Saturday, September 5, 2015

A walk on my birthday

"What will you do on your birthday?" she asked.

To start the day, Niko and I went on a three-and-a half mile saunter around the streets of the town. I love walking Niko; he makes stops for each person or dog we meet along the way. If he sees a likely human, he will stand his ground and stare, until she or he, dog optional, stops to greet him. Should they not pick up the signal, he watches the poor benighted suspect recede into the distance and then returns his mind and feet to our journey.

There are many sights and, for Niko, scents along the way. We amble and consider different aspects of the landscape. He prefers rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, but he was mightily confused by this rabbit tucked away under a hedge. He backed away, extended his snout to top inquiry mode, bristled, and finally responded to my commanding summons to "Leave it!" and to "Let's go!"

As he was happily sniffing away and responding to the invisible call of the wild things, we passed a small stand of mayapple in a struggling, drought-struck garden; mayapple is a poisonous plant, but a delicate one when it is in flower. There were many different kinds of hydrangea in bloom; one I thought was particularly lovely, one just plain confusing, and several others in between.

We passed idiosyncratic front-yard art, stopped to check out a Scottie, a yellow lab, a recently-shorn golden retriever, and a miniature chihuahua. 

At one point one of Niko's beloved boys from down the street drove by and called out the window of the car to us; a friend calls this boy and his brother "Niko's empire." I thought I would never get Niko past that spot, but the car turned into the schoolyard and he eventually decided he would accompany me onward.

Hostas are the national plant of our town, and we passed lots and lots of hostas in various states of decline. Hosta can be quite beautiful, and that may be why it is so widely planted, but mostly, people plant with hopes of this (see left), but in fact, what they get, is this (see right).

We turn a last corner and are reminded that life  emerges even in the most untoward places.

We arrive home to discover that the second morning glory of the season has come into bloom by the back gate. It is time for breakfast – poached egg on toast or kibble.

And that is how the day started. It was followed by BLTs for lunch and lobster rolls for supper, friends, a new squeaky toy for Niko, and much pleasure in between and all around.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Free Gifts: Part III*

When Dover died in January, unexpectedly and way too young,  I was devastated. I had always thought he would be our last dog, perfect as he was and ready to accompany us in the older lane we were already traveling; we would all grow old gracefully together. We decided we would not have another dog, and – I lived with that very rational conviction for two months. No longer did I roam the streets with a dog at the end of the leash, stopping to exchange dog lore with others out for a stroll. No more nursing home visits; no more dog classes. In fact, I didn't even go out for walks - the few times I did go out to see what it was like walking without a dog I found myself imaging my arm outstretched, with an imaginary dog setting the pace, thinking of good names for dogs. I was very lonely.

One day we woke up! Tom and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously – maybe we should think about another dog. Within the week, I mentioned it to a friend who has corgis, who talked with others in the corgi world, who knew people in the golden retriever world, who had heard that there was a year and a half dog in lower right Massachusetts in need of a new home. I emailed, talked on the telephone, and emailed some more. We arranged a visit to meet and greet, but – only to look. A friend said to himself. "Yeah - I bet. You are going to drive two hours and just LOOK at a golden retriever? I bet!"

So, Niko joined our household that day.  Golden retriever #5 for us. And what a dog. His first job on arrival home was to greet two small and curious children who came into the yard to check him out; he took one look, lay down, belly up – and lay his head in their laps; whenever he sees them, in the yard, on the sidewalk, even the middle of the not-too-busy street around the corner, he sinks to his knees, rolls over, and tells them how glad he is to see them and asks - "Where have you been all day?" When we meet other dogs on the street, he is friendly and eager to exchange dog-ID scents, even with the ones who want to shred him to bits as their owners cross the street, leading them by at top snarl but a safe distance.
Niko in visiting mode.

He is a natural visiting dog.

An unsuspecting cat asleep in the flower box.
Does he have drawbacks, things to learn? Definitely. The unguarded peanut butter and honey sandwich on the all-too-low table is mine, not his. (Too late on that one! But – he and I are both learning.) On walks, he is much too interested in stalking chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and cats (in increasing order of perceived desirability). And we have to remember, he is still an adolescent, and we need to stay out of his way when he goes into one of his maniac moments, circling the yard at top speed and with deep pleasure.

