“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

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Part II, Day 71: Travels with Zoe, or North Country Dog on the Red Kashmir Rug

On the last full day of Zoe's life we almost got caught in a thunderstorm.  It was the fourth of July.

Zoe fears thunder and fireworks more than most people fear death.  Given that her own death was imminent, we'd often thought it might be best for her to leave this earth before that night's firework display.  We didn't want her to spend her last night alive crying and quivering in terror.

A storm would cancel the fireworks show, but then we'd have to contend with the storm, which could go on for hours.

But the thunder rumbled from a distant patch of sky.  It didn't roar overhead.  We were half in dream when it slid close.  Neither of us had slept the night before and now she was dozing on the lawn a few feet away from where I rested in the hammock.

We hurried up to my studio.  Kerry joined us just before the heavens opened.  To drown out the thunder, I turned on the fans, including a rattly old cooling box that spews water and sounds like cans caught in the spokes of a bicycle.   After sharing such a peaceful day I hoped we could ride the calm like a magic carpet to the end.  To the end end.

I was tempted to take a picture of her sprawled out on the Indian carpet beside the bed on the studio floor, but I didn't.  The picture I've included here was taken months earlier.  On our last day together, I took no photos.  I didn't want to move.  Kerry was next to me, reading, and I was too.  I hadn't read a thing in days.  I'd just been sitting with Zoe, talking to her, petting her, trying to take everything in.

The book was something I've been wanting to get to for a long time: Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey.  I loved Livesey's portrayal of a child's aching loneliness, her vivid depictions of the Scottish landscape--a part of Scotland where the woods are "fertile and predictable, with foaming hawthorne hedges and woods of beech, chestnut, and birch."  Where the character remembers that even as a child she "judged the landscape inferior to the one" she knew "from stories."  

I could relate to this evocation of a non-exotic landscape.  The North Country where we live has a quiet beauty that some of us have had to train our eyes to see.  It's the anti-sublime.  The anti-romantic.  The anti-exotic.  Or maybe it is sublime with all its open space, those vast fields and skies, with the very occasional big walloping storm.

Reading the novel's opening made me grateful to Zoe for teaching me to love the North Country.  Walking with her in the woods in every season through snow or fields of trillium or fallen red maple leaves has always filled my heart.

And there she was now on the red Indian rug, her eyes boring into mine.  She had her head rested on this rug and her front paws out straight.  

Now, let me tell you about this rug.  I found it in the year 2000, three years before Zoe was born, in a little store run by two brothers from Kashmir who somehow found themselves in Macleod Ganj, in Dharamsala, India, on Temple Road, near where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.

I visited this town with six other women during monsoon season when everything in the shops smelled of rain and damp. Every day the women and I went to Namgyal Monastery, the Tibetan Buddhist temple.  We'd been told we might have a private meeting with the Dalai Lama because one of the people in our group, my close friend Cathy, had hosted some Tibetan monks at our university the year before and they'd created a sand mandala that many in our community witnessed being painted, over a period of weeks, and then dismantled.

I, too, had been part of the group that walked with the monks down to the Grasse River and watched as they lowered the exquisite sand painting into the river and let the current carry it away: an object lesson to all of us on the nature of impermanence, which was something I understood then only as an abstract Buddhist tenet.

So every day in India we went to the temple.  And every day we were told, "Come back tomorrow."  And what did we do when we were turned away?  We walked up Temple Road, striding past monks in scarlet and saffron robes, past monkeys playing in pine trees, past cows sipping from rain water and grazing on garbage, past backpackers from the West, past shops smelling of incense, past market stalls full of prayer beads and bronze Buddhas and necklaces and earrings, and we shopped.  And that's how I discovered this little carpet store.

My tiny but very strong friend, Laura, balanced this rug and the other two I bought on top of her head and hauled them over to the DHL place where we shipped them back to the States.  They arrived many months later smelling of monsoon rain and mold, and I had to air them out for days before I could put them in the studio we had just built above our garage.  I loved bringing the smell of monsoon season in the Himalayas all the way back to my ordinary North Country river valley landscape of pine and hemlock, willow and maple, groundhogs and rabbits and so many family dogs.

