Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Northeastern Regional Vice-Siegerin V Brianne vom hohlen Huegel, SchH 1, Kkl 1 Lbz 'a'
July 18, 2003 - May 20, 2013

Everyone handles it differently. Some swear off pets, some quickly buy a "replacement," some grieve deeply and take years to feel ready for another, some block or otherwise avoid processing the emotional aftermath of a companion's loss. I suppose procrastination applies to emotions as well as to actions, and in my case I think that lands me fairly squarely in the "avoider" column. Star, Gwydion, Sierra, Celti, Ginny, Jessie and so many others...gone years or decades. Brianne joined them four weeks ago, and her nobility and graciousness of spirit importune me to overcome my avoidance, to face and feel this loss. This is not a dog whose passing should go unremarked.

And yet... And yet, there is nothing, really, to be said. Those who have loved and been loved by a dog know the deep, rending pain of their absence. Of looking for those brown eyes in the familiar places, of glancing, seconds after having just done so, at the bean bag bed, expecting, yet again, to see the eyebrows raise and the tail thump in acknowledgement of our bond. Of grabbing the leash and, though (in my case) a half dozen others may leap and frolic and chortle, of listening in vain for a certain joyous yelp that always drowned out the others. It does not matter how many others vie for my attention, anxious to join me on car rides and hikes. Each interaction is cherished, but they are not Brianne.

Brianne, the epitome of female strength and assurance. Tolerant and wise mother, fierce protector, sane and reliable ambassador to children, uncanny in her ministrations of teeth or tongue as the situation warranted. Brianne, largest of my girls, who I presciently brought along on an emergency trip to the vet clinic together with a kennel mate who ended up needing a transfusion...without hesitation she hopped calmly on the exam table, and in response to my request she raised her head for the vet to find her jugular, never flinching as a brilliant crimson stream pulsed into a bottle. She did not question, had no expectation of reward. She trusted me, sure that no harm would befall her in complying with my direction. Her zest for living was transcendent, buoying up anyone with whom she had interactions, and in her kennel mate's case, literally life-saving.

And as that zest subsided over the past year I procrastinated, making a false trip to the vet months ago, bringing her back home with the stubborn rationalization that the spark in her eye and her alertness justified the indignities of her condition. Finally, though, even a practiced procrastinator could no longer postpone the decision I hoped would not be mine. Her bark, once a roar, was a bare whisper. She who would play tug and fetch all day couldn't even help me help her outside. She felt shame over loss of body function, in spite of my attempts to assure her. And true to her character, ultimately it was she who would assure me. Lying once again on the exam table, this time after being stretchered in, those clear, all-knowing eyes never wavered from mine as the vet found a vein in her hind leg, and while every fiber of my being screamed there's more time, she bathed my chin and cheeks in moist velvet, a caress of love and trust of which I shall ever aspire to be worthy.

Brianne's legacy may, finally, be my key to letting go of the past. Living here and now, aware that there is never more time, there is only this time. And living it, as she always did, to the full measure of each moment. Beim Spielen sein, my friend Brianne.

Friday, May 3, 2013

V Elatha vom hohlen Huegel, SchH 2, Kkl 1 'a'

Much as a dear old friend's face still reflects in their friends' eyes with overtones of the person from years ago, their youthfully sparkling eyes and impish grin more apparent to your eyes than the wrinkles, bulges, and bags that evince the ravages of time, so, too, does my dog Ella still, to my eyes, look like the vigorous partner she's always been. Yet, there's no denying that's no pup in the photo. Wise, certainly, and with a self-possessed contentment, but gray, scarred, and unmistakably tired. Denial is a powerful psychological tool, and I've been wielding it with gusto. I haven't entirely accepted Star's departure, now gone five years, or Stano's, gone last year, and I'm going to be losing Brianne soon...so, Ella, dear one, is burdened with my not-entirely unconscious wish for her immortality. Unfortunately, that means my expectations of her are more appropriately heaped on a much younger dog.

(Perhaps there's a pattern here...what do I ask of myself? So why should I treat the dog any differently?)

Several people have mentioned recently that they've looked in vain back through the archives of this blog to find more detailed stories about Ella's and my adventures on the "walk-about." They've requested details about specific hikes, how-to's on solo hiking, backpacking with dogs, and the like. I'm quite happy to delve back in, having refrained out of the sense that it's all "old news." So I'll segue to a series of hiking stories by way of closing the circle on my opening comments via a recap of a more recent hike.