But - he is our new perfect dog. At first I felt unloyal thinking this way, but a friend pointed out – we don't get stuck in the past. Niko is our perfect dog, no apologies. In reverse order, so were Dover, Mungo II, Jonah, and Mungo I. I am so thankful that such an abundance of canine perfection has graced my life.

Where did that sudden turnaround in our mindsets come from? The swift move from a call of the head that we were too old for a new dog, to a call of the heart that there was a definite dog space in our household needing occupancy.  And - that there were people who knew people who knew people who knew people - all at the ready to help when we needed them? Chance? Coincidence? Free gift? Grace? Even . . .  amazing grace? 

Do they all mean the same thing and we just choose different words, depending on our beliefs and views? I think so. My choice is free gift, and for that, to whoever offered the gift of enlightenment, the gift of changing minds, the gift of new life, the gift of friends, the gift of taking chances, I say "Thanks."
Niko invents a new game. His entertainment value is huge.
* Free Gifts, Parts II and I:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Free Gifts: Part II

It was snowing, of course, and snowing fast and furiously, but when a torrent of snow flying by the window caught the corner of my eye because of its beyond-belief abundance, I stopped to cast a closer look. I saw two small children, neighborhood boys, working their way up our as-yet-unplowed drive. They heaved shovels full of snow to the side, into the air, onto each other, up onto the wall of accumulated snow that was taller than they were, and they were having a great time. I laughed out loud at their exuberance, their enjoyment of an often bemoaned task, and their gift to us as they rearranged the snow.

About two weeks prior, two snowstorms back, when my dog Dover was in his final illness and keeping very close to the house, I had urged him (to no avail) up the path to his old haunt by the back walk, for a change of scene for him and a hope of evidence of higher energy and a possible road to recovery for me; thus he would gladden my heart. Minutes afterwards, these same boys appeared at the back gate and asked to come in and play with Dover. Dover saw them and and immediately bounded up the path in top greeting mode, his unbridled joy overpowering any reluctance he had shown just minutes before. The boys had no idea he was ailing; they loved him and threw tennis balls for him, and he responded. 

The gift of their presence and Dover's response did indeed gladden my heart.  

Free gifts come in many guises, unbidden, and always as surprises. They reach deep down into places we sometimes forget we have and remind us that – in spite of many indications to the contrary – this is the way the world works. 

Life is short, and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.*      

*Henry Frederic Amiel   

Thursday, December 18, 2014


There is not much one can say about gifts at this time of year. Most people are happy doing their own form of plotting, buying, hoping, delaying, ignoring, fretting, and wrapping - it's all about gifts. Or not. Some people give gifts to charity in friends' names. Some people wrap up last year's unused gifts and pass them on to – one hopes – not the original givers. The idea of a circle of gifts appeals to me, gifts given, unwrapped, puzzled over, and stashed away thinking inspiration will come with time. And it does! After many months of inspiring indifference, the gift on the shelf is taken down, wrapped once again, tagged, and proudly offered to a host in exchange for some social time and interesting small pieces of food. I wonder what the world record for the number of unique times a single gift traveled from hand to shelf to hand again? The gift that keeps on being given.

My dog Dover, of course, raises the giftedness quotient of the world every day just because he is an extreme meeter and greeter. He passes it on with no holds barred, to all comers (except, for some reason, German shepherds). He is an equal opportunity trinity of spirit raiser, peace maker, and tennis ball tender. And he definitely gets into the season. Good dog Dover!

News that we read, watch, or hear ranges from poignant to harrowing to horrifying, so it is hard to remember that giftedness is at the heart of creation. We receive and offer many gifts, every day, almost every moment. We take them for granted, which is okay, but every so often I find myself in the middle of a surprising gift that seemed to have an unknown, unnamed source.

This past summer, on a dank, dark, drear day at the beach, a loose scrum of over twenty people, aged two to seventy, watched and tended five kites in the sky. There was a dragon, a box kite whose parts rotated in opposite directions, a fighter kite, and, of course, the plain old variety. Kids took their turns and sat on the seawall to watch and kibitz. Others wandered by to see what was up and some stood at the ready to rescue and relaunch kites that crashed. The wind was the honored guest that day.

