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By the river

This morning I mailed off the last of four batches of spring/summer semester grades: the end of an era. Although I’ll be teaching one more online class starting Monday, I have the rest of the summer off from face-to-face teaching. This marks, then, the first time I’ve really had the time to settle into my status as a newly minted Doctor, the first time I’ve really had the time to face the daunting question of “what’s next.” For ten years, you see, I’ve been on an over-worked, under-rested version of auto-pilot. Whenever the question of “what next?” arose, there was a tangible work-related answer close at hand: next I need to grade this stack of papers, next I need to revise that diss chapter, etc.

At this juncture in my life, “what’s next” raises all sorts of thorny questions, most of which I’ve ignored for a decade (yes, ten full years) while I was working on the doctorate. “What’s next” raises the question of whether or not I want to go on the drum-tight academic job market: even if I could, through some Cosmic Miracle, manage to land a tenure-track job somewhere, do I want to sign onto a rest-of-my-life commitment to teaching and the publish-or-perish expectations of academia? Ten years after starting my PhD program with starry-eyed visions of what it meant to be a college prof, I’m no longer sure what I want. I like teaching; most of the time, I love it. But after ten years of teaching way too many students at way too many colleges, I’m wondering if I’ve continued with teaching because it’s what I’m called to do or simply because I don’t know what else to do. There’s a big difference between actively choosing a career path and passively acquiescing to whatever path the Fates nudge you toward, and it feels like I’ve spent the past ten years acquiescing.

Riverside

Most of all, I’m simply tired. Ten years is a long time to juggle studies, teaching, and some semblance of a life; ten years is a long time in general. Looking back from the mountain top, it feels like I’ve been holding my breath for ten whole years, putting off health, sanity, and joy for “later, after I’m finished with the PhD.” Every undergraduate has memories of the body-breaking all-nighters that mark semester’s-end, a ritual that 18- to 22-year-old-bodies rapidly bounce back from. But at 35 I’m feeling a bit less resilient: right now it feels like I’ve weathered a decade of all-nighters in a body that no longer wants to bounce. The short-term coping mechanisms that got me through my undergraduate years are fine and good, but after pushing the envelope for too long, I’ve taxed my body’s patience.

Yesterday after dropping off grades at Keene State, I walked around campus with the dog. The Ashuelot River runs through campus, and there is a grassy grove of maple trees behind one of the dormitories. For all the time I spend on campus, I’d never taken the time to explore this spot of riverside greenery. Letting the dog off leash to do his thing, I settled on a bench beside the river and simply sat, looking at trees, grass, water…

All wet

If I simply had taken a cue from the dog all these years, maybe I wouldn’t now be feeling so drained. As soon as I unclipped his leash, Reggie made a beeline through the underbrush down to the river; before I could call him back, he was in the middle of that river, swimming. Dogs have no concept of delayed gratification; dogs don’t know how to put off health, sanity, and joy for “later, after I’m finished.” Dogs know that play is essential and frequent naps even more so; dogs know that work is something to be done whole-heartedly and then shaken off with similar vigor. Dogs know that dissertations are merely piles of boring-smelling paper and that doctors walk no better nor any farther than non-docs. Even Zen Mamas can learn a new trick or two from an old dog who, despite creaky hips and steep river banks, will dive into water first and try to figure out an escape route later. Steep banks, muddy water, and thorny underbrush be damned: Reggie has never found himself in a fix that couldn’t be remedied by a hardy shake and a good long nap. As for me, I’ll stay on land and out of the underbrush: perhaps a couple months of dog-like catnapping is just what Dr. Reggie ordered.

Reggie takes a swim

After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.

Water lily

When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.

Pickerelweed

It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.

Pickerelweed

Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?

Reggie goes wading

As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?

I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.

Reflecting

The three-day Columbus Day weekend is always a popular holiday for New England leaf-peepers, so as I was driving back to Keene from Massachusetts on Monday afternoon, I encountered stream after stream of cars with out-of-state license plates leaving New Hampshire, toting canoes, bicycles, and backseats full of kids back home. The drive between Massachusetts and New Hampshire was lovely, like driving through a yellow, orange, and red kaleidoscope shot through with golden light, and I felt honored to live (at least part-time) in a place other people only visit.

