Friday, December 31, 2010

A Quiet End

I spent much of this day disassembling Christmas, first pulling the lights out of the windows, removing the garland from the edge of the bar and from around the doorways, and finally by taking down Grandma's Christmas Village. It was a difficult day, one I don't relish despite how necessary I find it. I am not one who likes to linger over the holidays and silently--and sometimes not so silently--judge those whose trees and lights stay up past New Years Day. I think it's important to start the new year clean and fresh, without remnants of the year passed. And yet it breaks my heart to do it.

It was cold today so Duncan and I remained indoors. He stayed mostly on the couch and out of the way while he watched me tend to my chores. And he came to me when I teared up as I cleared away the houses and shops of the village. I saved Grandma's house for last and when I finally folded it up in bubble wrap and tissue paper I felt as though she--and Christmas--were impossibly far away. I felt alone and tired and afraid of what was in store for the coming year.

But Dunc was with me, comforting me in that special way he has, by either bringing me a pile of toys or urging me to venture out into the snow or by simply pulling me down onto the couch where he can rest his head on my side and breath sleepily into me. He is a good boy and I am blessed to have him with me, on this last day of 2010 and for all the days that loom ahead of us.

And so I sit here, counting the blessings of the year, a warm dinner in my belly, a cup of hot cocoa (sweet and spiked) steaming on the table in front of me, Philip Glass' "Mad Rush" playing softly on the speakers, a pup curled next to me, two cats behind me and another in the bedroom snoring into my pillow. It is a quiet night, exactly as I hoped it would be. There is nothing left to say,  no one to visit, no more steps to take. I need only watch the clock roll over and begin again.

May the blessings of the coming year be like blades of grass on a sunny hillside for you. May each step you take be strong and sure and concerned less with destination and more with journey. And perhaps if we're both lucky, Duncan and I will meet you out there on the trail. We can walk arm in arm and tell each other of the miles we traveled and those we have yet to traverse. How grand it will be.

Holiday Glee

Here is the annual holiday video Ruth and I made this year. Many of you have already seen it on Facebook but I thought I'd post it here, too, even though some of you felt Dunc didn't appear enough. I, of course, believe the entire world needs more Duncan in it, but we'll just have to be patient and see what next year yields.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Listening to the Snow

It is a quiet night, a snowy night, one of the first we've had in Denver all year. Duncan and I stepped outside for a walk down to the mailbox, the snow falling cold on our faces, crunching softly under our feet. While he sniffed the places he hasn't visited while we were in Idaho for a week, I closed my eyes and listened to the snow fall, a nearly imperceptible crystalline sound, like a whisper of bells through the trees. I am glad to be home and off the treacherous Wyoming highways we braved yesterday, but that sound, that faraway holiday tinkle of snow falling on branches and other snow, made me miss home more than I have in a long time. It would be nice to be there tonight, sitting near the people who love me, the firelight flickering on the faces, the smell of mom's candles filling the room.

The sound of the falling snow and the silence of the city around me have reminded me how much I miss them, how precious being there is. A line from a Cole Porter song has been running through my head almost constantly:

There's no love song finer
but how strange--the change
from major to minor--
ev'ry time we say goodbye.

We had a wonderful visit, much of it spent sitting at home in front of the fireplace talking with mom or walking up the hillside behind her home to the wide sage plain that overlooks the Portneuf Valley, Duncan ambling at my side, nose to the ground, hunting out bleached deer bones rather than squirrels and rabbits, his tail standing tall above him. He loves it there in a way that is magical to me, and seeing it through his eyes is like seeing it in a new way, or for the first time. I marvel at his wonder for the lichen which grows vividly green at the base of the junipers and the way he rolls in it, pushing his face into its softness. Or the way he wanders far ahead of me through the narrow winding tunnels of the tall sage until he is good and lost and then stops and listens for the sound of my boots on the soft, breakable shale, then sprints back in my direction, his eyebrows raised excitedly, a smile wide on his face, a look in his eyes as though there is much he discovered, all of it amazing and important, from the peeling bark of the junipers to the wide field of once-purple nettles now fallen over, pushed by the wind and laying flat like a blanket across the ground.

