Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Upshot...

What, you might well ask, is a photo of filthy feet doing on a blog about life with dogs? If you've been reading about the mileage logged with Ella on our walkabout, you'll know those feet have covered a lot of miles. A lot of miles. What I may not have mentioned, and if I did it bears repeating, is that all those miles were done in Teva sandals. Every last mile of preparation for the journey, the journey itself, and afterwards until the frosts hit (and with a pair of socks, I extended it a few weeks beyond). They carried me over jagged crags and gentle meadows, waded refreshing brooks and slogged through quicksand-like quagmires. My mother always said, only half-jokingly, that she and Dad had been so poor they couldn't buy baby shoes for me, and by the time they could afford my first pair of shoes I could outrun long after most girls were in nylons and high heels, I was still running around barefoot. The Teva's are a concession to heel spurs and the vagaries of age...otherwise I might've been tempted to try the whole thing entirely shoeless.

The idea for freeing my feet from the bondage of shoes didn't stem from a sudden yearning for the good ol' days of childhood. I'd long-since acquiesced to the apparent necessity of specialized footwear for various functions; cross-trainers for off-road runs, sandals for summertime, thinsulate/gore-tex boots for winter, pumps, heels, riding boots, dance shoes, shoes for slacks, skirts....suffice it to say the over-stuffed nature of my closet is evidence that I like shoes. But Born to Run had planted concepts that were germinating, and I'd been wearing Teva's one hot summer day when I headed to the Delaware Water Gap to meet Jess, my daughter, for a hike. I'd thrown my boots in the car intending to put them on at the trailhead. Unfortunately, I forgot to also toss in socks. There's simply no way to wear boots without socks, so my choice was to bag the hike after driving an hour or to suck it up and try it in Teva's. I'm never one to turn away from a trailhead.

Wow. It was an instantaneous conversion. Jess had been trying to convince me that she was more sure-footed when wearing her Teva's on hikes, and I'd scoffed and continued to lecture her with the "you need ankle support on rocky terrain" b.s. that I'd absorbed and believed without question. Time for a big serving of crow. The girl was right. Not only did the Teva's have better traction on rocks, but my balance and dexterity was markedly improved. Because I could feel the terrain under my feet, the nerve-endings in the soles of my feet transmitted information to my brain about the substrate, resulting in instinctive compensation in how I moved; net result absolute certainty of foot placement and zero twisted ankles. Not to mention that my usual plantar fasciitis didn't flare in the least (and ultimately, after consistently walking in my Teva's, resolved completely on its own). It was nothing short of astounding.

That was in 2010. This year I started the season in Teva's, so doing my walkabout in them was never really a question. Sure, I hauled my Lowa hikers along, but I wore them twice and regretted it both times...shouldn't have bought into the locals' advice as to the rocky conditions -- nothing I encountered was more of an ankle-buster than conditions found in our favorite loops at the Delaware Water Gap.

Gradually I learned to trust my body, trust my judgment, trust my Self. Ella and I were alone, with utter freedom, minimal agenda, and no one to answer to. With Ella as example, I got down to the business of being wherever I was. It's raining? You still hike, and before long the rain is you is the rain...what's the difference? Being there, in the rain, or the sun, or the wind, whatever There had to offer, was all that mattered, all-consuming. Being There in my "uniform" of shorts, tank, and Teva's gave my body more contact with the elements, more contact with what's Real. The wind infused my very cells with life force carried from Madagascar or Burundi or Tibet, and swept stagnation away with each exhalation. The rain matted my hair and streaked my glasses and coursed my cheeks, joining the tears, sharing my grief, cleansing my soul. The sun strengthened my bones, rejuvenated my spirits, cradled my heart. Everything I needed was in my backpack or in the Elements around me.