At the center were eighth cousins, perhaps with a once or twice removed in their relatedness. One had come from the east, bearing kites; one had come from the west, bringing interest. I am not sure where the kite-bearer had developed such a keen interest, but out west, the gift of playing with the wind had been offered by one, accepted by another, and shared on this otherwise raw day with a transient community which had wandered by and stayed a moment to watch or, better yet, to feel the pull on the line when taking a turn.

The giftedness at the center of this hours-long moment is hard to name, intangible and ephemeral. But think on it: people had taught and learned, tried and crashed, tried again and flew, and then – the learners become teachers. The children on the sea wall were absorbing the laughter and friendship, the soaring and the crashing and the relaunching of the kites – their beauty and how they worked with the wind. Gifts had been passed on through time and space and burst through the grayness of that day.

As the kites were reeled in, folded, and put away, participants and bystanders strolled off to home with a few more bits of laughter and relatedness stored up for times when they would be needed, recipients and offerers of gifts, from and to others

I can't help but be sure of that. Lines were invisible as they stretched from hand to kite, but we knew they were there.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The train to Washington and back

I went to Washington, D.C. last week, a trip I like to make at least twice a year to visit a friend. I take the train, of course, my preferred method of travel. The seven-hour trip goes by very quickly if I have a good book, a little time to sleep, a window seat, and no chatty seat mates. I get to see big cities like New York and Philadelphia, big waters like the top end of Chesapeake Bay, and interesting bridges, like the Hell Gate Bridge, which crosses over the treacherous waters where the East River and Long Island Sound meet up.

Hell Gate Bridge under construction, 1915.
The trip down was a gem, as 99% of my trips on Amtrak are. The trip back - not so much. In Union Station, our departing train was posted as on time, even though the message boards ominously noted that both north and south trains could be delayed due to extreme cold weather. Indeed, the screen listing train departures was littered with yellow DELAYED notations; our train, however, was happily noted as on time. A half hour before departure, we were herded into the boarding area, where we stood massed together, while all eyes shifted between the clock and the door through which the conductor would arrive to start the process of boarding. By two minutes before departure time, the door remained shut, no conductor was in sight, and in a twinkling of an eye, the yellow delayed sign appeared where we didn't want to see it. We waited. Twenty minutes later, not a bad wait, in fact, all signs changed; the conductor appeared, took our tickets, and we were on our way after a frighteningly but gratifyingly short boarding time. Northward we went, only half an hour late. It was a sold-out train, so I had a seat mate then, and again, and again, and again.

Passengers have developed bold techniques to maintain an empty place next to where they sit. The main trick is to deposit coats and suitcases on the empty seat. The more the better. And - put a bottle of water in the pouch in front of the empty seat.Sometimes the passenger sits on the aisle seat, lowers the tray, and piles it with a computer, coffee, sandwiches, and cords,  while piling personal belongings in the inside seat, thereby erecting a veritable fortress that prevents another heavily-laden passenger from asking: Is this seat taken? But, one by one, each defended seat eventually falls to a wandering passenger. When directly asked, the person claiming both seats always appears totally dumbfounded that there is an extra seat by them, clears the seat, and one more roaming passenger is seated. One middle-aged man, tired of wandering the aisles, finally asked the young person behind me: Is this seat occupied by your coat taken?

Of course, I always hope that the unseated will take one look and consider me an unsavory neighbor, pass by my pristinely empty seat, and pursue a better offering in another car. However, I was taught by nuns, and  they would have considered it rude, if not downright stingy, not to offer hospitality to the wayfarers, so it never fails, I am always among the first to have a seat mate, which will make it difficult to get up and out for whatever purpose - a stroll, some water, or a visit to the (on this train) unappealing restroom.

Preserving open space.on the train

My immediate neighborhood was serially taken up with a variety of talkers: Two young professionals earnestly consulting across the aisle - he the mentor, she the eager learner;  they got off in Philadelphia.Two young people striking up a fevered new relationship, talking breathlessly for miles, exchanging telephone numbers and vowing to be in touch. They got off in New York. A very talkative middle aged man aiming to impress a sweet young thing, expounding on matters such as the pleasures of the French language vs Italian, a beautiful Italian women he knew who died of liver cancer, and trichinosis. She got off in Stamford and he was last seen entering a restroom. Somewhere along the line I spilled a whole glass of diet soda down my pant legs, while my bulky neighbor in a puffy winter coat sat imperviously, with her hands on her purse, staring intently at the back of the seat ahead of her.

