i used to know someone who really despised redundancy. this person would interrupt and say, “you already told me that” or “i heard that already”. ask them about their day and they would reply, “same-old-same-old.” it was hard for me – a new yorker – born into repetition and long-story-telling.
d and i sat on that iowa porch only four days, but it doesn’t take long to grow fond of something beautiful.
in front of us – facing east – were two trees. beyond the trees were fields. before they were mowed down, the fields were wildgrasses green with sunny yellow flowers. in the distance – quite a ways off – was the road. a country highway, it was populated by many pickup trucks, an occasional sedan, rarely a semi and, at one point, more booming harleys than we could count.
the light changed during the day. no surprise there. the sun rose to the left of the trees and burned its way into the sky. the trees glimmered and reappeared through the early morning thin layer of smoke from wildfires in canada, jetstreaming its way into the heartland. it was bright in midday and then the sky took on the echo of the western sunset. at night, the trees were still a presence, silent, rooted strength.
i took many photographs of these two trees. they were somehow very comforting and reassuring; it was a time of memorial for columbus and emotions were all over the place. and the trees stood there, steadfast.
they watched us all gather and eat and talk and reminisce and play bags and run with oversized bubble wands. they watched us hula-hoop and dance in the grass and drag chairs following the sun and escaping the wind. they watched us wander and take pictures, play with gracie-cat, pour wine. they watched – as trees do – and we watched them back.
i love each of the photos of the two trees on the east side.
there is something so delicious about going away. we left town and the cold north for florida. it was just for a few days, but the difference in climate is stunning. when you are not – in general – wearing your 32 degrees base layer or your earmuffs on a walk or your furry boots and you have traded it all for cropped jeans and flipflops and no-sleeves, it is a joy. the sun shined down on us as we visited together – our family – a ridiculous and unbelievable four years since we had seen them. we stuffed conversations into nooks and crannies of time and cheered glasses and cooked and took walks and played thomas-the-tank-engine with the tiny two-year-old-miracle who is now in the fam as well. in the middle of it, we suddenly realized how fast it was all going. and then, it was time to board. masks on – two of like four people in the entire tampa airport – we got on the plane and zipped through the air back home.
there is something so delicious about getting home. behind us we had left dogdog in the ever-capable hands of our 20. behind us we had left the worries and angsts of the moment, of this time. behind us we had left our 32 degrees base layers and hats and gloves. behind us we had left all vestiges of our normal schedule and normal routines.
we exited the plane, stopped at the meditation room at milwaukee airport and got into a cold but completely happy-to-see-us littlebabyscion (i may be projecting here) and drove home, getting more excited each minute. 20 had soup and bread ready for us when we got there. he knows how to tend to those basic comforts – those things that reassure when you have left part of your heart behind somewhere else. and then…that deep tiredness – that happens after you have been away and have arrived back home – sunk in.
sleep came early and then we woke early. looking out the window we watched the snow fall. it’s winter in wisconsin and it looks like winter. i like that. i need the seasons to go by…it’s part of my own process as well.
as the flakes get larger and i write this i know that today is a home-day. i just need to stay home, do the laundry, look at the lists i left, process leaving family-i-love behind. tomorrow i will go out. tomorrow is soon enough.
today i just need to absorb the “welcome home” and listen to the quiet snow fall.
i don’t know about you, but i – most definitely – talk to my dog. not just the sit, stay, come, paw sort of talk-talk. no, i am talking about laying bare my thoughts and questions and deep despairs and utter joys.
dogga usually looks as though he is paying attention; he is a really gifted eye-contact dog – better than many people i know. he doesn’t act like it’s unusual that i am divulging my innermost fears or existential ponderings. instead, he keeps eye contact and listens, his ears moving forward and back as he recognizes words…or maybe it’s because he thinks i am drawing to a close. either way, he is a really good audience and, though he never answers in words, his presence is comforting and steady and sometimes that is all i need.
i do believe, however, that somewhere deep inside of him is all the knowledge. somewhere in there he is all-knowing and all that is divine can be found in our dogs (or cats) and we are fortunate to share any tidbits of life with them.
somehow dogdog knows that steadfast and quiet are the real answers. he knows that letting me lay my head on his side is reassuring. he knows that his job is simply to love me back.
he does that without any hesitation. his gentle snoring, the rise and fall of his body breathing in sleep, his eyes closed in trust – he models how to do life. one moment at a time.
and we find the simplest answers to our hardest questions.