Not quite everything. Companionship is an essential element, and Ella provided that and more. She was muse, and teacher, and friend. She encouraged, she insisted, she prodded, she nagged. She kept me going, she entertained, she inspired. Over the miles, our bodies flourished - I watched Ella morph from a soft housedog to a trail-hardy veteran with chiseled thighs and rippling shoulders. Little did I know, so had I.

During our weeks in the wilderness, my nearly-forgotten entry to the Steamtown Marathon had been bumped from wait-list to acceptance...but being sequestered from all things digital, I didn't know that until my return to civilization. A bit late to begin running, I'd nonetheless logged more than ample mileage to have the legs for the distance. The most I'd done in a day was about 22 miles, which correlated well with the recommendations for peaking a month before the race. My natural walking pace is about 4.2 mph, almost enough to complete the course within their time limit, so I figured if I tossed in a bit of jogging I'd make the cut-off. National Weather Service predicted a picture-perfect day, I'd have been out walking anyway, so what the hell, why not put in 26.2 miles? The only downside - no dogs allowed. Is it possible to walk that far without my canine partner?

As it happens, yes. If you take a good look at the photo above, you'll see the Steamtown race timer strapped to the sandals. I didn't quite meet the 6-hour limit, I'd slowed down to keep company with the oldest entrant in the race when he was complaining of feeling a bit faint, but for those few miles he inspired me...his first race entry was at age 76, if I remember correctly, and he'd done 25 marathons since then.

The physical and the emotional/psychological are conjoined; one cannot be extricated from the other. As I hike, I ruminate. In so doing, I've learned that I can handle adversity in ways that allow the struggle to shape me and hone my internal "muscles" right along with my physical ones. If I don't accept the lessons, if I resist the changes, the brittleness of that resistance will predispose me to break. I can keep getting stronger, or I can sit down and get old. I think I'll do more marathons.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


My sabbatical, or pilgrimage, or retreat, or rehab...whatever it was, it's been over for better than a month. That month has flown at triple-time -- catching up, negotiating the present reality, and chipping away at goals that must be dealt with in the near future for the sake of the longer-term. The internal balance I sought during my trip was tenuous at best, and is getting a real workout.

It's so unnerving and disorienting to be this groundless. To maintain any equilibrium, I turn more often to the dogs. Tonight, just flipping through the photos of Ella on the trip, I see the expression in her eyes as she looks over her shoulder at me from her vantage ahead on the trail, and I recall how that look urged me on over miles and miles of trail. I had no real impetus for continuing to move. Even surrounded by grandeur, immersed in the living, breathing wonder of wilderness, my heart didn't respond. But the zest in my dog's eyes prompted me forward, to keep pace with her, to follow her to trail's end. No real inspiration, just a desolate commitment to each step. I'm reminded of a line from a book I read to the kids when they were very small: One foot, then the other.

I've read a lot of Buddhist writings, especially lately. Just finished an anthology called Right Here With You, and previously Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart. I devour the words like a starving person, needful of the sustenance they provide, but immediately depleted when I set the book down and try to grapple with Here and Now. What do to with this being called Beth, whose life mate finds her unworthy of commitment?

I'm surprised and dismayed to realize the intensity of my dependency on the affirmation of others. Or is it not others, but a single other? Shouldn't I value me, trust me, care for me irrespective of his lack of commitment to our promises? It feels like weakness to want his eyes to mirror me as I wish he still saw me; instead they reflect a despised demoness. Must I be that, simply because it's what he sees? To avoid that incarnation, I'm told I must embrace this flawed, weak, wreck of a person, this impostor answering to my name, hold onto her until some semblance of self is restored. But how long must I feel empty and aching and unworthy and directionless?

Does Ella need affirmation? I think not. I had plenty of time to ponder as I dogged after her steady trot, mile after hundreds of miles. She is what she is, always. Aware, attuned. She doesn't know where we're going, but she knows where she is.

