Saturday, August 30, 2014

Last Week Was Really Something

Over a five-day period, thirteen members of our family came together right here in Vermont to celebrate (in more-or-less chronological order):

--The publication of her first novel by my daughter S
--My husband's and my 47th wedding anniversary
--The legal marriage (as opposed to the unofficial one, which took place a decade ago) of my daughter A and her partner K.  The celebrant was Beth Robinson, who spearheaded the civil unions legislation in Vermont.
--My husband's 70th birthday, which he marked by jumping out of a plane at twelve thousand feet

That's a lot of rejoicing--but no joy on this earth is unalloyed, and beneath all the hoopla ran the anxious continuo of A's very recent breast cancer diagnosis, which is what has kept me from writing here lately.

But days pass, plans are made, and hope revives.

In the midst of the festivities, we also interred my mother's ashes, as per her instructions.  We dug a hole under a young beech tree and poured in the cream-colored grit.  I patted it down with my hands, and was glad to see an earthworm wriggling in the moist dirt.  Together, the worm and my mother's remains will enrich this particular bit of Vermont soil.

The birds are mostly silent now;  the sumac is turning red;  and it's time I got back to writing.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Hard times have come to our family, times that will take all our courage, patience and love to get through.  I am not yet ready to write about this, or about anything else.  But in the meantime, I offer you this luminous talk by David Steindl-Rast, on gratitude.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dog Walk in the Gloaming

Wolfie had one of his bad-limp days on Sunday, and I was thinking maybe he shouldn't come on our evening walk.  But when it was time to leave, my husband decided to join us and, hating to leave Wolfie alone, I put leashes on him and Bisou and we set off on one of Wake Robin's many paths.

You could wander practically forever in the woods here.  The paths themselves are a thing of beauty, meticulously cleared, with lots of signs so you don't get lost, and little plank bridges over awkward spots that always make me think of Japan.  You'd think people come to places like Wake Robin to get away from chores.  But here the residents tap maples and boil sap for syrup;  keep honeybees;  do battle against buckthorn and poison parsnip;  and maintain the trails.  It's the Vermont take on aging.

The woods at this time of year are starting to get that slightly toasted look--the acid greens of spring giving way to the avocado shades of late summer--and on the tips of distressed trees and bushes you can see tinges of red.  The birds, finished with their parenting duties, are mostly silent now.  The crickets are still chirping, but their slower rhythm tells me that fall is around the corner.

Bisou and I led the way down the darkened path.  Behind me Wolfie hopped on three legs--I could hear the heavy thud of each step as he came down on his good front left.  He was panting loudly with the effort.  "Do you think he'll get exhausted when we were far from home?"  I asked my husband.  "At least the ground on the paths is easier on his joints than asphalt," he said.

It's hard to know what to do about Wolfie.  He spent a day at a diagnostic center a couple of weeks ago, and had lots of x-rays, which showed abnormal bone growth on his metatarsals.  His joints are clear--it's not arthritis.  The bone growth could be caused by cancer or by a horrible fungus, but the vets agree that either of those would have made him much sicker by now.  We've tried him on different kinds of pain meds, none of which appear to make any difference.

He doesn't seem to be in acute misery.  His coat looks fine and his appetite is good.  He's mostly enthusiastic about going on walks.  But oh, the sight of that big black dog hopping clumsily on three legs!

While Wolfie hopped and I worried, Bisou was busy collecting teeny tiny sticky burrs all over her long, wavy ears, the gold feathers on her legs and belly, and her lovely red tail.  Every day after our walk I have to comb the things out of her coat, and lately they've gotten so bad that I'm almost tempted to stop walking in the woods and stay on the paved paths.  But as soon as the weather turns cool the ticks will hatch again (spring and fall are their favorite seasons), and then the woods will be out of bounds until the serious cold arrives. 

We walked for almost an hour, and by the time we neared the house Wolfie had stopped hopping.  This could either mean that he no longer hurt, or that he was so tired of walking on three legs that he had to put his bad foot down despite the pain.  Of one thing there was no question, though:  he was happy.

So at least for now, while the days are long and we're still able, before the ticks hatch and the snow flies, we'll keep on walking the paths.