“when i am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness.i would almost say that they save me, and daily.” (mary oliver *when i am among the trees)
which is why we walk in the woods.
“i am so distant from the hope of myself, in which i have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often.”(mary oliver *)
which is why we walk in the woods.
“around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out,“stay awhile.” the light flows from their branches. and they call again,“it’s simple,”they say,“and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”(mary oliver *)
which is why we walk in the woods.
and this day – the day of this trail – we hiked the familiar, listening to the greetings of trees who knew us, remembered us. it was comforting and, though they were silent but for the rustling high above us, they rained down the last of their leaves on us, like a ticket-tape parade.
which is why we walk in the woods.
“trees go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!”(john muir)
we leave a bit of worry behind in each step. we will retrieve them later, all the bits. we dream and wonder and walk under the canopy of these giants that stay with us, tuck us in, give us pause. we shuffle our feet through fallen fall and draw in long breaths of musky leaves piling around the underbrush.
which is why we walk in the woods.
“between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” (john muir)
and between every two oaks and every two maples and every two hickories and every two ash and every two cottonwoods and every two elms and every two willows…doorways. “it’s simple,” they say.
the old boards creak. and, at night – when it is bitter cold out – they pop, like the sound ice makes under your feet on a frozen lake, only not as treacherous.
in the summer he replaces the deck screws that have risen, stubbed-toe-tripping-hazards, worry about dogga’s paws. in the winter it is clear of all summer amenities. with just the old wooden glider and chair left, it is sans wrought iron, sans outdoor rugs that define its space, sans umbrella shielding our eyes from the sun while we dine, sans old door and happy-hour two-step ladders that hold wine glasses, sans fire column, sans record player, sans lavender and lemongrass. to look outside at the deck – even without snow – it is obvious that winter is approaching, the starkness is blatant and a little sad. we speak of a tree for out there and, if we go to the forest to cut one down we may cut down two and place one outside so that we can see it – lit – from the window.
the old deck has gone through many iterations, first built – by a dad and a grandpa – to help keep tiny toddlers safely playing – a railing all around and gates. a bright plastic little tikes picnic table anchored one end, with a round wrought iron table and chairs on the other end. back then, it was a place for snacks and bubbles, matchbox cars and babydolls, a turtle sandbox, and children dancing to a fisher-price cassette player.
the toddlers, past toddling, grew fast and, eventually, the railing and the gates were removed and the deck, still with the same wrought iron table, was open to the backyard, easy access to the swingset and the fort and, then, the basketball hoop.
years later, with the addition of the stone patio, it would be the place people would gather – for fourth of july barbecues, for the-big-dig day of the pond, for slow dance parties, for pre-wedding gatherings, gatherings for any reason. the old wrought iron table, another coat of rustoleum black paint, still holding vigil for food and gaiety.
and then, since it had no railings, it became the perfect place for ukulele band. folding metal music stands and bag-chairs, edge-of-deck-sitting, clothespins and laughter, there was no stopping the fun, the music-making and community, and, after, all would gather around the old wrought iron table and gnosh on schnibbles everyone brought along, to prolong time together.
during covid the deck became a place of comfort, a necessity for peace of mind. we slowly researched and watched for sales and added pillows and rugs and an umbrella-that-made-all-the-difference for dinners around that old wrought iron table, a little decor and some clay pots and plants for our outside sanctuary. we took refuge there, from cold days to the return of cold days – outside as much as possible.
and now, the deck is blank again, save for the snowflakes. the old wrought iron table and chairs are carefully stored in the garage and we can hear the boards pop and crackle from inside the sunroom and from here, sitting on the bed, writing this – the grey day outside begging for sun, the old deck waiting to see just how we might holiday-it-up.
it plummeted. this stunningly beautiful day – high 60s and touching the bright happy face of the low 70s – and then…
the highest high this week is 42, with a feels-like of 38. the lowest high this week is 26, with a feels-like of 13, which, incidentally they label “very cold” in parentheses next to the number 13. no duh. the lowest low will be 15 and the app leaves us guessing – right now – on the feels-like of that. so…yes…it plummeted.