So there was my dog, on America's birthday, enjoying her last day on earth.  She was on this red Indian carpet that had traveled by head through monsoon to a shipping office from the other side of the world.  

And there, I realized, in tableau form, were the two pulls in my life: the North Country dog, who means home to me, and a rug emblematic of my love of travel.

Behind the rug I could see the desk Kerry built for me out of cherry wood.  On it was my laptop.  On it also were books I love that I wished I had written.  Behind the desk was the door to the balcony where Zoe spent so many mornings with me, including what would be her last.  And beyond that the back yard and the river Zoe loved so much.  And next to me on the bed, reading, and sometimes looking at the dog, and sometimes looking at me, was my sweet husband.

I often began my meditations this year by randomly opening Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, and it irked me how often I landed on this teaching:
We all feel insecure.  We don't know what the future holds: accidents happen, a loved one may suddenly be struck by an incurable disease and die, we are not sure if we'll be alive tomorrow.  This is all part of impermanence, and this feeling of insecurity makes us suffer.

How can we face this feeling?  What is our practice?  I think living deeply in the present moment is what we have to learn and practice so we can face this feeling of insecurity.  We have to handle the present moment well.  We live deeply in the present moment so that in the future we will have no regrets.  We are aware that both we and the person in front of us are alive.  We cherish the moment and do whatever we can to make life meaningful and to make him happy in this moment.
Travel is one way to live deeply in the present.  When you're in a new place, there's never a shortage of "wow" moments.  Living deeply in the present moment within the landscape of the familiar is a lot more tricky, at least for me.

In my very first post, "Why 108 Days?" I wrote about my eternal quest for "stop-time moments of radiance," for snapshots that will linger in memory even if I don't take them:
the pink stone street beneath my chair at the outdoor café in Cassis where I covered my sweater with croissant crumbs while I watched motorcycle mamas cheek-kiss before they ordered their daily espressos; the collie tied to a bench who pulled the rope tautly toward the square as she waited for her human companion, who happened to be a fragrant clochard, a street person, who was off buying cheese at the public market; the elephant led on a chain by a man in a dhoti in Kerala who swatted flies with her tail; Tibetan Buddhist monks in wine and saffron-colored robes playing badminton under a pine tree filled with spying monkeys in a walled stucco courtyard, outside of which cows lounged on broken concrete grazing on garbage; a group of women keeping purdah in Rajasthan singing a song of welcome to my students and me from beneath their orange veils.
Could I invest each day of my life in Canton, New York with the same powers of alertness I brought to my days in France and India?
What I was after, I guess, is what we call the sacredness of everyday life—what Scott Russell Sanders calls “the force of spirit.”  In his moving title essay in a collection by this title, Sanders drives with his wife to visit her father, who is dying, and notices everything out the window through their not-sublime but no less beloved Indiana landscape: fields of corn, cloud formations, a brilliant sky.  And he feels his love for his family and for the landscape where they make their lives with a force of nature that is not unlike that magnetic pull that leads geese in formation across the sky or a sudden wind that reveals the underside of leaves.
In this blog, "Winter with Zoe, I hunkered down close to home and tried to live every day I had left with Zoe as fully as possible, with this soulful dog as my guide.

And somewhere in there, maybe on one of those icy winter walks when I really should have been wearing clamp-ons or cramp-ons or whatever they're really called, while I watched my tripod pup nimbly lead me to the less slippery ground, I learned that if I could try to see the world as a dog sees, to bring my full powers of awareness to every walk through the woods, every tour of the back yard, and even the square feet on the studio where I wrote these posts, that this precious time we had left would not be wasted on me. 

My greatest fear next to losing her even sooner than predicted was that I wouldn't be up to the task.  That I wasn't awake enough as a human to benefit from these lessons in seeing.  That I'd totally blow it by falling into my same old habits of sleepwalking. 

I wish I had those months to share with her all over again.  I miss her so much.  I wish I could bring the self I am now back to the starting point when I began counting our days together.

I have a long way to go.  I'm much more peaceful now, day to day, but I'm still the kind of person who, when stressed, is capable of putting her purse on the top of her car and driving off, perhaps after she has just tried to open the garage without first opening the garage door.  But maybe not. 