Overgrown

It was still light when Reggie and I arrived back in Keene, with the late afternoon sun already starting to settle toward the western horizon, so I stopped by the Ashuelot River on the way to my apartment, figuring Reggie and I had enough time for a dinnertime stroll before dark. The leafy banks of the river were more colorful than the last time we’d walked there, and the park itself was more crowded, with far more locals enjoying the park on a sunny afternoon than we’d typically see on an early-morning dog-walk, when Reggie and I typically have the trails to ourselves.

It felt good to be back in Keene, good (as always) to be walking, and good to be bathed in the deeply angled, golden light of autumn, New England’s prettiest season. It also felt odd to be back in Keene and yet among strangers, as if my erstwhile neighbors were invading a place that has always felt as if it were mine and Reggie’s alone. These days, I realize that I, not those other walkers, am the outsider: commuting each week between Massachusetts and New Hampshire, I feel as if I have less and less claim to a landscape I see only three days a week, and then only hurriedly. When Reggie and I walked along the Ashuelot in September, we walked on a Wednesday morning when we had time to enjoy the solitude of the scene; on Monday afternoon, I was mindful of the setting sun and a long Monday night to-do list, preoccupied, like Robert Frost’s famous speaker, with “miles to go before I sleep.”

Virginia creeper

Walking is how I understand any landscape, whether I visit as a local or as a tourist, and these days in Keene I feel like both. Last Friday, I surrendered my New Hampshire driver’s license in return for a Massachusetts one; next, I’ll switch my car title and registration as well. Soon enough, I too will have out-of-state license plates when I venture into New Hampshire, thereby announcing myself as merely a transitory interloper in a state well accustomed to tourists. It’s been over three years that I’ve lived with one foot in two states, and it still feels strangely unsettling–not uncomfortable, but odd as I move between the alternating predictability of two different daily routines in two separate worlds. Where (if anywhere) do I truly belong; where (if anywhere) do I have the deepest roots? Or does my lack of lasting roots–my ability to migrate between two addresses, each with closets full of my things–point to the mobile nature of modern life, where our meals, our phone calls, and our personal interactions can all happen on-the-run?

Old man's beard

These are the in-between days here in New England as we transition between seasons, and these are the in-between days of my life as I migrate back and forth, back and forth, between my once and current homes. Where am I at any given moment or any given day? My home these days is perpetually “here,” wherever “here” happens to be.

The title of today’s post is one I’m particularly fond of. “In Between Days” is the name of an ’80s song by The Cure I’ve always liked, and it’s the title of two old blog posts and the implicit theme of a third.

The Wikipedia entry for that old Cure song describes its “lyrical themes of ageing [sic], loss and fear” as “not particularly reflect[ing] the upbeat tempo of the music.” Perhaps I’ve always lived, unsettled, between worlds.

You can click here for more photos of the Ashuelot River in autumn. Enjoy!

Ashuelot River from footbridge

The Ashuelot, like any river, has two sides, and last Wednesday, Reggie and I took a quiet walk on the wild side.

Tattered and turning

I typed that opening line because I liked the music of it in my head, then I did a quick blog-search to review the other times Reggie and I have walked along the Ashuelot River. Sure enough, I’ve used this opening line before, more than six years ago:

The Ashuelot River, like any river, has two sides. You can access the east side of the Ashuelot River by parking in the lot for Blockbuster Video on West Street, where you’ll find the river tumbling over a dam right behind the long-out-of-business Taco Bell. There is a landscaped park on this side of the river which culminates in a smooth gravelled fitness path. This path enters the woods and skirts the river all the way to Route 9 on the edge of town, where it crosses the river on a walkway and then snakes under the road toward Wheelock Park, where it ends.

Dried Queen Anne's lace

They say (and I’ve blogged) that you can’t step into the same river twice, and indeed the wild side of the Ashuelot Reggie and I revisited last Wednesday is not the same river we walked six years ago. Blockbuster Video has gone out of business (although locals still refer to its parking lot on West Street by that name), and the long-forgotten Taco Bell is now (and has been for years) a successful Starbucks. More importantly, both Reggie and I are six years older than we were the first time I blogged the Ashuelot River’s wild side, and although I don’t feel substantially worse for the wear of six years, Reggie’s changed. Last Wednesday Reggie and I walked on the wild side of the Ashuelot–the side that doesn’t have smooth, improved paths, where fewer dog-walkers, cyclists, and joggers go–because the paths there quickly peter out into underbrush, and as slowly as Reggie walks these days, I’ve learned to measure our walks by depth rather than length.