I love my dog more than many, many things, but I love him so much more in Idaho, where the world becomes wondrous, where my mother dotes on him and plays with him, where the wind stirs the red hair on the top of his head and Zeus, the neighbor dog, scampers alongside us, where his love of the world is bigger than the plains, longer than the valley where Pocatello nestles, and higher than the clouds that spill like great plumes of water down the mountainsides I call home.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Grandma's Christmas Village

There is one place I would love to take Duncan for a walk, but we can only get there at Christmas and only because my grandmother––who loved Christmastime more than any other time of year, and worked tirelessly to ensure it was as magical for her children and grandchildren as it was for her––built it with her own two hands. You won't find it on any map for no roads leads there. The only compass that will lead you there is a willingness to open your heart–– if only for one day––and allow your imagination to see the world as you did when you were very small and new to the world.

My grandmother was a woman who always needed something to do, be it quilting baby blankets for each of her grandchildren, constructing magical hot-air balloons from mesh and yarn, redecorating the house every few years, fishing with my grandfather, and then finally assembling the Christmas village that took a decade to build, although I'm sure if she was she still with us it would have continued to grow and expand as all good places should.

While many people have a Christmas village none compare to Grandma's. She hand-painted every piece––all one hundred twenty buildings––and all of the snow-covered trees that filled it. At first it was only a few houses and shops, but over the years it grew and grew and finally my grandfather was summoned to build a mountain, which he did because he wanted to make her happy and loved her more than anything, even fishing and tying flies. Each year the mountain rose up, nearly six feet high, in their front room, comprised of ten street levels. It was wired so that each home lit up as though the occupants were gathering for Christmas dinner. The Dickensian street lamps in front of the houses glowed a soft orange and cast warm pools of light in the cottony snow at their bases. A vast night sky hung overhead with mirrored stars and a miniature Santa in his sleigh, with all the reindeer, flying overhead. Down below, at the base, a farmhouse and livestock looked out over a long train track that wound in a circle, around it. An electric train chugged across it, vanishing into a tunnel on one side only to emerge a few moments later on the other.

It was remarkable feat, the pride of all her hard work and hobbies, and each year when we arrived on Christmas day, she would take me by the hand and lead me into the front room to visit the village and show me all the new additions, not just to the mountain but to her entire collection spread throughout the house, from the crystal snowman and woman who ice skated to the bells she hung in the door that played the most magnificent Christmas songs.

Grandma's death was the hardest thing I have ever endured and although my heart broke the morning she passed, I could not help but wonder how Christmas could ever be the same. The village was divided up among her children and grandchildren, never to be complete again. My portion, though, means more to me than anything else I own, and when I assemble it and turn on those lights I can't help but imagine trudging through its snowy street with Duncan, stopping in the cafe for a cup of hot chocolate, hearing the bell on the door ring when we enter the pet store, smelling the warm coffee and deep woody scent of the bookstore, listening to the bells toll in the church steeple that rises above the duck pond where the geese flock. Duncan's tags would jingle on his leash like silver bells and no one would mind my whistling "The Carol of the Bells," my favorite Christmas carol, as we peeked in the shop windows and waved to the people inside their warm, cozy homes as they draped garland on their trees or placed the star on top.

This is my seventh Christmas without Grandma but looking at my piece of the great village she created and sitting in the dark with Duncan while I envision our walk through it, has kept her Christmas spirit very much alive. Sometimes, in the house she painted with her address, which sits front and center, next to the big tree that lights up with a hundred tiny bulbs, I imagine I can see her there, back in the kitchen making divinity and fudge, preparing the dill bread she knew I loved so much, wiping her fingers on her apron at the sight of me outside her window.

"Merry Christmas, Curtie," she would say.

"Merry Christmas, Grandma," I would beam as we leaned in to hug and kiss each other on the cheek.

And then she would take me by the hand, pull me inside and lead me around to see the red and green and golden magic she loved so much.

Merry Christmas, Grandma. I miss you.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice: Fire-dancing with the Moon

The night walked down the sky with the moon in her hand. (Frederick L. Knowles)

We are always moving, traveling from one place to another, and although we may not be aware of it, it happens, in the blood pumping through our veins, the breaths we take, the skin we shed and leave behind like a trail of bread crumbs wherever we go. We spin at 1, 038 miles an hour on this planet of ours, which careens around the sun, which, in turn, moves around the center of the galaxy at speeds impossible to imagine. There is no such thing as stillness, not even in the sculpture created by moonlight.

