allowed go on walks or jobs in the day, it was all done on the honor system;
  • bags moving in the wind that look from a distance like they could be dying critters;
  • scarecrows;
  • lawn ornaments such as bent-over maidens and deer
  • he-man lumberjack statues at Adirondack-themed diners
Perhaps it's just a matter of taste.  Maybe my dog is an even bigger snob than I am and she barks at things that violate her aesthetics.

The day after the surprise late-April snow, she barked briefly in confusion at what looked like a few dirty pieces of Styrofoam. 

those two dirty looking white things used to be snow

As you read this post, these little white blobs are probably gone
So now it is spring again, and Zoe can do what she likes to do when there's no more snow to pounce on, roll in, or eat.

Bark at living things, especially the geese.  She likes to chase them into the water and watch them glide away.

Happy spring, everyone!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Part II, Day 22: Down Dog with Dog

The evening of my first full day with Zoe after the trip was yoga night.  I had missed it the week before, and my body needed to stretch after being in a plane and various car rides through the Midwest interstate highways.

As my husband and I sat in the parlor sharing stories about the day--his paper conferences with his students about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Sandburg and Zora Neale Hurston, my walk with Zoe through new snow--she came in and rolled on her back beneath the couch offering us her paws, her firm belly.  She knew we were talking about her and she knew we were both about to leave, my husband for a lecture on campus, and me for yoga class.

I got up to get ready, and she followed me.  Then she struck a pose: arms outstretched half-covering her eyes, a kind of canine peekaboo, and I just couldn't go.

Before Zoe came into my life nine years ago, I had a home yoga practice.  Six days a week, I did yoga before dinner.  My yoga was a condensed version of my autobiography, in pose form.  The sitting poses I had learned at 13 from a book.  I would plop down on the pink carpet in our grandparents' living room and get into tailor pose, imagining myself into a much more peaceful life, a home of my own with someone who loved me, and of course, a dog.  I learned the standing poses in the Ashtanga class I took back in Port Townsend, Washington from a man named Gabriel, when I was twenty-four.  In town, we called it, "the series."  "Are you doing the series today?  Where?"  In good weather a couple friends and I would grab blankets and head Uptown to Sather Park, a quiet six mile square of grass off Foster and Adams Street, where we would be hidden by trees and shrubs. Then there were the supported poses I'd picked up in the Iyengar studio in London when my husband directed our abroad program there.  For convenience, I also had a variety of tapes from the late 90s by that cutie, Rodney Yee.  Doing yoga I felt like every person I'd ever been was with me now, in the moment.  It made me feel light, but strong, and always much more serene no matter how stressed I was when I rolled out my mat.  I was very committed to this practice; I did it even when I traveled.  I bought a yoga travel mat and would roll it out across hotel room rugs, on busy conference days, or on visits to England to see my husband's family.

Enter, the new puppy.  Zoe is very athletic, and I knew that the only way to bring out the zen-like calm I'd seen in her as she sat in stillness in the pound pen as an eight-week-old pup was to give her as much exercise as possible.

She became my yoga practice.  I didn't have time to do both--walk her for 90 minutes, then do yoga --and it was an easy choice to make.

I missed yoga, but not as much as I had thought I would.  Now and then I would get in downward-facing dog in the living room while she watched.  Or I would relax after a long day of work by doing legs-against-the wall pose.  When she was a puppy, she would take that pose as an invitation to jump on my torso and occasionally, if there was still a trace of food on it from lunch, lick my cheeks. 

This week, I needed to do yoga.  My body was calling out for it.  But my heart said to stay home with Zoe.

While a chicken roasted in the oven, we went into the stove room/library/living room, the same room where she had acupuncture done on her the weekend before last.  The same room where I leaned against the stove the first night I came to this house, over twenty years ago, and couldn't make myself leave because my body knew, before my mind and heart did, that I was meant to become a family with my husband and his two sons.