Buckthorn

When Reggie was younger and more energetic, we’d walk from the so-called Blockbuster parking lot on West Street to the underpass of Route 9 and back without a second thought: that was a moderate, easy stroll for us. These days, Reggie walks far more slowly, and he spends far more time stopping to rest and sniff: it’s impossible, I’m learning, to hurry an old dog. Reggie and still take our morning (and sometimes evening) walks around the neighborhood, but now that Reggie’s more than thirteen years old, we take those morning walks much more deliberately. We aren’t in a hurry to cover ground; instead, we’re intent on appreciating the ground we cover.

A few weeks ago, for example, Reggie and I went to Goose Pond, where the two of us have walked (and Reggie has waded) many times in the past. I knew it was unlikely we’d make it all the way around the pond, a walk that took us a few leisurely hours in the good old days when both of us were younger, but I figured we’d have a good time walking to the pond and back, if not further, and I was right. This time at Goose Pond, Reggie and I took our good, sweet time walking from the parking lot to Reggie’s favorite wading spot, where he muddied his paws and sniffed while I did a quick scribble-sketch in my journal: walking with a pencil and sketchbook, I’ve learned, is something that goes quite naturally with walking an old dog. When we both were done, Reggie quite naturally turned back the way we came, toward the car, as if to say “That’s enough for today, Mom,” and indeed it was. We squeezed an entire pond’s worth of looking, sniffing, and appreciating into a slow, half-hour walk there and back, and nothing more was necessary.

Sumac leaves

This summer, my upstairs neighbor in Keene had to put her thirteen-year-old German shepherd to sleep; this past week, one of my teaching colleagues said goodbye to her similarly aged Basenji. Each of these and other losses remind me that any time spent with an elderly dog is golden. For the time being, Reggie’s spirit is strong even if his energy is diminished; for the time being, we’re not yet ready for talk of the rainbow bridge. Still, I’m not naive enough to think that time won’t come, eventually; as J mentioned when the film version of the book Marley and Me came out, “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.” When you know where the winding path you trod leads, you can make a conscious choice to enjoy every step as a time to cherish and reflect.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Reflect. I’ve been remiss when it comes to posting recent pictures of Reggie, so let me make up for that by linking to a lovely set of photos J took with Reggie in our backyard this past spring: proof that the Old Dog is still pretty damn handsome, and very experienced when it comes to lounging.

Ashuelot River ice

I walked Reggie along the Ashuelot River early this morning, figuring we’d spend the rest of my usual grading day at home hunkered down against the predicted snow. Instead, the predicted snow never showed up, this morning’s flurry of dandruff-flakes leaving nothing to shovel or even sweep: a tease of a snowstorm that swerved south.

Unfurling

Every spring, you’d think I’d never seen baby beech leaves before. Months of bare-branched winter will do that to you, so that in spring the merest glimpse of green drives you to ecstasy. There’s something simply magical about the fresh, furrowed, and furry leaves of spring as they unwind from their leaf scales: a summer of promise stretching toward its first light.

Emerging

Yesterday afternoon, after springing from the containment of the classroom, I took Reggie walking along the Ashuelot River, where we both went wading. The first doggy dip of the season is always a milestone, and I had new sandals to baptize, wading up to my ankles as I tempted Reggie to muddy his toes. Reggie always seems timid the first time he goes wading in the spring, and I always forget how alien newly unfurled leaves look. We might credit both to “winter amnesia,” a seasonal disorder whereby those of us in colder climes forget almost entirely the pleasures of summers past.

Spring's first dip

But only almost. Once Reggie remembers that river-water is cool and refreshing, he doesn’t need additional urging, sniffing out the tried, familiar spots where the river bank slopes gently to sun-warmed shallows. In all the years we’ve gone wading together, I’ve never seen Reggie swim; instead, he’s content to wade to his belly, sniffing and lapping water as he walks, before clambering onto shore again, his underparts drenched and spectacularly bedraggled. Why do you need to swim, Reggie seems to say, when it feels so good just to wade?

Sessile bellwort

Yesterday’s walk and wade along the Ashuelot was short: I had (and have) a river-long to-do list, and the afternoon light was already slanting toward sunset. But the lesson of baby beech leaves is that even a small spot can provide ample room to unwind, the small space of a single leaf seeming expansive after the crowded clench of winter buds. This won’t be the last time Reggie and I will wade in the Ashuelot; you can, it seems, step into a similar river twice. We’ll be back, after and even while I ride the white-water of my river-long to-do list, an afternoon walk and wade offering a cool, refreshing respite for dog and dog-walker alike.