I pulled myself out of bed an hour ago and got dressed while a puzzled Duncan looked on, his head cocked to one side, the hair on one ear askew and sticking up at odd angles from the short time he slept on the pillow next to me. He stretched and followed me to the door where I filled my pockets with treats and leashed him up. There was no urgency, none of the mad chirping and dancing that accompanies my return home each evening. He was quiet and calm, perhaps still dreaming of the snow which has yet to fall thick enough for him to play in. He followed me down the stairs and through the parking lot, where lovers had gathered on patios and in doorways, holding each other and marveling at the deep night above them. He followed me across the empty street and into the darkness of the park, which I was sure belonged entirely to us.

And so we walked, off leash, Dunc following close at my side, reluctant to venture too far away from the sidewalk, uninterested in the goose droppings or the twigs that litter the ground from the newly cut trees. Our footfalls were quiet, without even a near echo, and I wondered if every night at the park was like tonight, so still, so empty, with so little movement.

But the moon told a different story. Fat and bloated, as big high in the sky as it appears when new on the horizon, but red and turning redder each minute, strange in color, as small and easily plucked as a grape or a great burning, orange eye turning further away from us with each step we took. But it was remarkable, the reason I'd climbed from bed and brought Dunc into the center of darkness at the edge of the hill behind the high school, shielded from the lights of the city and the sounds of whatever late traffic worked its way through the streets. It is the solstice, the night when the world turns and our days slowly begin to lengthen, when the promise of walks with sunshine in our face grows ever more clear. I played blind and closed my eyes and imagined the bright spot of the sun on my closed lids and the tug of Duncan's leash guiding me along, a game I play on nearly every summer walk. The moon is no sun, though, and its red glow this night offered nothing in the way of a path, but I felt it there, the shadow of the earth moving across its surface as we moved across this small patch of earth.

And then there was someone else, a woman with her small white dog, both of them bundled up even though it was not that cold. I felt her before I saw her and when I opened my eyes we both paused on the walk and smiled at one another.

"Amazing, isn't it?" she asked, pointing at the moon above with a quick jerk of her chin. I nodded. "I had to see it," she said. "I didn't want to sleep thought it. I guess you felt the same."

"It's a lovely night for a walk," I told her.

She nodded. "Keep moving," and then walked away.

We moved on, in no particular direction, neither Dunc or myself in any hurry to return home to bed. The air felt good on my face, clean and crisp, and the sky was clear and vast above.

Soon there were flashes of light through the trees near the top of the park, at the edge of the playground. Duncan saw them first, pausing mid-step to watch, a low, nearly inaudible whine in his throat. It was an orange glow, then two orange glows, spinning madly around each other, back and forth, slowing and then speeding up until they were bright streaks in the air, like the rotors of a helicopter. Then I smelled smoke and realized it was fire. Someone was dancing and juggling fire at the top of the park under the red moon. I coaxed Duncan forward and moved slowly in the direction of the twin balls of flame and the person who controlled them.

He was shirtless and alone and standing in the grass not far from where he'd parked his car. The night wanted to paint his glowing chest blue but those spinning balls of fire held it at bay, coloring him the color of the moon, rust and red, and yellowed with waving shadows. His eyes were bright and wide but his face was void of expression as he stared forward into the darkness while his arms and hands seemed to move independently of his body, almost without thought.

After a very long time he slowed and the fire lost its momentum and fell loose at his sides, dripping wet, chemical flames into the dirt at his feet.

"That's amazing," I whispered.

"I thought I was alone," he said, breathing hard and jerking his head to flip his hair out of his eyes. At first I thought him older than me, but once he'd slowed I could see he was hardly twenty, his face smooth and without a blemish.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you."

"No, no, you didn't interrupt at all. I just didn't expect to see anyone." He quenched the fire in two cans that rested near his feet. "I came out for the moon. I thought I'd dance and celebrate the solstice in my own way. I didn't want to sleep through the eclipse. I wanted to be a part of it."

I knew what he meant. Movement. Movement. It would be a shame to be still on a night like tonight. I had been pulled from bed and brought my best friend to the darkness to be alone with the movement of the earth's shadow across the face of the moon (oh, how wonderful to be there, watching the world move slowly in front of the sun, its light exploding all around the globe upon totality). The same thing had pulled the woman and her own four-legged companion toward the park, and this young man with his fire dance and desire to stand nearly naked in the cold to watch a once in a lifetime event.