I got down on all fours and warmed up.  Cat and cow pose.  Fire hydrants, which amused the dog and alarmed her with the fear that I'd kick her.  She backed up a little.

I went through the standing sequence.  Sun salutations.  Modified sun salutations with warrior, side angle pose, triangle, exalted warrior.  I can't tell you how magnificent it felt to stand in warrior, garnering all my strength and pointing it toward Zoe, as though I could pour mightiness into her, and she into me.

She sat very still.  She watched.  She didn't move.

But then I went over, closer to her, for balance poses.  I need the balance poses a lot because I never quite healed properly from some sprained ankles and my right ankle still likes to give out when I walk for too long.  One leg is longer now and more limber than the other.  Balance poses also help me feel more balance in the world, better at juggling all the people I am: writer, teacher, dog mommy, friend, wife, mother, sister, citizen.  I got into tree pose.  She watched.

And then the moment came when she'd had too much of this solemnity.  She got out her toys and started playing with them.

I tried not to lose balance as I stretched into dancer's pose.  She made her beaver pelt grunt, then the skunk.  Soon various animals were all talking at once.  She chomped on their heads, and I smiled and reached for the space above her head.

I made up a new pose.  It's called, Bend Over and Pet the Dog While She Plays with Squeaky Toys.

I did this with one leg lifted behind me, then another.

Then it was time for pigeon pose, and I lowered myself to the rug beside her.  I went through my favorite seated poses, then got on my back for bridge.  She got bored with her toys and went back to quietly watching me.

At the end, in relaxation pose, shavasana, I found room on the rug beside her to rest, spread-eagle, and I sensed when she had closed her eyes.  We rested together for five minutes or so.  When I opened my eyes to look at her, she gazed back at me with that wolfy stare I like.  I didn't want to break the spell.

Afterwards, I felt stretched and strengthened and more alive, relaxed and content as I finished making dinner.

And now I think we'll have a new routine for those nights when I just can't make myself walk out the door, when 90 minutes is still too long to be away from Zoe.

Namaste, gentle reader.  Namaste.

This image comes from Petit Bliss, an outlet for yogic kids.  Ommmmm. . .

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Part II, Day 21: Winter with Zoe

Our first full day together again, we woke up to winter.  It had been almost-80 in recent memory, and now there was snow on the ground.

I thought of a line from Winter, by Rick Bass:
Sometimes I want summer and green grass to come, but sometimes I feel like I've committed my life to winter, moving up here, and what's more, I've fallen in love with it, and have gotten used to it, and can't picture there not being snow under my feet.
When I started "Winter with Zoe" this past December, it was meant to be the title of 108 consecutive days of meditating every morning and living mindfully with my dog, whose days are numbered, but whose spirit and equanimity are remarkable.  One season: a protracted glorious wintry season.

Then the title, as I began the second set of posts this month, became aspirational.  As in, Next year in Jerusalem.  Another Winter with  Zoe.  That remains my goal, if it is possible without straining her, without compromising her quality of life.

On some days that goal seems quite attainable.  And then, when x-rays are studied, numbers compared, medical studies read: gloom descends.  But when I look at my dog and she looks at me, I see vitality and strength and endurance.

This wind and cold are welcome here; they are comforting reminders of the recent past: our very rich winter days together.  A season in which I have seen no patisserie windows or camels, attended no plays or concerts, and shopped for nothing other than dog food, dog medicines, farm food, and great books.  An exceedingly quiet winter spent at home, in a village of 6,000, in the far North in the United States, walking through snow and ice and, now and then, some unseasonably green grass, and wildflowers, and early crocuses, with Zoe.  The very best winter of my life.

When Zoe first sees snow, she pounces on it, as though it were alive.  And then she walks with her jaw dragging on the ground so that she can taste it with every step.

Not long after lunch, we crossed the river and followed the path.  We had to go soon, or the snow would disappear.  The snow was melting as we walked, and I called her my slush puppy before we were through.

We saw white buds opening above white snow: a sight I had never seen before.