Click here for a photo-set of images from yesterday’s afternoon along the Ashuelot. The close-up shot of sessile bellwort shows the blooming “after” version of last week’s budding “before.” Enjoy!

Frost crystals on redbud seed pods

Today in the midst of collecting a several-foot-tall pile of essay portfolios, I took Reggie for a midday walk by the Ashuelot River. The ice storm that crusted my car in Newton on Monday morning produced wet snow here in Keene…and today the trees were fringed with a feathery fur of rice-sized frost crystals. It’s difficult to photograph white on white, but I managed to snap a handful of images to share. Enjoy!

Each of us has our own way of marking the official arrival of spring. For some, the sound of spring peepers is proof that winter is over; for others, the rising sap in maple trees is a definitive clue. For sports fans, the crack of the season’s first baseball bat marks time in a particularly momentous way, and for birders, the arrival of the spring’s first migrants tells the time truer than any calendar. For me, today’s first Goose Pond doggy dip means spring is definitely here: if the dog’s wet and my feet are muddy, then black flies surely aren’t far behind.

Red squirrel, Goose Pond, Keene, NH

While Reggie was cooling his heels along with other assorted nether parts, I spent part of today’s dog walk photo-stalking. I didn’t go to Goose Pond today looking for any particular sort of picture; I didn’t go to Goose Pond today looking to take any pictures, really. Instead, I wanted to see whether the trailing arbutus has bloomed (it has) and whether the black flies are hatched and biting (they’re not). Along the way, though, I had my camera at ready, right in my pocket, in case anything interesting or unusual happened along my path, and in due course I found exactly that.

Chickadee, Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Photographing lighting-fast red squirrels is difficult enough; photographing energetic birds is even trickier. At least squirrels can be occasionally tricked into thinking they’re invisible if they sit still; perching birds, on the other hand, rarely freeze for framing.

Although I heard a first-of-year hermit thrush and black-throated green warbler, I didn’t see much less photograph either of these newly arrived spring migrants. Chickadees are year-round residents here in New Hampshire, and on nearly any dog-walk they’re easy to see…but photographing them is another story entirely. Sometimes, though, a cheeky chickadee will zoom in close enough for a point-and-shoot snapshot, and sometimes that cheeky chickadee will even perch motionless long enough for an almost-pose. Click: gotcha! At times like this, when all I want is a decent shot of a perfectly common but hyperkinetic bird, I feel a bit like John James Audubon with his gun, my ornithological impulses spurred by a collector’s zeal.

Chickadees, red squirrels, and swimming dogs notwithstanding, the true prize from today’s photo-stalk was the river otter that darted out of the woods and across the path–pausing, conveniently, at the edge of the trail to allow this picture–after Reggie and I had turned toward the car. (Click on the image for a larger version.) In all my years of hiking, I’ve seen a wild otter only once before today: several winters ago while walking along the Ashuelot River, I saw an otter scurrying along the riverbank underneath an overhanging ridge of ice, its shrill, whistling call betraying its predatorial presence. On that day several winters ago, I was too stunned and surprised to grab my camera; on that day several winters ago, it took a minute or two to fully register what was happening. “That, there…that sound…that sinuous, fluid roil of furred muscle…that isn’t a muskrat, isn’t a beaver, isn’t a rat or rodent of any kind…that incredible, out-of-nowhere creature is an otter, a common but rarely seen predator I’ve never seen before. Now, where’d it go?”

Today’s otter was silent, scurrying from the woods like a creature with a definite destination, disappearing into the woods on the other side of the trail as quickly as it had appeared. Today, though, I had my camera in my pocket; today, though, I had the wherewithal to snap, snap, snap several pictures, hoping just one of them would record for my own memory’s sake–record for my own proof–the fact that yes, there are river otters in Goose Pond. This lovely little place where I and so many other Keene residents walk the dog is actually a bit wilder than we knew, harboring predators and prey alike, some of them cheeky enough to show their face (or a flash of fur or feather) to anyone bold enough to stalk or swim in their midst.

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain…and to the sight of Tara, one of my upstairs neighbor’s cats, looking wet and disheveled from her perch on my front porch railing. Today was a good day to be a duck–and a bad day to be a cat–since it rained nearly all day. Usually I don’t mind a rainy day; in fact, I’ve spent nearly the whole day grading papers, so I didn’t mind having a good indoor day. But ever since last October’s flood here in southwest New Hampshire, the sound of torrential rain makes me nervous. Last year, for weeks after the flooding that forced the evacuation of my neighborhood, I would peek out my bedroom window whenever I woke to the sound of rain just to make sure I could see pavement rather than water where the street should be. This morning, I instinctively did the same thing, today’s torrential downpours feeling a bit too similar to last year’s.