It will be two-hundred ninety-three years before this happens again, a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice, and I am grateful that my best friend was at my side, working our way through the night, the moon and the dog star Sirius bright in our eyes, Orion hunting just below, all the stars spread out and bright as though I'd never seen them before, no destination, only a journey at our feet.

I will never forget this night. We moved through it and deep into memory.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wild Kingdom

Nature has been plentiful--and playful--down in The Run this fall. The ever-present squirrels have been quite vocal on our morning walk, scattering at Duncan's approach and then sitting high on their branches cursing at us as we pass below. The little gray and brown birds, quite ordinary in every way, have been abundant --and dangerous--as they erupt from their shelter in the shrubs as my passing Duncan pounces on them. The geese have reclaimed the golf course, where they move in one giant amoebic mass leaving little green tootsie roll prizes behind them after they pass. Even the hawks have been more active. Late last summer a young hawk moved in and has spent many mornings watching us from the top of the iron fence that divides the property and the golf course.

This morning it seemed we could hardly move through the profusion of wildlife that moved along the trail. Squirrels undulated through the grass and up the trunks of the trees, little birds glided through the air as thick as summer gnats and hopped among the naked tree branches, their song loud and unconducted. An owl perched at the top of the cottonwoods watching us and even a fast-moving rabbit made an appearance. It must have been like Christmas morning for Duncan, who couldn't decide which way to run, which creature most deserved his attention. It was warm and we were early and there was no rush so I lagged behind, content to watch him scamper back and forth, first to the trunk of one tree then back to the shrubs along the edge of the building. The sun had just come up over the line of the buildings, the cool air warmed with the light of the sun and all seemed right with the world.

And then a shadow fell over the sun. A squirrel, halfway up a nearby crab apple tree screamed and threw himself into the air toward the shrubs. Duncan's entire body tensed as I turned just in time to see the young hawk, much bigger than when last I'd seen him, dive from the roof where he'd been perched, and slice through the air. He came at me, raised a wing and effortlessly veered away as I ducked. Duncan jumped at it but it swerved again, circled the trunk of the tree, dropped just a few feet and grabbed the struggling squirrel in its talons. The hawk opened its wings and screeched, its grace suddenly gone with the weight of the squirming rodent. Its wings unfurled and it flapped loudly as it struggled to gain altitude. Duncan lunged again and snapped while the squirrel twisted and flopped, dragging the hawk down further until it had no choice but to drop its prey, correct its course--which, for the third time in twenty-fours hours happened to be directly at me--and fly away. I ducked low as it passed overhead, the sweep of its wings a breeze against my face. The squirrel was dazed but had nothing to fear. Duncan chased the bird and barked once as it passed over the treeline and vanished into the morning haze. No one messes with his squirrels but him.


Duncan doesn't like to lose and, like my friend Ruth, has somehow reconciled cheating as a perfectly valid means of winning. In the morning I prepare his breakfast before heading out on our walk around the complex where we inevitably meet up with Pepper the work dog, who loves him despite his indifference and me for the treats I carry in my pocket. After visiting for a few minutes we usually bump into Sophie, the little white collie mix, who looks like a princess and dances around us in circles like a ballerina. Duncan pays little attention though because he knows a nice raw chicken breakfast is waiting for him at home. The squirrels in The Run are the only thing which really capture his attention but when I mention the food waiting for him at home he's quick to forget them and gallop back along the narrow path between the  buildings and the fence-line toward home. By the time we round the corner he's nearly in a full sprint. I make him wait for me at the bottom of the stairs and ask how badly he wants breakfast. He can hardly sit still while I challenge him to a race up the stairs and just as I begin to count he takes off, leaving me behind, his tail a red swinging flurry ahead of me, ready to whap me in the face should I gain on him, which I rarely do. It's not fair, but it makes me smile and starts the mornings off with a nice little adventure, the kind he's sure to always win.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Courage Under Fire