The hawks' calls pierced both our silent reveries.  Zoe tipped her head up to the sky, and we watched them land high up on the scotch pine.  Some frightened gulls swooped around in a kind of crazy eight and disappeared.  Very few people were out.  Jackets that had been packed away came out, and hoods were cinched tight.  I was happy to be reunited with my ankle-length black down coat.

It was like going back in time.  Back to February.  Like giving my sabbatical and the dog's longevity another two months.

Bass also writes:
Anything I'm guilty of is forgiven when snow falls.  I feel powerful . . . [O]ut in the field, in snow, standing with my arms spread out, as if calling it down, the way it shifts and sweeps past in slants and furies all its own, the way it erases things until it is neither day nor night--that kind of light all through the day, dusk, several hours early, and lingering, lingering forever.
I am never going to grow old.  The more that comes down, the richer I am.
The snow gives me that sense of power today.  But dusk comes late, which is what we want in an April day, and the sky isn't bright.  We don't care.  We see more clouds than stars, more snow to come, or freezing rain, but I think of this weather as a reprieve, a return, a correction, a reminder not only to keep the winter clothes accessible, although that's probably a good idea, but simply not to let time move too fast, not to let these moments slip away as easily as late snow melting in spring.

The view from the kitchen window when I woke up Monday morning

Walking to the studio, I soaked my socks through my clogs.

Zoe decided to take her morning nap with me, instead of in the house.  We spent every part of the day together.

The view out my studio window as I worked on my novel.

Even with this wintry flashback, she wants to spend some time staring at the river from the balcony

I love the way she offered me her profile for this picture.  Often, she turns away just when she hears the snap.  This time, she posed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Part II, Day 20: Sweet Return

The best part of going away is coming home again, coming home to clean sheets on our own bed, a home-cooked meal with local farm foods, and best of all, the joy of the dog, who runs in circles and shakes up the already beheaded and disemboweled stuffed bear to celebrate the sweet reunion.

Then it's the car ride to the usual place in the field.  Everything looks spring-green and new.
We follow the familiar path to the water.

How many times have we made this drive?  Gone on this walk?  And with how many different casts of characters, both human and canine?

Sometimes we hear geese overhead, and sometimes, like today, we hear the girls' softball team cheering each other on, even as they get creamed.

And is there a sweeter sight in the world than the dog we love running toward us?

Neitzsche  once wrote:
When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences--their insignificant, everyday experiences--so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while other--and how many there are!--are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much.
I hope that Zoe will be patient and continue to do her best to convert me to the minority, to help me love what I have and see what I think we have already seen.

Let's go!


Monday, April 23, 2012

Part II, Day 19: Three Stereotypes about the Midwest that Proved to be True

1.  Midwesterners are courteous and pleasant, to a fault.

I was born in Chicago and lived in Cleveland, Ohio, from age 6 to 17, and attended college in Evanston, Illinois, but because I never lived in the region as an adult, my understanding of the comportment of Midwesterners was, for several years, distorted with memories of junior high Mean Girls and extreme family dysfunction. 

This weekend I was pleased to re-discover that Midwesterners really are as courteous and pleasant as they are commonly perceived to be.

Art Son, who has logged a lot of time in New York City, was the first in our trio to give voice to what I'd been noticing but hadn't yet put into words.  "Have you noticed that people who have jobs that jerks normally have are really nice?"

He said this as we were pulling out of the parking garage in downtown Madison, Wisconsin.  Art Son went to art school at Cooper Union and lived in Brooklyn thereafter, when the 718 area code was still affordable for struggling artists.  To him, people who staff parking garages, convenience stores, and toll booths are supposed to be gruff.  But wherever we went we were told to have a great day, often by plump, white-haired women who would probably have called us "dear" if there'd been more time to chat.

We kept looking for a meanie.  At the rental car agency.  Gas station.  Even O'hare Airport security.  Not a grump in sight.  Everyone was pleasant and wanted us to have a wonderful time.   And so we did.

