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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.

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.

Clear bottom

When I saw yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Surfaces, I immediately thought of water. On Thursday night in my “Rivers & Literary Imagination” class, we discussed the way water works metaphorically in Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers. Thoreau is fascinated with the tension between a river’s surface and its depths, and he is obsessed with the way water is both transparent and reflective. In all his works, Thoreau shows a penchant for puns, and A Week is no different: when Thoreau uses words such as “reflection” and “depth,” he implies these words’ figurative as well as literal meanings, and he repeatedly puns on the word “current,” referring both to the flow of a river and the Present Moment in the flow of time.

Fluid or frozen?

Time can’t be frozen, but water can, and the Current of Time can be freeze-framed through a camera’s transparent lens. I shot the photo at the top of today’s post in August of 2007, while walking (and wading with) Reggie at Goose Pond in Keene, and the rest of today’s images come from December of 2006, when my fascination with the surface tension, reflections, and textures of freezing water influenced several blog posts. I can’t fish December, 2006 or August, 2007 from the depths of time, but I can rely upon these photos and blog posts to remind me of what was Current then. The images I sketched resonate with what was going on in my life at the time, and they provide a surface through with I can see, via the eye of memory, the depths which lay beneath.

Reflecting

In December of 2006, I’d just stuck a tentative toe into the waters of online dating, and I was left cold by its superficiality. The image of a religious icon might serve as a window into a deeper, more spiritual realm, but when your own self is reduced to a clickable thumbnail displayed alongside other lonely-hearts, it’s hard to believe anyone will see through the skin-thin veil of appearance to perceive the depths of personality lurking below.

Interstices

I first clicked on J in January, 2007, and what attracted my scanning eye wasn’t his photo but the wry humor of his profile itself: in a sea of online romantics all claiming to enjoy sunset walks along the beach, J’s profile was the only one that made me laugh by making fun of the absurdity of so many people all trying to stand out by sounding exactly the same. When I emailed J to tell him I was grateful for a spot of humor to enliven an otherwise demoralizing activity, I wasn’t intending to flirt; having already given up hope that online dating could ever work for me, all I wanted was to share a laugh with another drowning soul.

Filmy

That first email was a great way, I realize now, of breaking the ice: instead of starting with the usual online pick-up lines and virtual winks, J’s and my relationship began with a shared laugh. Ultimately–countless emails and three years of laughter later–it didn’t much matter what either of us looked like in our clickable profile-pictures: what made our relationship click was a quirky sense of humor that continues to the present. J made me laugh when I first met him in January, 2007, and he still makes me laugh now. Under the surface of a frigid February, I can look through the water of time to see a pattern that is still current.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Surfaces. You can click here to see my photo-set of “Frozen reflections,” shot at Goose Pond in December, 2006.

Reggie wades

Now that it’s already August and the dog days of summer are here, I took Reggie for a walk and swim at Goose Pond on Tuesday afternoon after I’d taught my morning summer school class. This is the last week of the summer term at Keene State, which means in a few weeks my students and I will be headed back to school for the fall term. These days, time seems as slippery and elusive as a wet dog.

If you don’t believe me when I say it’s only a few weeks until fall, don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to the mute testimony of the season’s first changed and fallen leaf.

First changed & fallen leaf

Click here for a brief photo-set from Tuesday’s hike at Goose Pond. Enjoy!

Dog paddling

On hot summer days, I get almost as much satisfaction watching Reggie wade at Goose Pond as I get illicitly swimming there myself.

This summer I haven’t been walking Reggie as much at Goose Pond as I normally do, and I myself haven’t been swimming there at all. In June, I spent too much time away from Keene–first in Provincetown, next in Spartanburg, and then in Atlanta–to spend much time cooling my heels, and in July I was too busy teaching summer school and being geographically bipolar. On Tuesday, Reggie and I went walking at Goose Pond for the first time in nearly a month, and it felt a bit like coming home to a place you’d almost, sadly, forgotten about.