This morning there was a great deal of activity in The Run. We were late for our walk and the squirrels and little brown and gray birds must have assumed we weren't coming. The place was thick with them. As Duncan darted ahead of me, sniffing the ground but being cautious around the first floor patio lair where the three snarling Harpies live, foaming and frothing and even attacking each other when they spot us. They weren't there, which was a nice thing for once, so Duncan had free reign of The Run and bounded far ahead to the low shrubs where the squirrels hide. I watched as they scattered before him, some darting up the trunks of the nearest trees while a few scampered under the fence toward the giant willow on the edge of the golf course. As I approached the little birds rose up in a great, frantic cloud  around his head and vanished into the lower branches above. After they had passed and The Run grew silent around us, Duncan stopped and stood still. I paused to watch him. He cocked his head as something in the shrubs stirred. A small brown shape moved through the twisted branches. I leaned in close to see if perhaps it was a bunny or an injured squirrel, readying my leash just in case. Only Dunc's nose and ears moved and then very slowly he leaned forward, his head vanishing into the brambles. I watched, not breathing, and saw the small shaped take a short hop forward and then exploded straight up at me, it's wings a flurry of motion. Startled I stepped back as the bird flew with all the power it could muster directly toward me. I saw it's tiny black eyes widen just as it struck me square in the chest and sent me tumbling backward. It bounced once, corrected and then flew away while I was still laying in a daze in the cold, brittle grass. A moment later, though, a familiar face appeared above me as Duncan approached, the smile broad on his face, his tail wagging wide from side to side. He leaned down, poked his nose once into the place on my chest where the bird had struck then bent forward and gave me a great big sloppy wet kiss across my cheek, an honor for my valor in battle and courage under fire.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Glow of Home

After a long day without windows, when the only light that seeps down the hall and into my office is dull and gray, a day with a promise of snow and thick, threatening clouds looming down on us over the tall peaks to north and west, after a long drive home amid traffic whose lights through my rain dappled windshield are as stationary but as bright as those on a melting Christmas tree, after carrying my heavy legs up the thirty-seven steps to my door, there is quiet and peace and the soft final red glow of the day, three cats and a dog eager to brighten what little remains of this December evening. That is what makes it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Slow Start, Big Finish

It was dark when I got home and Duncan was slow to rouse and greet me. He and Olive had curled up against my pillow and were fast asleep when I opened the door and slipped in. Pip mewed at me from the windowsill in the office, where he'd perched to watch the dogs and their people go by. Winnie was sitting on the edge of Duncan's food shelf, her face thrust deep into his big yellow bowl lapping at the water and sending big drops of it raining down on the carpet. 

I stepped down the hall to the bedroom and found Olive and Roo asleep. Olive jumped up at my arrival and began hugging me and nuzzling her chin against my cheek as she does when I come home, but Dunc rolled over, groaned and pulled his paw over his eyes. I pressed my ear to his cheek, gave him a kiss and whispered, "Is it time for a walk?" He stirred a little but seemed reluctant to move, perhaps thinking I was just a dream, that he'd wake and discover it was still bright morning and I'd only just slipped out the door. He laid in bed and watched me change clothes through sleepy eyes. Once I'd donned my coat,  though, slipped his new green bean treats into my pocket and was rattling the leash he jumped up and scampered toward me as if I'd only just walked in. He grabbed the leash in his mouth and pulled me around the apartment, his back half shimmying and swaying, the chirp alive and well in his throat.

Usually he settles down by the time we reach the bottom of the stairs and step out into the parking lot. Last night, though, he whined and chirped all the way down the sidewalk to the street, pausing only long enough to pee before resuming it all over again. We crossed the first four lanes of Bowles then stopped  under the trees on the wide grassy median to wait for the eastbound traffic to pass. Duncan sat right on top of my foot,  his weight warm and soft, watching me, waiting for me to give to all-clear. Traffic was heavy, though, and the wait was longer than I expected. Duncan must have thought he needed to earn a trip to the park so he immediately went through his routine: he barked, he sat up pretty then threw himself down onto his belly, jumped up, gave me a high five and when that didn't work gave me ten. He barked out "I love you" a few times, tossed himself onto his belly again, rolled onto his side, tried to say the blessing like he does every night, then gave me five more. And I just watched. No commands, no rewards. I was an audience for his long performance. When I glanced up, laughing and smiling at him, I looked right into the face of a small family whose car had been stopped at the light. Two small faces were planted against the back window and the driver, their mother, was beaming ear to ear. They honked and waved and drove on once the light changed, three pairs of hands applauding at his routine.