This montage of canvases from Art Son's new work almost blinded me during our tour of his studio.  Maybe I'm slightly biased, but I have yet to meet an artist who knows color the way Art Son does.  Color is my therapy.  All I have to do is look at some of his slides when I am feeling blue, and I'm back in the zone.

on the studio door of Fred Stonehouse, who is one of the artists on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin.   He came to our son's opening, and he's a lovely human.  Born and raised in Milwaukee, he lives up to this print's motto, and then some

This is the window to the River Edge gallery in Thiensville, Wisconsin, where we attended our son's opening; that's me taking a picture of one of the two paintings I covet the most

The artist examining one of his new pieces; this photo does not do the color justice; the piece to the right is from the period before this one, before stripes took over

Art Son's father and I wanted this one in our home, but apparently someone beat us to it
Customers and consumers are pleasant as well.  At the breakfast place Art Son took us to, a woman with hair the color of frosted cornflakes said, "It's just so nice of you to include all these great vegetarian options.  I just want you to know that everyone at my table appreciates it."  At Art Son's exhibition, all the people who walked in enthused about the bright colors and the dazzling optical effects.  No one frowned.  No one was too cool for school.  No one wore black.

If the people here are pleasant to a fault, this is the fault: the squirrels are fearless.  They will take over any public space if you let them.  They think human beings are nice.

2.  Food portions are generous.

Okay, we didn't look for tapas bars or tasting menus, but when we went out to eat this weekend, we were served enough food to share with the families in the surrounding three booths.

At the Sichuan place where we celebrated the art exhibit, we ordered two appetizers, three mains, and one vegetable side dish for three people.  We realized that in any context, this is a lot of food, but in the Midwest context, we ordered enough to feed our son for the rest of the week.  The smoked tea duck dish, for example, was an entire duck. 

The same rule holds true everywhere, even the hot dog place where, if you order the signature dish, enough dogs to fill a baguette, you get to wear a clown's costume and be photographed on the wall of fame.

I love hot dogs madly, and given my love for actual dogs, this particular food craving sometimes makes me feel a little creepy.  When I was a vegetarian, I didn't crave filet mignon or rack of lamb.  I wanted hot dogs.

But as much as I would have loved to have overcome my fear of clowns by becoming one for a good cause like a blog-inspired photo, I stuck to the classic Chicago hot dog, which was absolutely delicious.

At first I thought this generosity must just be true of Madison, because the college is overrun by athletes who need to bulk up.  But the same rule held true in Greektown in Chicago.  One meal = three.  Our friends went home with a heavy doggy bag, and we just headed back to our hotel heavier.

3.  In Chicago's Greektown, the waiters always cry "Opa!" when they serve flaming cheese.

It's true.  I've only been to maybe five Greek restaurants over the years in all my trips to Chicago, but I've yet to find an establishment that has let me down.

Okay, I wasn't wearing blinders.  We all know that the Midwest has given birth to its fair share of serial killers, dog-haters, (and probably even hot dog-haters), and people who say "no problem" instead of "You're welcome."

Nonetheless, good times were had by all in our party, and I can't wait to return.

Our weekend was terrific, and I hope yours was too, gentle reader, and that wherever you were, the people were nice, the food came to you in a trough (unless you were at a tapas bar), and the cheese only burst into flame by design.

And if you live in the Chicago/Milwaukee area, do go to the River Edge Gallery in Thiensville, Wisconsin, to see "Standard Deviation," an amazing exhibit that will be up until the start of June.  The color will blow you away, but the squirrels might steal your lunch.  If a Midwesterner packed your lunch, you'll have enough to share anyway.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Part II, Day 18: Senior Dog with College Seniors

Zoe once warned me that if I didn't lighten up, she would trade me in for a younger model.

This happened when Zoe and I took my first-year students from Thoreau Lives! on an end-of-semester hike at Lampson Falls.