I've entered the Keystone Trail Association's "Super Hike", as well as a Steamtown redoux, events looming large on my personal horizon this September and October. To prep for those goals, I've been logging more miles than usual, and of course Ella's along for a lot of them. Admittedly, she's not getting the consistent exercise she did before Ieuan came home. When I do road workouts I generally take Ieuan, because Ella and I both prefer it when she can be off leash, so she gets outings mainly when I'm doing woodland trails. Which means she's become a bit of a weekend warrior, lounging about in the backyard or the kitchen on weekdays, slogging the trails over hill and dale on the weekends.

Sundays have become the "big mileage" days, mostly because the past several Sundays have been gloriously sunny, providing a welcome excuse to head for the hills, literally. Three Sundays ago our destination was Harriman State Park, where we did somewhat under fourteen miles; two Sundays ago we stepped it up a notch and headed to Catskills State Park, where we took on a more challenging route along the Escarpment Trail from North Lake to Blackhead Mountain. Ella and Ieuan came along on both outings, and although I'm somewhat ashamed to admit it, my ego is gratified when a trail that's kicking my butt is also exacting a toll on the four-paw-drive duo. Distance is one thing, but when it's done over ice-covered trails (who woulda thunk we'd need our Kahtoola micro spikes??? Didn't do me any good sitting home!) and up 4700 feet of vertical gain with some rock scrambles thrown in, it's a serious workout. Neither dog quit, but both flung themselves into their car crates with audible relief when we finally "dogged it" out of the mountains at 9:30 PM.

What brought me to stark reality was the aftereffects. Sure, I was stiff the next day, but I'm 55 and I've spent most of the winter/spring doing my best to keep Gertrude Hawks Chocolates in the black, so I'm hauling an extra twenty pounds around (I could say it was deliberate, to prep for backpacking, but I'd be lying) - I expect to have some aches and pains after a man-versus-mountain ordeal. No previous hike had ever reduced Ella to crippling around, though, and when my girl stood up the next morning and keeled over against the wall, dropped to the floor, attempted to get going again only to repeat the drunken stagger, I felt a stab of guilt at the possibility that she was seriously injured. She goes on these outings because I ask her to. Sure, she wants to, but I'm the one with foresight...I need to be conscious of what I ask of her. I don't look at her and see a geriatric - but ten years is old if you're a dog. Two years ago when we did our walkabout I knew it might be our last major endeavor together. The past two years have wrought changes in me, mostly for the better, but time passes swiftly, intensely, in the canine universe.

Challenges are good, healthy, life-affirming. Up to a point. Fitness, both mental and physical, necessitates facing and negotiating a certain measure of stressors. We tend to avoid that which causes pain or fear or discomfort of any sort. Yet pressing into and past discomfort expands awareness of possibility, and potentially expands the limits of capability. Ella has already met and vanquished more challenges than most dogs; thereby did she attain the confidence and wisdom evident on her face. She's just as squirrel-obsessed as she ever was, just as sure that fresh-caught venison should be on the menu, just as savvy about negotiating steep terrain and flooded creeks. But wisdom counsels prudence as well, and for my four-footed friend's sake I must grapple with my denial. She's not immortal, she's ten years old now, she's slowing down. We are neither one youngsters any more. Still very capable, with many a milestone yet to surmount,we will negotiate the trails ahead with grace born of well-earned wisdom.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Endings and Epochs

Eight week old Hollow Hills female from Aiobheann vom hohlen Huegel X Orus d'Ulmental

Here I go posting a photo of a puppy from a litter I haven't even introduced to my readers. Purple Girl's saga was left hanging, and though some of you have written to ask how things turned out, rather than concluding her story here I've gone and tossed up another adorable face, another puppy representing another litter, another generation, another beginning. Was there any conclusion to the Purple Girl saga? No, her story has really just begun. Her "adventure" didn't define her, and certainly won't limit her, although it absolutely did impact her. Her first couple of chapters were set here at Hollow Hills, but it won't be for me to write her story from now on; she's in Nebraska with her new owner, a veterinarian who has named her Jemma and has introduced her to agility. She's a survivor, and her capacity for meeting the experiences she'll have in life will be imbued with strengths she acquired from having to contend with difficulties early-on.