And my fourth seat mate, a young, slim woman, spent miles reading a tabloid article titled "I have the bigggest butt in the world."

I won't even go into the last leg of the journey: a hundred passengers were disgorged onto a freezing platform to wait for a connecting train, which usually is ready and waiting across the platform but wasn't there this particular night. Short version: it came, we boarded, we arrived at our destinations.

All told, it could have been much worse, and the restrooms did actually work.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hanging out at the interface

As an organic chemist, I know that when we are holding a container with two liquids that don't mix (think salad dressing) there is lots of action inside those two liquids. It is particularly interestng at the point where the two liquids meet. What appears to our eye as a smooth line separating the two liquids is everything but calm and static down on the molecular level. Molecules zip around, hit the wall, bounce back to stay with their own kind, maybe get through to the other side for a little while, then get knocked back where they belong. Maybe a few will stay awhile in the foreign territory. Maybe some will even react with a stranger and be changed forever into something new, a new molecule, that will then choose which space is home.

I love that we live at many interfaces. When I was walking a week or so ago with a niece and a great-niece, a puppy and Dover, we were taken by the juxtaposition of rain drops on the red maple leaves we were strolling through. Water drops of varying sizes beaded up into bright jewels on a leafy setting. Interfaces galore! Water on waxy leaf, solid color under transparent beads, reflections of the sky on the surface of the water, while its under surface rested on an earthy base. Signs of death and decline in the red leaves harbored the life-giving promise of water. 

In the extended warm weather this October, the morning glories on the front fence continue to flaunt their exquisite color on our curve of the street – well past their seasonal allotment. The weather is warm, but the days are short; now the blue flowers are outnumbered by the spent petals of yesterday, which in turn are outnumbered by seed pods in varying states of development. Yesterday's crumbling petals. Today's brilliant blue. Tomorrows' furled buds. And next year's promise of new life, new blue, new gifts.

And then there is Dover. He keeps watch; he lies in thresholds, in doorways, keeping a quiet lookout for change. If one of us moves rooms, he silently rouses and repositions so he stays between us; he knows that's where the action might be. Perhaps we will reach for a tennis ball, or perhaps . . . a treat? Perhaps one of us will bend down and touch his head, or – sadness – someone might be leaving. He establishes his space between our spaces – at the interface. Therein lies his – and my – belief that that is a place of transformation, from the apparent stillness of a moment to the promise of adventure and joy, both of which are already forming in that apparently quiet, in-between space.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Free gifts

Dover and I were on our three-mile, early-morning stroll a day or two ago and as we walked past the college chapel, the tower bell suddenly rang out over the still sleepy streets. Dover gave an initial start and then kept on his nonchalant way, always on the prowl for garbage in that high student density part of the walk. I added a little skip to my gait; I knew the bells announced Mountain Day, a day to suspend classes and meetings so students and faculty (alas - not staff) could bicycle out into a beautiful fall day to enjoy the New England countryside. I have always regarded Mountain Day as a free gift, much the same as snow days. Neither plays a direct part in my life now, but I always see the announcement, by bell or radio, as a recognition that schedules and routines are made for interruption and surprising turns.

Some faculty complain that Mountain Day makes a hash of their teaching syllabus, and some students complain that they would rather Mountain Day be a known holiday - for better planning - and that it preferably be scheduled on Friday or Monday so they could depart for other cities or campuses for long weekends. But - Mountain Day drops uncontrolled into their lives, and, frankly, I think it is great. I wanted a Mountain Day when I heard the bell that cool and crisp morning, but I didn't think the dentist would understand that excuse.

Just looking around, there are other free gifts close at hand. The morning glories on the front fence are my free gift to the street; Dover's belly-up, groveling greeting to his walkers is his free gift to them, college students in search of dog company. One day a few weeks ago, I was out of town at a meeting and despondent at a surly turn one session had suddenly taken. That night, as I checked the email one more time before before turning out the light, I received news that in my absence, Dover had invited friends over for a party. The pictures that came with the message lifted my despondency and sent me into uncontrollable hilarity. In that one moment, I received free gifts of relief and laughter - relief that Dover was okay in my absence, and laughter at the irrepressible exuberance of dogs, who with infinite good nature, will submit to any article of clothing to have a good time with friends, good eats, and  and exciting party games. 

Go dog, Go!