It was snowing, and the students decided to wrestle.  Some got a little wet.  Others got much wetter.  Naturally, some built a bonfire.  Don't tell their parents.  It was extremely cold and we probably shouldn't have gone in the first place.  The students later said it was the best day of class, all semester.

My teaching partner was at a conference, and Zoe and I got a little stressed trying to herd all 32 of these students by ourselves.  Would some of them get lost in the woods?  Would they fall in the freezing water?  Zoe would run from one to the other, then back to me, defeated, her verdict being that these sheep could not be governed; they were anarchists.  But little by little, they won her over.  When it was time to go, when Zoe was confident that every sheep had made it back, she hopped not into my car, but into the van that had the fun, loud, rule-bending crowd.  For a moment she wasn't the Zoe I knew, the quiet dog who sits in perfect stillness by the river while her person reads Thich Nhat Hanh or poetry beside her.  She wanted to become a bro.

Now those students are all seniors.  In a month, they will graduate.

Zoe has tracked the students' progress all these years.  Even when one she hasn't seen in several months pops in to see me, she runs over and presses her head against his or her knees and it's like no time has passed.

This weekend we have left her in the hands of a trio of college seniors.  We haven't done this since she was maybe two.

It's a tough time for me to leave her.  After the check-up at the animal hospital on Tuesday, when we learned that despite her great overall condition, the lesions in her lungs had grown, the last thing I wanted to do was take a trip. But I know she's in excellent hands.

I was a wreck the first time I left Zoe in anyone's care, and Zoe was in perfect health.  The poor student in question, Kristin, was a seasoned dog person.  A pre-med student, she was doing independent research in the biology lab to test the canine sense of smell, and she was known in our circle as the dog-walker par excellence.  Plus, she had grown up with dogs.  As far as we knew, she had never in her life not had a dog.  And she knew Zoe well, having joined us on walks many times, just for fun.

I trusted her completely, but I had never left Zoe with anyone other than my sister before and my separation anxiety was off the charts.  The manual of instructions I wrote up for Kristin was probably longer than the honors thesis she would eventually write on the canine sense of smell.  It left nothing to the imagination.  There were helpful pointers in it like this: "Zoe is still teething, and she likes ice.  We have some ice in the freezer.  The freezer is in the refrigerator.  Which is in the kitchen."

You know that when a student in the ROTC who has been brought up to respect her elders to a rather extreme degree feels comfortable gently teasing the person who has given her a job to do--that the teasing is earned.

Kristin proved to be a lifesaver, literally.  I was out of town a lot that year doing book things, and my husband was trying to juggle both walks a day on top of working full time.  One day someone who was cleaning our house tied Zoe not directly to her collar but to the flimsy loop that held her name tag, and Zoe got away.  Kristin and her boyfriend, Georges, came over to walk her and figured out what had happened.  They searched for her all over town, and finally found her on Main Street, the busiest road in Canton.  She was right in the street, dodging traffic.  It's a miracle she wasn't hit.

When Kristin and Georges invited us to their wedding, we organized our summer around the event.  We couldn't miss the nuptials of the people who had saved our dog's life.

Zoe adores the three students who are looking after her this weekend.  Which is interesting, because none of these three students came to college as a dog person.

Take Sonya, for instance.  This poor girl was bitten by a dog when she was a child and it left a lasting impression.  The rabies shots: agony.  Then, a few years later at a friend's house, she slid in dog crap and it got all over her clothes, her hair, her skin.

When Sonya started coming to my office for meetings last year, Zoe sensed that she should take her time getting to know her.  She's a reserved dog anyway, so that suited Zoe just fine.  She worked up to just sitting near Sonya's feet over a period of a few weeks.  Now the minute she sees Sonya she makes a kind of keening sound, like, Where have you been?

Sonya's boyfriend, Alex, fears that he has been replaced by a dog at home. It's a small toy variety, I'm not sure which, but definitely a one-person dog.  When Alex is home, the dog thinks it needs to protect Alex's mother from him.  The good thing, though, is that when Sonya visits, the dog is nicer to Alex, because Sonya gets to play the part of the outsider/villain, and Alex enters the inner circle that needs protection.