Dog paddling

Every time I go to Goose Pond in the summertime, I find it incredibly calming to watch the dog go wading. Even if I don’t get my feet wet, it is soothing to imagine the kiss of water on hot skin underneath a thick, perpetually shedding fur coat. After wading, Reggie comes home to leave dark, doggy-shaped wet spots on the hardwood floor: the smudge-print of a happy, chilled out dog. Although doggy wet-spots don’t make for Good Housekeeping, it makes me feel good to imagine Reggie sleeping off a long hike, lots of deep-woods sniffing, and the blissful sensation of cool water. What’s good for the dog, I like to think, is good for my dog-loving soul.

Reggie wades

On Tuesday, I forgot to wear a swimsuit under my clothes, and Goose Pond is too popular with dog-walkers, hikers, and other swimmers for me to consider skinny-dipping. So taking a cue from Reggie, all I did on Tuesday was go wading, rolling the bottoms on my capri pants so I could walk up to my knees in cool, clear water that sparkled with reflections of the midday sun.

Clear bottom

On a week when Leslee was disappointed to find Walden Pond closed to swimmers because of elevated bacteria levels, Goose Pond was quiet and pristine, the only ripples emanating from my quiet shore being the ones stirred by my own toes.

Wading ripples

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Wet.

Cabbage butterfly on goldenrod

It’s been three years since I announced a week of blog-silence: my response to my then-husband’s moving out, the first step to our eventual divorce. In the immediate aftermath of our separation, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about a decision that the two of us had discussed to the point of madness; contemplating the next-step called divorce, the last thing I wanted to do three years ago was talk to virtual strangers about the failure of my marriage.

Reddening witch hazel

It’s been three years, now, that I’ve lived on my own: three years that I’ve survived being separated and then divorced. Although I don’t believe there is a strict time-line for heartache, three years seems nicely symbolic to me. If I can (and have) survived three years on my own, I tell myself, there’s nothing I can’t survive. One of the things that kept me in a marriage that had in many ways already died was an insecurity about living on my own: having married straight out of college, I’d never lived without a parent, college scholarship, or spouse to support me. When I was an under-employed graduate student married to a software engineer with a “real job,” I was terrified that I’d never be able to feed, shelter, and otherwise support myself on an adjunct instructor’s salary. It wasn’t until my ex-husband left that I discovered I’m much more resilient than I’d ever imagined.

Goldenrod

Three years later, I still feel a thrill of self-reliant satisfaction whenever I pay bills with money I myself have earned; three years later, I still feel that weathering divorce is the most significant, character-forming experience I’ve ever had. Going to grad school taught me how to be a scholar; finishing a PhD taught me how to keep chip, chip, chipping at a task that seemed impossibly daunting when I started. But had I never divorced, I would never have known how strong I can be when tested. Marriage taught me about the art of compromise and the delicate dance of argument, but it wasn’t until my ex-husband left that I learned how strong a solitary soul can be. In the aftermath of divorce, I’ve learned how to pay my own way, make my own decisions, and face my own consequences. After surviving the aftershock of admitting the failure of the longest, most serious relationship I’ve ever attempted, I’m learning the most valuable lesson of all: self-forgiveness.

Leaf & bud

Earlier this week, while talking to a friend who’s divorce is fresher than mine, I found myself listing the positive gifts I gleaned from almost-thirteen years of marriage. If I hadn’t married, I would have never started practicing Zen, moved to New England, moved into a Zen Center, or briefly owned a house. If I hadn’t married, I’d probably have never finished graduate school, driven several times across the country, started a blog, or briefly led a Zen Group. It’s not that I’m incapable of achieving these things on my own–if nothing else, the past three years have taught me that there’s nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it. But having been married, I was pushed to do things I probably wouldn’t have envisioned doing on my own. Having been married, I left the predictable world of life back in Ohio and did things the rest of my family would never have dreamed I’d do.

