In a humdrum


Bug

Now that summer is here, Toivo and I have a new routine. After I’ve finished my morning chores, we take a short walk, then we sit on the patio while I read and write my daily journal pages. We started this ritual earlier in the summer, when Toivo couldn’t walk fast or far. J suggested that being outside surrounded by new sounds and smells would be good for Toivo’s spirits while she recovers, and he was right.

Dragonfly and day lily

We call these days when Toivo and I sit on the patio our “beach days.” I pack a bag with a book and notebook for me and water and snacks for us both, and we sit in the shade until the day gets hot. We sit outside for the sensory stimulation a summer day brings: Toivo hearkens to every smell, and I follow every flash of motion. We both are all ears, but we are attuned to different things. My ears perk to the smallest bird sound, like the chirp of a house sparrow in the neighbor’s hedge, while Toivo sits alert and expectant, waiting for the smallest sound from any of our neighbors’ dogs.

All eyes

At first, Toivo was restless and whiny on beach days, tangling her lead while pacing the patio, unsure why we were sitting outside doing nothing rather than walking. But now, she’s come to see our time outside as another everyday routine, my accustomed spot at our patio table no different from my place at my indoor desk. In summer, the size of our house expands, the yard and patio being an extra room without walls whose roof is the summer sky. If it weren’t for the dog, I’d forget to venture out, having grown too accustomed to long winter hours at my desk, still tethered long after my lead has rotted away.

Yellow taxi birdhouse

Today something remarkable happened on Toivo’s morning dog-walk: my mind wandered. We’re still limited to short and slow walks in deference to Toivo’s injured leg, so by “walk” I mean a leisurely stroll past two neighboring houses, where the mouth of a woodsy trail gives Toivo a place to pee and poop on pine needles before turning around and walking back home. It’s the shortest outing you can take while still using the word “walk.”

Columbine

This morning after we’d walked two doors down to the mouth of the woodsy trail, as Toivo was nosing and sniffing through the drizzle-dampened undergrowth, my mind wandered. After months of spending every minute of every walk fretting over Toivio’s feet–is she putting weight on her injured leg, is she limping, is she panting or showing other signs of discomfort or distress?–I let my thoughts fall away while listening to the umbrella-patter of raindrops sifted through leaves. For the first time in months, my dog-walking consciousness was as free and unfettered as an unleashed hound wandering wherever she pleased.

Abundance

This is how Toivo and I used to walk, before her impairment. Toivo would sniff and wander on her end of the leash, and I would dally and daydream on mine. This is how Toivo and I used to walk before early March, when she first showed signs of lameness: back when we blithely took for granted the luxury of an able body.

Bleeding hearts

This past weekend, after finally getting a diagnosis and treatment plan for the mobility issues Toivo has had since March, I drove to western Massachusetts to visit A (not her real initial). It was a welcome break from my usual routine, and a chance to debrief after a particularly stressful semester.

Raindropped

A and I spent the weekend taking scenic drives, looking at art, and staying up late drinking wine, playing dominoes, and having the kind of conversations that happen best in person, not via text or email. On Sunday, A and I drove to North Adams, where we went to Mass MoCA, took a labyrinth walk, then visited Rabbi Rachel for yet more wine and conversation.

This past semester was particularly stressful in part because I had to keep my head down during most of it: as I scrambled to keep my plates spinning, I didn’t have much time to write, visit friends, go to the Zen Center, or engage in other acts of Mental Health Maintenance. Visiting A for the weekend and Rabbi Rachel for the afternoon was wonderfully restorative: like returning to sing a favorite song exactly where you’d left off.

Beginning and end

The past month or so has been crazy. Days after we put Bobbi to sleep, J left for a two-week business trip, leaving me to tend the house and pets during the busiest time of the semester…and while J was gone, Toivo spent an unplanned week at the Angell Animal Medical Center being treated for a massive abscess in one of her hind legs. Toivo’s been home for a week, J’s been home a little more than that, and today I submitted the first of two batches of final grades: not yet the end of my semester, but another step closer.