Lettie grew up with cats because her mom is not a dog person.  Lettie wants a dog and looks like she was made to run with them through the woods for hours every day.  Just look at her face in the photos below.  Am I just projecting here?  Doesn't she look like she is meant to have a golden retriever mix?  Or a lab?  Or can't you see her with some mushers up in the Alaska wilderness? 

So my husband and I are spending the weekend with Art Son in the Midwest, and Zoe gets to relive her youth for a few days.  I can't wait to hear about her walks with them, and they may even tell you themselves.  (All three are wonderful writers.  If you are new to this corner, you can read Lettie's guest-post about a zen lesson she learned on her semester at sea right here.)

When Alex and Sonya came to the house just as we were leaving, Zoe rolled on her back and emitted the Sonya-inspired keening sound.  Then the trio played in the back yard while my husband and I ate lunch.  Zoe cried when she realized we were driving off without her, but Alex said, "Don't worry about Zoe.  We'll treat her like she's our own daughter." 

After we'd said our good-byes, I realized I had forgotten to fill my water bottle, so I slipped in quietly through the deck door to do so.  Alex and Sonya and Zoe were still in the wood stove room and I heard the two young "parents" speaking to her quietly, in soothing voices.  I think they were reasoning with her.  Telling her what good walks they would have.  The romps in the yard and in the woods.  The treats.  I slipped out on tiptoe so that I wouldn't interrupt the proceedings: the formation of a pack.

Lettie, Sonya, Alex

Zoe is getting quite a lot of attention

Lettie, Sonya, and Zoe

On another day Sonya, Lettie Zoe, and I went to Indian Creek.  Is this place not sublime? 

Sonya and Lettie at Indian Creek

Have a lovely weekend.  And if you see these young people with my dog out in the woods, please give them treats and a compass. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Part II, Day 17: The Same River Twice (a day)

Heraclitus once said:
You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing in.
Now that the weather is warmer, Zoe would like to step into the river twice a day, at least.

Tuesday morning we left at 7 AM for the animal hospital in Canada, and didn't return until almost 9 PM.  As I wrote in yesterday's post, we found out that the disease had made some progress, and we even thought for a while there that there was something scary-wrong with her heart, but that turned out not to be the case, and she was able to take a dose of doxorubicin along with a heart protecting drug, and didn't once complain.  My sister calls Zoe "our stout-hearted girl" and I think that captures her solidity, her steadiness, her courage, her capacity for carrying many loads lightly on her feet.   Zoe's chest fur has been shaved again, so she looks like a poodle with a punk aesthetic, but she is the same in all other respects.

All afternoon I sat in the waiting room with a couple I was meeting for the first time, who already felt like friends.  Their brave and beautiful dog had been suffering from the same cancer Zoe has; the family hadn't planned to be there that day, but he was suffering and they brought him into the emergency room.  I'd been corresponding with the wife of the couple on e-mail and Facebook for the past couple weeks--our shared vet tech, Willow, introduced us--and we spent two very emotional hours together.  I will tell that story soon.

I have met many wonderful people and dogs because of my dog.  She has made the world much bigger.

To get to the animal hospital, we cross the St. Lawrence Seaway.  It feels like a different river every time.  Yesterday as we sped back it glinted silver like the high suspension bridge above it, and the light flickering from just across the border under the night sky comforted me with the knowledge that we were almost home.

Zoe missed all the worry and the tears flowing in the waiting room yesterday as people and their dogs faced up to things.  Willow and Donna said she just sat with them calmly the whole day and kept them company as they did all their work, never barking or whimpering.

I think Zoe now thinks it's her job to take care of the staff at this hospital.  She is calm and steady.

That night she came into our room when we were getting ready to sleep just to reassure us--it felt like that to me, at least--that all is well.  She lay beside us, lifted her paw for us to shake it in her queenly way (which is perhaps more like a pope inviting us to kiss his ring) and then bared her bare chest and invited me to rub it.