I can aspire to the same. I can commit to life as Ella sees it. All of it-- the rugged climbs, interminable descents, numbing cold, biting wind...they're the journey, but the journey is the process. It has its share of blessed moments -- the arc of a bird's flight, the glimpse of a pine marten, the dance of dozens of butterflies on larkspur, a jumble of sweet scents when merely breathing is to taste ambrosia. So long as Ella, or any other fully-present sentient being, will walk the path with me I can commit to this. I'm not ready to solo, but whether I want to or not I do realize that's how it is. We just persuade ourselves to believe otherwise.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Galadrielle vom hohlen Huegel

Being "in dogs" for nearly three decades, or a lifetime if you want to count all the years with dogs that had nothing to do with shows or titles or breeding, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to recount the anecdotes of heroism and humor and hilarity that these dogs have brought me and the hundreds of loving homes into which I've entrusted my puppies.

Today one of those folks paid a visit for the first time in many years, to become acquainted with the next generation of Hollow Hills' dogs. Her beloved Star v Hasenborn daughter, Gala, had passed away. Like her father before her, this was a dog who inspired superlatives. I have my own memories of Gala, who was born here and spent her first four years with me, but let me share the memorial that appeared in the Spring 2011 newsletter published by Southern Tier Hospice and Palliative Care:

"Remembering Gala
For many people, their dogs aren't just pets, they are members of the family. That's true here at Southern Tier Hospice and Palliative Care. It's not uncommon to run into a canine pal in the office hallway as they pay a visit and sniff out the people with the treats.

But some dogs are more than friends
, and that was true of Gala, a noble German Shepherd who died recently. Gala was our first therapy dog, working alongside her favorite person, retired hospice nurse Joni Pirrozolo. She visited patients and offered what dogs do best -- unconditional love.

Says Joni of Gala's work with patients, "It was just the medicine they needed, comfort and unconditional love."

While not all patients are interested in visits from a therapy dog, Gala brought many a smile to those who loved her. She made such an impact on Donna Mashanic of Horseheads that when Donna died, her family asked that Gala attend the funeral.

"I would get out of the car, and the family would ask, 'Where's Gala? You can't come in without her," Joni Said. Gala would go directly to Donna's room whenever they visited and gave both Donna and her family something on which to focus besides illness.

Gala also helped people talk about loss and express their grief, a difficult task that can be eased by stroking a loving companion."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Going The Distance

Since my August 1st departure from home, I've logged 5,784 car. In comparison, the foot mileage doesn't sound so impressive, but a conservative estimate puts it at 345 miles. That's official trail miles, not counting the various running around a person does in the course of a day. That averages out to just under 9 miles per hike, after accounting for the many days that were spent behind the wheel when no hiking took place.

I'd hoped to do better. I'd hoped to do much more than that, and not just in mileage. Originally, as I imagined a glistening necklace of days stretching forward into the fall, I anticipated time to indulge myself with visits to museums, sidetrips to quaint villages, perhaps sketching pets or passersby in a park. As I gathered the links of that necklace, however, it was all I could do to find trailheads, navigate the terrain, set up my tent, feed myself and the dog, and perhaps jot a few notes on the laptop (if I'd had opportunity to charge it) before crawling into (or onto, depending on the temperatures) the sleeping bag to recharge the biological batteries.

Each change of venue, each footstep along the trail, at first required Herculean effort to accomplish. Not because I was out of shape like Ella (poor girl, she had her struggles, too); I came to the trip well-prepared physically. My biggest hurdles were internal.

Leaving home almost didn't happen. The pear trees were laden and nearly ripe. The apples were blushing with promise. The garden literally bursting beyond its boundaries with produce. Katydid and cicada choruses announced the height of summer, the glorious pinnacle of the year. Why leave now, of all times? For practical reasons...caretakers for the animals aren't easy to come by, and their schedule dictated my own. So, it was now or never, and as the sun bronzed my skin on that last afternoon while pondering my options on my porch steps, I was ready to opt for never. I was too old. It was too self-indulgent. I was asking too much of my son (the primary critter caretaker). I'd miss out on favorite seasonal rites, the fairs and festivals of August.