So, the "J" litter set off for their new homes in December (other than the two I kept for myself), the "K" litter arrived auspiciously on 12/12/12 and has taken up residence in my kitchen, harassing (and being harassed by) the rat terrier puppy "Bling." There's little fanfare at each transition, and yet it feels momentous each time it occurs. It seems about when I begin to know one group of pups they're replaced by another. After thirty years, one would think I'd blithely watch the comings and goings, inured to the necessity of parting with most of them. But no, it has become more, not less, difficult to let them go. As each release date approaches, waves of angst tie my guts up in knots as I imagine a future bereft of this particular guileless face, that inviting little play bow, his calm assurance, her grinning impishness. I embrace them as they come into my world, but they are not mine, not really. Law sees them as mine and yes, I defend that right of law, the legalities of ownership. But I know better- we are Pack; I oversee their joining of other Packs, resulting in the restructuring of my own as some stay, some go.

These exchanges will enrich other lives, to be sure...and while I can empathize with the new owners' joy, their subjective experience doesn't lessen my own sense of loss. In the stage play that is their world a new and exciting life just entered, stage right...in mine, a beloved character just exited, stage left.

So the edges blur. My ending, your beginning. Each new Now is a direct offspring of Then. No endings. No beginnings. Now is all there is...it's the descendant of What Was, the ancestor of What Will Be. Each inextricably bound up in the Other. But if that's the case, where is the chance to begin anew?

With each new breath. Out. In. Let go. Embrace.

How does one embrace something that is impermanent? Shouldn't I harden my heart, shrink from the emotional pain that I know all-too-well is coming? Wouldn't that be the "smart" thing to do? Isn't it foolish, childish, to deliberately set myself squarely in the path of foreseeable (avoidable) anguish?

One of the most common stories people tell me is their version of desire to avoid the experience of loss; that when they lost their last dog, they told themselves they would never have another dog because they don't ever want to hurt the way they hurt when their dog died. That they're talking to me reveals they've worked out the flip side of that coin...not having had the dog, they'd have never known the love that opened their hearts enough to be vulnerable to such pain.

Lock up their heart, let that space grow withered and cold, or open it to another dog? Those who tell me their stories have opted to love again.

Today a woman came to pick up a rat terrier puppy. Gradually, tentatively, she revealed that three years ago yesterday her partner died unexpectedly. The pain of that loss was engraved on her face, not fresh and searing but steady and aching, a constant reminder of the impermanence of all things. And here she was, wrapping her arms around a two-pound pup, literally embracing the very thing that will one day break her heart again.

Dust in the Wind. A favorite (pop) song of mine in my earlier years, and not just because I'm a Kansas girl (it's written by Kansas). Decades before I identified with Buddhism, the wisdom of those lyrics resonated with me.

We must figure out how to live while we're alive.

My kids...once perfection and potential in a swaddling cloth, I blinked and they're adults whose dynamic energy flows in (exquisite joy) and out (barrenness) of my world. My dogs - Ginger, Gwydion, Star, Stano, Ginny, Sierra, Celti, and soon Brianne....once so vibrantly alive, and now? I don't pretend to know. But their past presence in my life benefits those whose lives entwine with mine now.

If the "K's" have perhaps been kept a little too confined, had too little exposure to the great outdoors and all things "horsey", they can blame Purple Girl (Jemma) for my over-protectiveness. I'll undoubtedly relax my grip as time goes by, but the trauma of Jemma's odyssey was not hers alone...the impact it had on my perception of life will remain, reflected in an extra helping of caution and perhaps not-so-healthy hypervigilance. This litter is raised according to the lessons I've learned with every litter that has ever come before. Every previous experience informs every new one. Some say we must leave our past in the past, but I contend we cannot, and indeed should not. We are the Past. We are the Future. We are What Is. Every single Thing, living or inanimate, exists because of the causes and conditions that resulted in the exact circumstances that brought Me, You, the "J's" and "K's" and X/Y/Z's into existence.

Dates, dogs, dance partners, tenants, life partners...they come, they go. We may help, we may heal. We will definitely hurt each other. Embrace it, all of it.