All day she was, as ever, entirely herself.  No signs of being nearly as tired as I am.  No signs that two heavy-duty drugs were dripped into her veins, or that she missed her breakfast and walks. 

We return to the comfort of her routines:  walk, eat, watch the house, eat, walk, play.  In the back yard she finds another old bone and runs to catch it, then hides it again for next time.  Then, for a long time, or maybe it's just a minute, we sit along the river's edge and just listen.

We're going for a walk soon.  We'll cross this river, as we do every day, and walk along it, feeling that we know it, that it's ours for an instant, even as the new keeps flowing past.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Part II, Day 16: Bark and Soul

Descartes believed that animals had no souls.  He also thought they felt no pain, so when a creature we had wounded cried out it was only a mechanical response, like the way we kick, mildly, when the doctor taps that spot beneath the knee.

Animals didn’t have souls because they didn’t speak in a language we could hear.  Language was what set us apart from other creatures.  Thus, they lacked the ability to reason, and to worship our god.

Our souls, Descartes also believed, was located in the pineal gland.  It was the place where the intellect joined with the body.

You could extract it, and off it would go.  But where would it fly to, and how much did it weigh?

In Tudor England, philosophers and theologians also believed that woman lacked souls.  It was because we can breed and incubate and feed our young like animals.  People of color, indigenous humans, the poor and the mad also lacked souls because they were too much like beasts—the way they could be yoked, or not—and the way they sang and danced their prayers. And then there were the incomprehensible things they cried when the sky went black. 

This morning the sky is bright already at 6 when my dog and I find a spot for her to do her morning meditation.  She stares at the river and trees and birds waking up.  Maybe the great blue heron will return soon.  We’re on his route.  Maybe the neighbor’s cat will deign to prowl here again.  I try to imagine what she sees out there, what shape her brain waves make as she lets the mild ripples of the river flowing past carry her thoughts.

I sit in my meditation corner and read this poem by Mary Oliver:

Some Questions You might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape?  Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

I meditate for 15 minutes, then go outside to look at Zoe.

She doesn’t see me at first.  Her face, rapt, follows a nuthatch as it skitters beneath the feeder, the two young squirrels somersaulting over each other, around and around on the poplar bark.  Venus and the moon’s thumbprint slip beneath a curtain of blue and gray.

Does she know what’s happening inside her body?

Does she know what’s going to happen today?

Does she understand the words, “later” or “soon”?

We cross the river and she finds a spot away from the human path to leave her mound.  Since chemo started, her excrement has changed.  The drugs soften everything inside except maybe her desires.

Palladia has taken her whiskers and turned her mug from black with a trail of white to a brown-black and gray with soot in the snow.

But she is my Zoe, with all her appetites in tact.  And I am her person.  In those woods she surprises a grouse.  A flash of brown and black and white lifts and runs, then alights on another bush, and Zoe’s brown and black and gray snout is on the trail.

It’s just a chase. That fierce pull like a compass needle.  I’m glad she doesn’t catch wild game but I’m thrilled she has so much game in her.

Later, after I drop her off at the animal hospital for her check-up, I sit in a coffee shop pushing eggs around.  Is it just me, or do they taste like chemicals? 

The eggs came from a hen’s warm body, but probably not from the kind of farm I like where the beaked ones and hoofed ones have names.


I wait now at a Starbucks in a bookstore called Chapters.  The woman in the next table has decided to enter the next chapter of her life with more color.  Her hair would be white, I think, but it’s striped pale lemon and carnelian orange.  She wears a long wrap skirt with blue flower appliqués, a lovely fabric that looks French.  Her silk tie-dyed scarf in blues and greens and a shock of scarlet say that she will not disappear, she will not, even though women of a certain age do, it is said.  

I'm grateful for the visual feast of so much color on a day of worry.