But I'd done all that. What I hadn't done, needed to do, was find a way forward. Whether that path would lead back to NEPA (NorthEast PA) or to parts unknown, didn't matter...I couldn't predict, I had to discover. So, with sorrow and considerable trepidation, we hit the trail, Ella and I. Initially I didn't know where each next step would land until I felt it hit the earth.

The first necessity for planning my future, I soon learned, was to let go of any delusion of knowing what each next moment held for me. To be balanced in the Now, one can't be constantly pushing forward into Then. As each footfall in the Now became a link along that necklace of possibility, the succession of footfalls did indeed approach the goals I'd labeled Clarity, Closure and Compassion. Not immediately. Not even quickly. And not yet completely.

Still, I find that each Now is more readily appreciable, more available for the effort of growth and change, than it had been before logging those 435 miles. It wasn't the mileage that was exhausting, it was the struggle to overcome my clinging to the past, the invisible effort of waking up and of maintaining that awareness of and vulnerability to the pain and beauty of being Alive. Dazed, clueless, single, and often lost, but alive to the experience and possibility of each new moment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Like any worthwhile experience, this sabbatical has already wrought changes that will take time to fully realize. The purpose in undertaking the trip was multi-focal, which made it both easier to claim success and harder to attain fulfillment. Clarity, closure, and compassion were the original Three C's guiding the overall format, to which I added confidence, capability and innumerable other vague descriptors that I thought sounded worthy.

And just in case I hadn't set my sites broadly enough, I wanted to investigate places with an eye towards relocating, which meant checking into realty prices and opportunities for employment. I wanted to challenge myself physically and end up in the best shape of my life (with an eye towards making it from the wait list to the participate in the Steamtown marathon). I wanted to challenge my character and grit so as to come home ready to face and grapple with choices and realities that have been overwhelming me. And I thought I really wouldn't mind if somewhere, somehow, someone swept me off my feet. I hoped the experiences along the way would coalesce into a great book idea. And I wanted to accomplish all this without any firm direction or commitment of where to be or when to be there. I had no absolute requirements but that it had to involve as much time as possible in the wilderness.

And so it has, punctuated by pit-stops with family and friends both old and new-found. Spontaneity has never been my strong suite, but by not having firm travel plans, I've had ample opportunity to "go with the flow." Since rigidity and control are issues of mine, I wrangled with myself every time an unanticipated opportunity presented itself. Thus I discovered that I can couch-surf with the best of them, and in so doing learned that coming out of the wilderness and into the glow of artificial lighting can delight the soul with gratitude for the pleasure of a bath, clean skin, a warm meal. The generosity of strangers has blown me away. Forest rangers engaged in work projects took time to describe fabulous trails and detailed descriptions of routes. A woman with her Malamute and Husky, after sharing a couple of hours with me on a trail in the Tetons, invited me to help myself to her home even though she wouldn't be there. Then after learning a bit about my personal situation, went further to invite other friends to join us, providing me with an evening of camaraderie and commiseration.

And what of Miss Ella, the Chosen One from among the Hollow Hills gang? Little Ella was not in the best of shape starting out, as outlined in the previous blog. But she has by necessity become more fit and now finds herself with enough extra energy to give chase to the myriad chipmunks and red squirrels that tease and torment her. Previously she just dogged-it at my heels or made half-hearted lunges at the more audacious creatures that leaped belatedly to safety. Her endurance has grown, but it's her attitude that has commanded my notice. That will require a separate entry, and may end up being the focal point for my book...since my own journey is about acceptance of loss, acceptance of life, who better than a dog to guide me on how to just Be?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On the Trail

Over the past few months I can't claim to have been blogging frequently enough to qualify even as intermittently. I'm hopeful that my current circumstances may contribute to more regularity, given that I've set a few (very few) goals for myself for the next six weeks, and one of those is a daily commitment to writing. Then again, since the other goals involve hiking and backpacking, my access to things in the wired-world are minimal at best...which obviously makes blog entries tricky.