Maybe not if I picture Zoe, my zen master with a tail, in the back seat looking out at the landscape of my car wherever I drive.  Or striding out to the left of me when I walk.  I only hope I can take what she taught me on travels close to home and far away, and to never, ever forget.

Thank you, Zoe, for waking me up.  And thank you, gentle readers, for sharing this journey with us.

Zoe and I investigate the Christmas present (2011) from our friend, Danielle.  To honor a coming year in which no trips would occur, my friend gave this Francophile delicious French food items, all meaty and dog-a-licious
Zoe and me in the Loire Valley, May, 2010, photo by Kerry Grant
Zoe and me on a bus with our students returning from Trouville in Normandy, France, April, 2010
Zoe's reaction to the concept of all-you-can-eat mussels and fries, Toulon, France, May, 2010
Zoe drinking from the Grasse River, our back yard, Canton, New York, late June, 2012; sometimes I thought of this river as her sacred Ganges
I was experimenting with my new camera this winter of 2012 trying to capture Zoe staring at the river in our yard when it was too bright to see; she reminded me of the monks I met at the Namgyal Monastery
close up of Zoe in our yard in winter of 2012
Zoe in la forêt verte, outside Rouen, Normandy, April, 2010
Zoe grew up with Maya, the golden retriever who was alpha of the pack in the gentlemen's walk, although Zoe, as number two in the heirarchy, liked to herd everyone
Zoe in the car we leased in France, sighing with ennui.  She loved our travels, and we were delighted and grateful that France was so dog-friendly, but we always knew she would be happiest at home.
Kerry and Zoe in the Loire Valley, May, 2010
Walking in the woods with Zoe, Cooper, and Pat made me really appreciate the North Country.  Pat's treats were always coveted; liver biscotti was Zoe's favorite
Blissed out in a snow storm, February, 2012: has she reached Nirvana?

When Zoe got together with her "cousin," Sadie--the dog who lives with my sister, Mira Bartok, and her husband, Doug Plavin--they brought out each other's wolfiness.  I love this picture Doug took in April of this year on a walk we took near their house in Western Massachusetts.
photo by Doug Plavin of Sadie and Zoe, the canine cousins, in spring of 2012

We were dining in Collioure, on the Mediterranean Sea, and she was very quiet under the table like a perfectly behaved French dog.  And then the fish came out, and she emerged from the tablecloth eager to see and be seen


  1. I had to look this word up: sublimity, to find out if it is a word. It rhymes with proximity. Proximate, that which is near. which rhymes with
    sublimate: to purify, or divert energy to a more aesthetic nature.

    but back to sublimity. When I looked it up at Merriam Webster, someone there gave a quote, which I will post here.

    Of all that is good, sublimity is supreme. Succeeding is the coming together of all that is beautiful. Furtherance is the agreement of all that is just. Perseverance is the foundation of all actions.
    Lao Tzu

    Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/beautiful_2.html#ixzz1cScVWEXI.

    Not only is the North Country sublime, but now everything within your sight, and mind, can be. Your Zoe was, or is, an awesome guide, and you deserved every moment. Thank you Nat, i hope all us us deserved your ability to share it, it certainly has been a pleasure.

    to more sublimity.

  2. on the bus, now that is the very picture of sublimity, wouldn't you say?

  3. maybe it doesn't feel like an "invincible summer" at your core (all the time), but sublimity might be an even better thing to have there. the ability to bring together that which is beautiful. it's so regenerative. see how much you inspire?

  4. Dear Sara: I always learn so much from your thoughtful comments, and now sublimity, at least Lao Tzu's version blended with yours, is my favorite word and goal. Bless you, friend!

  5. So now Zoe's soul has, like the sand mandala, merged into the Grasse River and though seemingly ever fleeting away from you, will always be there for you - flowing through you. It is her gift and blessing to you! The Grasse: Zoe's sacred zone.

  6. Dear Chris: Thank you so much for this lovely note. We are supposed to get her ashes today, and I thought the river might be the recipient of some of them. Wow, though. That will be really hard. Love to you and Iris.