Outside, people lead handsome young golden retrievers from one store with knock-off goods to another, this shop selling leather, then men’s wear, then women’s.  People are training guide dogs for the blind, and this busy shopping center is an excellent place for the dogs to practice.

“I’m completely bilingual,” the striped woman tells her companion. 

The dogs here are too, I think.  They speak dog, of course, and they understand English, and probably some French. 

I wonder if the souls of the dogs, if they had them, would look different after they spent some time caring for the blind.


At the animal hospital, I wait to find out what Zoe’s chest looks like today.  Last time the biggest tumor was 1.45 centimeters.  The Palladia, like any cancer-fighting drug, is a bouncer at the door.  Ruffians still get in, but if the bouncer is good, only the little guys slip through. If the bouncer isn’t sufficiently badass, the riffraff gets bigger, stronger, and eventually becomes a mob.

There is no point in rehearsing my response to all the hypotheticals, because it’s never exactly what I fear or hope. 

Next to me, a small Labrador goes into the cardiologist’s office with her people.  The dog wears a collar that says “The One” but she doesn’t understand English.  She doesn’t understand French either, it turns out, because she and her people say, “vamos,” to her when the cardiologist wants to take her around the corner to examine her.  The dog understands “vamos” perfectly well, but she wiggles out of her collar and runs back to the woman and jumps up to kiss her face.

Finally the dog is willing to go to the cardiologist, and the man and woman sit back down to wait.  The cardiologist is French.  I’ve met him before.  He took a picture of Zoe’s heart 10 weeks ago, when we were trying to decide if she could handle a fifth dose of doxorubicin, which, as a bouncer, worked better than anything we have tried so far.

I ask them how old their Labrador is.  They speak Spanish and French, but no English, so we communicate in French about the air trip from Columbia, where they are from, to Canada, with the dog flying too, and how she had an infection in her blood (could this be heartworm?) but six months on, is doing well.  She is nine.  The same age as Zoe.

The man has a cap that says, “Espagna.”  He and his wife love their dog and are willing to pay a canine cardiologist whatever it takes to keep that tail wagging.

This dog, I can see, is the heart and soul of this family that traveled so far to start a new life.

Dr. Bravo says the Palladia is not resisting the disease.  The biggest tumor is now 1.75 centimeters.  I ask her to show me this with a ruler.  Zoe has been on the drug for 7 weeks, but nothing is shrinking.  She’s had three acupuncture sessions, and Chinese herbs, and she feels great, eats well, runs and plays with vigor, but the tumors are bigger.

“How long before she would feel these tumors, and start coughing?” I ask.

“They would have to be several times as big as they are now,” she says.

“And we don’t know if they’d be growing much faster, were it not for the Palladia,” I say.  Or she says.  This is something one of us always says.  It is somehow reassuring to have it said again, just to know that all the effort isn’t a waste, because after all, my beautiful dog is alive now, and she chases grouse in the morning and watches the river and tonight she will eat her dinner, and beg for more. 

We agree that we’ll have the cardiologist take another picture, to see if there’s any damage to the muscle around her heart, and then we’ll maybe go back to doxorubicin with a heart protector drug as a chaser.  All of this costs money.

I say, “Would you ask the cardiologist if he’d give us a discount?  This is a second picture, after all.  If I promise to speak only French to him?  I will be très charmant!”

She smiles.

When she returns she says he is charging me only half-price.  The re-check price.  So today’s adventure of blood work, chest x-ray, EKG, chemotherapy drip, and heart-protecting drug-drip might cost the same or less than a trip to Columbia.

Less than it would cost to fly Zoe and me back to Paris. 

And so for now, I push more words around and wait in another coffee shop, and hope with all my heart and soul that I will always know what to do for my dog, how to make things right for her, and how to ask for the right things in English, or in French, or in a fine mélange of languages that always starts with dog.

This was the first time I ever tried to take a picture of Zoe barking her head off.  Another dog was across the river, barking back.  What do you suppose they were saying to each other?  Get off my island?  I like your smell?  Come here now? Vamos?