Thunderstorms drove me to a hotel so I'm surrounded by the trappings of civilization for the first time in a week, which is how I happen to have the luxury of internet access...and a bed, and running water, and soap and electricity.... That's in contrast to a one-man tent occupied by myself and a German Shepherd, surrounded only by the sounds of crickets and owls.

Let me back up. For the past week I've been hiking in the Monongahela wilderness in West Virginia. This is just a starting point, but I plan to be on the road for six to eight weeks...I'm calling it a sabbatical, or a pilgrimage; it doesn't really qualify as vacation, but hopefully it'll be restorative, or transformative. The idea is to log as many miles as I can in other national forests and various backroads and byways and small towns, and to write...and write, and write. Maybe with a little luck a book will take shape.

The car is so full of gear that there's only room for one dog, so after much angst I chose Ella as my traveling buddy. She's eight years old and hasn't had the physical conditioning she should have for a trip like this, but I picked her specifically because she's my peer or perhaps a tad older, chronologically speaking (that's in dog years)and I wanted to demonstrate to myself how gracefully a dog of my years can handle herself under the stresses of the road and trail. Not to mention she's my most reliable personal protection dog, and when a woman travels alone it's always reassuring to know your partner will provide not just companionship but protection if it's called for.

So far we've averaged a ten mile hike a day on foot (quite a bit more by car), but I want to increase that steadily. We did a fifteen-miler one day and Ella was a tad cranky by the end, lifting her lip at an overly-friendly Lab mix we met on the trail and clicking her teeth at an English setter whose only offense was a gentle sweep of her feathery tail (the setter in question had originated from DeCoverly, just up the road from Hollow Hills!).

In spite of the fully-loaded car, it appears that I left home without the cable that allows me to upload photos from my camera to my laptop, so you'll have to use your imagination to "see" the photos that I meant to accompany this post--they show Ella in eye-popping mountain scenery...more precisely you can imagine pictures of Ella's tail-end as she leads me up yet another trail, onward to scenes and experiences that I hope will renew us both.

Perhaps we're past our prime, but by the time we're through we'll be stronger than ever.

Friday, July 8, 2011


It's a bit late for honoring Independence Day, but since I missed Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, and every other day in between my last post and this, I'm hoping I'll be forgiven for being a few days late with this lovely photo of Geni. Geni has practically become the poster-girl for Instinctive Impressions, and I found this portrait particularly stunning...a GSD in her full, radiant maturity. So we'll let her represent Summer in all its glory.

"Hey, love your blog." "When are you posting a new blog?" "We've got to get you blogging again." I've heard these and dozens of similar comments these past few months. Finally, here's an evening when I intend to break the grip of inertia.

Intentions...funny things, those. Some days' events force me to wonder why I bother planning or scheduling at all. One thing goes awry and the domino effect crashes every other intended activity for the day. All that careful choreography goes right out the window. Sometimes the forces blowing you off-course have been in effect for a long time, years perhaps, all the while you somehow avoid seeing that your ship has been careening towards the rocky shoreline all along. I'm still regaining consciousness from just such a crash-landing. Bruised, battered, bewildered, but on my feet again.

But on this particular Friday I had occasion to ponder the illusion of control that we like to believe our personal decisions make in our own lives. I'd made a simple plan, merely intending (see how insidious it is?) to drive to New Bloomfield to visit Ieuan and Uma, who are in training for their schutzhund titles with friends of mine at Muddy River K-9. I miss them both but Ieuan desperately, he having been my hiking buddy for the past nearly three years since he was past puppyhood. So, with arrangements made for care of the rest of the crew, I was set to make the 5.5 hour round trip, planning (there's that word again) to take Ieaun hiking at Little Buffalo State Park and generally spend time renewing our bond.