but for a few days november teased us and dandy lions rose from the dirt, roaring, “spring! it must be spring!”. i’m betting if we hiked out there – say today – snow showers in the forecast – all the dandies would be gone, all shriveled and sad, tucking their heads down against the wind and elements. but those few days…
they are reminders of things we don’t appreciate while we have them. reminders to stand in gratitude – to look around all bright-eyed and see the amazing things in our own sphere as we encounter them. we linger often on the negatives, the anxieties and angsty worries, the what-we-don’t-haves. but on the day you can feel the sun on your face and are surrounded by the colors of autumn and the dandies are in bloom and the owl hoots in the night, i feel like it would sustain me longer were i to linger just another minute to recognize it all.
this past week. a hotbed mixture of happenings and emotions. loss and sundrenched days, both. the dashing of dreams and dreaming, both. end-of-life and birth, both. i look back and try to stand in each of those places, try to soak it up – like a dandelion in last-licks-sunshine – and i try to appreciate it all. not just appreciate it…reeeeally appreciate it. it all matters. fear is in there too…we are human and we get scared. but gratitude is like a warm blanket and it helps, even a little.
we were lucky to hike, lucky to drive north a few hours to see a friend perform, lucky to have had a time of security, lucky to stand together in an rv dealership and dream “someday”, lucky to prepare soup for dinner with 20, lucky to sit by our pond sipping wine, lucky to light happy lights around our house. we were lucky to see the sun come up through the windows east of our pillows, lucky to see the sun go down through the trees on the trail. i was lucky to hear even a tiny text from both beloved kiddos, lucky to 3-way-hug with d and dogdog, lucky to stand at the kitchen table and miss my sweet momma.
to spend a few more minutes relishing might carry me a little further down the road, a little further away from big worries. each thing a bit of ballast, stabilizing, centering, grounding me, dandying me with courage.
in some ways, it felt like coming home. this trail – its bends and hills and forks – was a mainstay for us for a long time. it was the old quilt before we added another to our collection. we used to wrap this trail around us often in the week, most especially on sunday afternoons, replacing the sunday-drives of my growing-up.
the nature megaphone always called to us. we’d crawl in and sit with our backs against the curved wall, our boots propped up on the other side. we’d take out whatever snack we brought along and munch and talk. and, if we were lucky, the sun was coming in on the greater-than side and it would bathe our faces and we’d close our eyes and just listen to the forest.
but we hadn’t been there in a few years. the county, in a money-over-preserve-conscious moment, approved the building of an aerial adventure course – with high ropes and ziplines and such. and then the woods were screaming-noisy, the parking lot fuller than we had ever seen it. we wondered why all those people in all those cars didn’t see the value of the woods before the treetop park.
one day last week we went back. there were few cars in the lot so we pulled on our boots and set out.
it was instantly like coming home. leaves gently raining down on us, we could feel the trail saying, “hey. where’ve ya been?” and we decided right away to do all the loops, see it all, visit the megaphone.
sitting inside, our backs to the curved wall and our dusty boots propped up on the other side we wished we had brought a snack. the sun was streaming in, warming our faces. we closed our eyes and listened.
all the old quilts in your life count. even the ones you don’t wrap in very often.
given a choice, we will stay in airbnbs. they are homes – real people’s places where they laid their heads – and they offer a comfort that hotels just can’t.
perhaps i have never stayed in a hotel resort that reaches its arms around me, snugged into its chest. it is true. i haven’t ever been to an all-inclusive. when we hotel-it, we stay at the hampton inn, where they offer breakfast and wash the duvet cover daily. they are very clean, mostly updated, the beds are goldilocks-worthy and there is a refrigerator and microwave for the food we are carrying with us.
we arrived in richmond, kentucky on a thursday evening. a fire truck was diagonally across the road, blocking it, and my heart flipped a little, wondering what might have happened. instead, a small town, it was the night of the homecoming parade. we got to the corner by our airbnb, but only to the corner. it was the final approach for the parade route and the police officer at the corner stopped us with a sheepish smile, “just pull over and watch.” he added, “sorry”.
we weren’t sorry. it was a delight to see the parade up close and personal and we cheered and the high school football team threw us candy. after all the convertibles with king and queen candidates drove by and the final police car with lights, the police officer allowed us to turn toward our lodging.
we wrote to andrew, the host of our roomy and perfectly-appointed loft, just to let him know what a joy it was to pull into his town and find such fun. he responded immediately. a real person. a real home. he pays attention. we sat on the tiny balcony and sipped wine while the church carillon rang out post-parade. after more than eight hours on the road, we felt comforted.