Although soggy cats want nothing more than to be let in out of the rain, antsy dogs insist on being walked regardless of the weather. Around noon, after a late morning windstorm ripped one of my living room storm-windows right off its bolts, the rain stopped long enough for Reggie and me to take a soggy walk toward Beaver Brook Falls.

The abandoned road that leads toward Beaver Brook Falls is a good rainy-day walk: the route is short and densely canopied so you won’t get too wet, and the road itself is paved so you won’t muddy your feet. But after I got out of the car and started walking, I realized the subconscious reason I’d wanted to walk Reggie along Beaver Brook: I wanted to see for myself whether Beaver Brook was staying within her banks.

Last October, it was humble Beaver Brook that caused all the trouble here in Keene. While the Cold River devastated nearby Alstead, Keene’s own Ashuelot River was relatively well-behaved, rising but not flooding. Had tiny Beaver Brook not breached her banks on the east side of Keene, my neighborhood (and my basement) would have been spared last October’s drama. But last October, we here in Keene learned that a little brook can pack a big, wet wallop if unchecked rains cause her to grow too big for her banks.

So you can imagine my initial alarm when I saw white water where I am accustomed to seeing a slow, steady stream.

Although Beaver Brook wasn’t high enough to breach her banks, she was higher than I’d ever seen her. Springtime brings black flies here in New Hampshire, so I’ve never seen Beaver Brook swollen with spring melt: I avoid walking Reggie in buggy places, so we don’t go to Beaver Brook until summer. In the summer, Beaver Brook is a quiet, gently babbling stream: a waterway so shallow, Reggie can easily wade from one bank to the other. Today, Reggie sniffed at the swollen water but didn’t dare go in, sensing that the depth and current were too much for his dabbling.

On most summer days, you can hear the hum of nearby traffic as you start toward Beaver Brook Falls; it isn’t until you are well within the brook’s sheltering ravine that the sound of water literally drowns out all traces of traffic. Today, though, I could hear the roar of water the moment I got out of my car: the same sound that presumably preceded last year’s torrent.

What I didn’t successfully capture with my pencam, unfortunately, were several snaking waterfalls that cascaded down the rocky walls bordering Beaver Brook: autumn rivulets over summer-dry stones. How surprising it was to see long, trailing waterfalls where in summer only tiny tributaries trickle. Beaver Brook, it seems, hides many a trick up her verdant, ravine-edged sleeve.

And as for me, I prepared for the worst, donning a Gore-tex parka and funky rain-boots for my rainy-day stroll. It started to sprinkle right when Reggie and I reached the falls, so my Worst Case wardrobe came in handy. By the time we’d arrived back home, another round of torrential rains began, the water falling in buckets while I settled in over hot chocolate and more grading. It was a good day to be a duck, a bad day to be a cat, and not a bad day to be a dog-walking blogger with plenty of papers to grade.

New mushroom

One happy result of being both a Buddhist and a nature nut is that both activities hinge on the same behavior. “Pay attention” is both a Zen motto and a sound bit of advice to any armchair naturalist. As Annie Dillard, another nature nut with spiritual proclivities, said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the natural world follows the principle of “now you don’t see it; now you do.” If a Buddhist isn’t paying attention, she’ll miss enlightenment; if an amateur naturalist isn’t paying attention, she’ll miss the owls, otters, and other surprises even a settled town like Keene has to offer.

Older mushroom

During this week’s stint of hot, humid weather, I’ve been walking Reggie along the Ashuelot River where he can wade in cool waters. On Tuesday, I snapped the above photo of a tight-capped mushroom sprouting in the shade of a short stump; by yesterday, that same mushroom had grown and opened literally overnight. Today, the flattened cap of this same mushroom had split nearly in two, looking quite the worse for two days’ of wear.

It wouldn’t surprise me if by tomorrow, this mushroom will be gone, eaten by a forest creature, smashed by a careless walker, or shriveled by the summer sun. As a Zen Buddhist, I know the opportunity for awakening can be equally transitory, popping up like a young mushroom, flourishing, and then fading in the spot of an instant. Are you paying attention to the Mushroom of your Mind, or are you letting it turn to Mush in the sleepy shade?