That was before I looked at the weather map. An entire week of sheer summertime perfection behind us, with a lovely weekend predicted...but the one day I planned (sigh) to spend with my beloved Ieaun, and Mother Nature had other plans...severe thunderstorms coinciding exactly with the time frame set aside for the trip. Since the intention (!) was to be outdoors, suddenly the plan (I give up) needed revision.

Revision in this case meant bagging it, with hopes to reschedule again soon before my dogs forget me entirely. With an entire day suddenly opened up before me, and the predicted storm not yet descended upon Northeastern PA, I leashed Ieuan's half-sis Ember, threw on walking shoes and headed for the hills with no particular deadline and no particular destination, only a vague goal of keeping my face to the sun until it was obscured behind the encroaching storm clouds.

Today's ruined plans, like the shattered shell of an egg, had released the golden possibilities within. Back in May my daughter and I and a friend walked the West Highland Way in Scotland...after conditioning to walk fifteen to twenty miles a day, it's been hard since then to find satisfaction in the abbreviated walks that time typically allows...six to eight miles may not sound short, but for bodies conditioned for more, it's frustrating. So a few miles along our usual route I guided Ember up a side road, on the impulse that the sun would hit me more squarely in that direction. A mile or so later a path lead off to the left, following a pipeline right-of-way steeply uphill....the broad brambly way finally reached a saddle at the base of a larger mountain, from which I could see the infinite slash of the right-of-way cutting an unbending line through forests and over hills beyond. But to the left a narrower logging trail beckoned upwards again, into the forest. I couldn't resist, and Ember was handling the heat well, so we left the sunshine for the woods.

The track was made by motorized vehicles, with nary a bend or switch-back, and given the steepness of the grade I found myself grabbing a sapling for balance whenever I stopped to catch my breath. As we climbed, the track became a foot path which deteriorated to a barely-discernible deer trail, and still we climbed. By now vague memories were flashing across my mind of a climb done fifteen years or so ago with the more with instinct than conscious thought, I chose lefts and rights as the paths branched, ultimately emerging onto a rocky plateau known locally as Bald Mountain.

About then the trainer texted, saying I'd made a wise choice since they were anticipating 4" of rain. Another friend texted to say it was pouring in NJ. There I was, drying my sweaty self on a sun-warmed boulder atop a peak that gave me a 360 degree vista of the most gorgeous landscape imaginable, with no where to be but here, no requirements but to enjoy the moment, with a happy dog licking water from pockets in the rocks and grinning her appreciation of the outing. Plans? Who needs plans when simply being is everything?

We make our plans, we may even take the appropriate actions to see those plans through, and we expect things to turn out as we imagined...the fairy-tale fueled imaginings of our childhoods. But one thing, one unforeseen or misinterpreted happenstance, can deconstruct our world. The trick, then, is to recognize the value in the bits and pieces revealed in the deconstruction process, the raw elements of potential joy.

A friend sent me this tonight from an album titled (I think) Plans, and though not exactly derived from the same thought process, I thought I'd include it:

"What Sarah Said"
-- Death Cab for Cutie

And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time
As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of piss and 409
And I rationed my breaths as I said to myself that I'd already taken too much today
As each descending peak of the LCD took you a little farther away from me

Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines in a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds
But I knew that you were a truth I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself

'Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads
But I'm thinking of what Sarah said that "Love is watching someone die"

So who's going to watch you die?..

In explaining the theme of the album, Ben Gibbard said the following:
I don't think there's necessarily a story, but there's definitely a theme here. One of my favorite kind of dark jokes is, 'How do you make God laugh? You make a plan.' Nobody ever makes a plan that they're gonna go out and get hit by a car. A plan almost always has a happy ending. Essentially, every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time. I really like the idea of a plan not being seen as having definite outcomes, but more like little wishes.