Hairpin turns

This past month or so has felt like a marathon with an ever-shifting finish line. Weeks ago while J was out of town, one of our neighbors invited me to an Easter gathering at her house, and I begged out, choosing to focus on my chores and paper piles instead. I finished those chores and those papers, but others appeared in their place: this is, after all, the nature of both housework and paper-grading. Every time I see our neighbor, she asks whether I’m done grading, and every time, I say the same thing: not yet, not yet. It’s not that I’m not making progress; it’s that there always is more.

For good or ill, this is what it’s like to teach college composition at multiple institutions: as soon as you finish reading one batch of papers, there’s another coming in. I’ve come to see my workload as being like the tide: first one wave, then the next, then the next.

Turns

Today when I submitted final grades for my classes at Babson College, I took a minute to breathe a sigh of relief…and then I wrote an updated to-do list with the final papers and projects my Framingham State students are submitting today and Thursday. My final Framingham State grades are due next Monday, and that is when I can gratefully collapse into an exhausted heap of relief. Until then, I keep my head down and count every item crossed off my list as another step closer to done.

I took these photos of the memorial labyrinth at Boston College weeks ago, after J had left for his business trip and before Toivo’s unplanned stint at Angell. It was a pretty day when I felt like I had my life and to-do list under control, and then things took a proverbial turn.

Rainy Foosball table

One sad side-effect of living an academic life is this: the two times of year when I want to be outside the most, I am burdened with obligations that keep me at my desk. Fall semester gets busy right as the leaves are changing and the air turns brisk, and Spring semester heats up right as the days lengthen and the weather turns mild.

Rainy Foosball players

The past few weeks have been a blur of vet visits and other obligations. Toivo continues to have mobility issues; after several weeks of rest and anti-inflammatory medication, she still has creaky hips that interfere with walking and standing, so we’re going back to the vet this week after initial x-rays were inconclusive.

And after gradually losing weight for the past month or so, Bobbi the cat had a hypoglycemic episode several weeks ago that resulted in two separate days-long stints in the veterinary ER. We brought Bobbi home (again) on Friday night with a bag of medications and special food that J purees then administers through an esophagostomy tube: a crash course on how to keep a diabetic cat alive even when she refuses to eat.

Now that it’s (sometimes) warm enough for sandals and shorts, all I want to do is be outside, walking. But Toivo’s creaky hips have shortened our daily dog-walks to several slow strolls to the end of the driveway and back, and my grading piles and pet chores don’t leave me time to go much farther on my own. As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Witch hazel

Today has been a day of small victories. The sun was out for most of the day, so the snow piles are slowly shrinking. I heard a Carolina wren singing in the morning, saw the red-bellied woodpecker in his accustomed spot on a dead snag down the street, and photographed the witch hazel that’s been blooming for weeks in a neighbor’s yard.

Listing snowman.

This afternoon I spent too much time unpacking boxes and putting things away–this is the week when our monthly bulk orders of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities arrive–but I got the trash and recycling out to the curb for tomorrow’s collection, I’ve prepared my classes for tomorrow, and the pets are fed and the refrigerator is stocked. I graded fewer papers than I’d hoped today, but I made some progress with my paper-piles, and that itself is progress.

Is that a nest hole you're excavating, Mr. Woodpecker?

In March, teaching becomes a game of Drop the Ball: you’ve long given up your naive hopes of juggling everything, so you constantly assess which obligations can drop without shattering and which might actually bounce. This morning while walking the dog, I slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk mere yards from where I’d slipped and fell on hard-packed snow a few weeks ago. My ego was injured both times, but today I didn’t bruise: success!

Headless snowman

In March, you downgrade your definition of bliss: instead of holding out hopes for heaven, you content yourself with those scattered, spare moments when simply strolling down a clean, sunny sidewalk with solid footing and dry feet passes as perfection. I’m slowly reading a book by Anne Lamott called Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, which I’d gleaned from our neighborhood Little Free Library. I read a chapter here and there when I have time, which means the book mostly sits on my desk, waiting. Some days simply getting to the end of the day with one’s hair still rooted in place feels like a minor miracle.

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