the little house in brevard was known to us. we stayed there before. so we knew exactly what we would find…a home with a front porch… our window into the tiny mountain town. we chose to stay there again because it had held us the first time…in comfort. home away from home.
the ukulele band i directed played the van morrison song “comfort you”. “i want to comfort you. i want to comfort you. i want to comfort you. just let your tears run wild like when you were a child. i’ll do what i can do. i want to comfort you. you put the weight on me…i want to comfort you.”
i can think of nothing more important in these times – really, any times – but especially these times – than people comforting other people. the capacity for a human to give reassurance and hope to another must surpass all efforts to compete, to one-up, to undermine. surely as the south begins to clean up from hurricane ian, the evidence is obvious.
i will comfort you – words unspoken perhaps – but deeds spell it all out. people loving one another.
dogdog does not live his life expecting grandeur. he does not look for the secrets of the universe nor does he try to reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that is. his riches are right around him – his shredded toys, his bone, his food and water bowls, his treats, his people and his beloved cat. he lives each day, seemingly, without the emotional chaos we get embedded in; the view from his amber eyes is simple and they reflect back a love of living, of those things he cherishes. he does not try to be anything; he just is. “when you seek to be special, only a few things in life will measure up,” writes sue bender. he does not seek to be special, yet he is magnificently special.
it was very very quiet in the house last week. i played no music. i watched no tv. i barely read the news. together, dogdog and i were almost silent. my dear and wise friend wrote, “sometimes silence allows us to conserve our energy to go on.” together, dogdog and i stepped in our days, the padding footfalls of babycat’s sorely missing from our mix. yet we continued on and the earth spun through the galaxy and the sun and the moon did that which they do, nevertheless.
“i learned to love the journey, not the destination. i learned that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get,” pens anna quindlen. dogdog’s journey sans destination – for without the same human parameters that make us measure our lives, his is simply a journey without a destination – included babycat. and now, in his quest to find his cat, we can only hope that babycat sits by his side and reassures him, in his gravelly babycat voice, that he’s right there with him. our journeys include the angels all around us; they are right there, quiet and steady.
“get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a cheerio with her thumb and first finger,” recommends anna.
i’d add, get a life in which you take moments to be very quiet – silent, even – and in which you can see the dim outline of your angel-cat sitting next to your dog at the front door.
yet, in these times, calm is elusive. it is the floating dust glistening in sunlight. it is the golden ray through the cloud. it is the snowflakes silently falling in the woods. it is the sound of soft laughter, the sound of the dog’s feet running in dreams and the cat snoring in slumber. it is hard to hold onto, hard to touch; it is hard to find.
in these times, with coffee in our hands, we start the new day. we wake, wishes and burdens on our minds, both. the things that kept us awake in the middle of the night, the things that pushed us into sleep: exhausting, worrisome, celebratory, quietly reassuring, sleep-depriving, sleep-inducing. we start the morning, on the roller coaster, one of us holding the “calm” mug.
we have found that – the conversations over-morning-coffee, the conversations over evening-wine, the conversations on the trail, in the sunroom, at the kitchen counter – these conversations need a little help, a little preface, a tiny guideline. for him, a guy, though not a-macho-guy-type-still-a-guy-nonetheless, he is looking to solve. for me, a girl, well, i am looking to just talk, to just go on, to be redundant, to vent. we discovered early on that any talk-talk could easily dissolve into ugly if we didn’t clarify a few things, well, really one thing, first. was this a conversation where i wanted comfort or solutions? was this a conversation where i wanted him to listen or problem-solve?
i honestly can say these two questions – just this simple strategy – could have saved many a relationship moment dating back decades and decades. it took me way too long to realize this glaringly obvious simplicity – that men and women, women and women, men and men – any two people in relationship – approach from vastly disparate directions. i am riding my feisty mare in from the rising sun in the east and he is galloping on a sassy stallion from the setting sun in the west. meeting in the middle ground requires a little gps-ing, dispensing of the drawn word-swords and negotiating some clarity shortcuts. that simple. that makes all the difference.
in these times, though calm is illusory, we find that we can be in this world of unknowns mostly by just being. solutions are hiding with the calm, behind puzzling shadows.
but comfort, listening, empathy are right out in the open, in that field of possibility between the rising sun and the setting sun, riding a steady quarter horse, bareback and honest.