It’s easy to look back on past mistakes and wish you’d never made them: had I known at age 21 what I know now, would I have gotten married? That answer is impossible to know. What I do know, though, is that I’m happy now for what I went through then. At the time as I was muddling my way through a marriage that never quite fit, I couldn’t detect anything remotely resembling a plan. Now in retrospect, I don’t see a plan, but I do see Providence. By fate, chance, or grace, the places I’ve been, people I’ve known, and things I’ve done have brought me to this exact spot, and three years after separation, this exact spots feels just right.

Blueberries

On Tuesday morning, I walked Reggie at Goose Pond, a soothing place I’ve walked countless times over the past four years, both before and after my separation. As much as the particulars of my personal life have changed, it’s good to know that water, trees, and stone remain the same, the blueberries that are beginning to ripen this year tasting the same as they always do. I suppose the beginning of August is as good a time as any to start a new life, the separation between Then and Now ripening along with late summer berries, flowering fields, and the first reddening leaves of almost-autumn. If any day can be the beginning of a self-reliant life, why not begin afresh when Nature is at the height of her lush and fecund glory?

Goldenrods

Skoal on post

What do you do while waiting in line at the bank’s drive-up window? Since I never know when I’ll spot something interesting, unusual, or simply odd, I carry my camera with me everywhere, which allows me to snap a quick shot of someone’s abandoned chewing tobacco can on a painted pole. I guess while other folks wait at the bank, they listen to the radio or chat on their cell phones?

Do Not Enter

Today is hot and humid here in New Hampshire, so I tackled today’s list of to-do’s (two loads of laundry, trips to the post office and bank, and the usual dog-walk) before noon, while the heat was still bearable. Now I’m holed away in my apartment with the shades drawn and window fans off: on days when it’s hotter outside than in, I find it’s better to keep the cool air in than trying to circulate hot air from outside. Today’s the kind of day when taking an illicit swim at Goose Pond is completely justified, as is having popsicles for lunch or ice cream for dinner. Whatever keeps you cool is cool, I say. Maybe after the sun goes down, Reggie and I will venture back outside for some fresh air, but in the meantime, we’re lying low here at home. In lieu of taking a dip, taking it easy will have to suffice.

Painted turtle

It says something about how rushed, busy, and unlike a turtle my life has been that I’ve not gone walking with Reggie at Goose Pond since early May. Early May is when the black flies emerge, so it makes sense that I’d avoid the woods during their roughly month-long feeding frenzy. But what happened to the month of June? Between the ASLE conference in Spartanburg and my Red Sox getaway to Atlanta, I was in the air more than on the ground during much of June, it seems.

The second session of summer school started at Keene State last week; at SNHU Online, a new teaching term started yesterday. Teaching two classes–one in-the-flesh, the other online–means I’ll be in New England, mostly, for the months of July and August, reconnecting with Goose Pond and other promising dog-haunts. It seems strange to say that going back to work is allowing me a much-needed rest, but this seems to be the case. Now that I’m home and on a regular teaching schedule–now that I’m back to oatmeal in the morning and dog-walks in the afternoon–I’m rediscovering the luxury of pupating, reconnecting with my Inner Homebody.

Turtles carry their homes with them wherever they go, and they don’t roam far. If you had a place like Goose Pond as your backyard, why would you need to wander?

Intermittent showers

Yesterday I submitted spring semester grades about an hour before they were due, then I darted off to campus for two back-to-back commitments. When I got home in the afternoon, I had just enough energy to take Reggie for a short walk before collapsing on the couch for the requisite End-of-Term Mega-Nap: a drowsy form of cerebral de-tox in which all of the papers and exams I’ve graded over the past week and a half came oozing out of my ears, it seemed, as I sawed logs.

I’m feeling much better today after a good night’s rest and an early morning stroll at Goose Pond, where the sights are perfectly conducive for cerebral detoxification.

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.