Friday, August 8, 2014


You may recall my recent fruitless attempts to teach Bisou to give up her sled-dog ways and walk nicely on leash ( ).  The only weapons in my arsenal were:  1.  treats, which I would administer during those fleeting moments when I could catch her being "good," and 2.  stopping dead in my tracks whenever she pulled (every minute or so) and "ignoring" her. 

Weapon #1 worked from time to time, but was no match for the lure of a robin hopping on the grass, or a whiff of rabbit.  Weapon #2 just made her laugh.

For the first time in my five-year love affair with Bisou, I was starting to feel seriously annoyed by her.  I found myself putting off our training sessions until it was almost dark, and looking for excuses to avoid them altogether.  And yet, because for very good reasons dogs cannot run free at Wake Robin, Bisou urgently needed to learn to walk on leash.

When my German Shepherds reached adolescence,  our obedience teachers unhesitatingly recommended a prong collar.  If you are using a flat collar, a big, powerful dog suddenly taking off after a chipmunk can easily knock you off your feet or pull your arm out of socket.  So I learned to use the collars properly, and none of my dogs ever gave signs of physical or emotional damage (needless to say, the prongs are blunt, not sharp).

After weeks of frustration, as Bisou pulled me up yet another hill and I began to run out of both patience and treats, trying a prong collar on her began to seem like a possible solution.  Given her sweet and gentle looks (Bisou is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), very few people realize what a tough little customer she is, driven by her spaniel genes to run like the wind and hunt the scurrying denizens of woods and fields.  This is a dog who, when she came to us at eight weeks old, met our two German Shepherds without blinking.  And when Lexi and Wolfie would get into one of their sparring matches, standing on their hind legs and flashing their teeth, Bisou would run smack into their midst, play-growling with all her heart.

After much thought, I decided that it was important to put an end to the vicious cycle of her misbehavior and my frustration, and to make it possible for both of us to enjoy our walks together. Confident that I could adjust my use of the prong collar so as not to traumatize her.  I went to the pet store and bought a small one.  At home, before putting it on her, I slipped it around my forearm and gave it a good yank.  I didn't feel much, but then I realized that Bisou would have the collar around her neck, so I pulled my hair out of the way, clipped Wolfie's prong collar around my neck, and yanked hard.  It wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't awful, either.

I knelt on the ground and called Bisou.  "Sweetie," I said, clipping the collar on her, "I'm doing this for the sake of our relationship." 

The minute we stepped outside, Bisou, as was her wont, catapulted to the end of the leash.  The collar did its work.  "Yikes!" she said, "What was that?" and ran back to me.  I took a step and she charged forth.  "Yikes!  It happened again!" she observed.  I took another step, she charged.  "Yikes! etc."

And that was that.  After the third time, she figured out what was happening and made sure that the leash stayed loose as we walked.  I watched her carefully for signs of upset, but she was stepping  jauntily, head up, tail high.  She was enjoying her walk, and so was I.  Since I didn't have to stop every time she pulled on the leash, we covered a lot more ground than on our prior outings.  I can hardly describe my relief at no longer having to constantly monitor her, to give or withhold treats, to control my urge to yell at her. 

I stopped at a spot with a view of Lake Champlain and gave Bisou permission ("Smell it!") to sniff around.  The sun was setting in a clear sky behind the Adirondacks, and my heart felt as placid as the surface of the lake.  Having deciphered the messages on the grass to her satisfaction, Bisou looked up at me.  "What a terrific dog you are, Bisoulette," I said, meaning every word.  And she wagged her tail and trotted happily beside me, all the way home.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Warrior Pose

The average age of the women in my yoga class at Wake Robin is, I'm guessing, somewhere in the eighties.  And because she announced it proudly as she introduced herself to me, I know that at least one of us is in her mid-nineties.

Although there are chairs spaced around the room for those who need them, the class is more demanding than I expected.  We begin with a couple of breaths in mountain pose, and dive right into forward bends, down-face dogs, warrior asanas, cobra, eagle, bridge, boat and, my nemesis, tree and dancer, the balance poses.

Fourteen years of yoga have taught me what Catholics call "custody of the eyes."  That means that I limit my vision roughly to the area of my mat, and with the exception of the standing poses I mostly practice with eyes closed, doing my best to focus on my breath, my inner sensations,  the state of my soul.  Still, I do get an occasional glimpse of what is going on around me.

And this is what I see.  I see arms that won't rise all the way up, legs that barely bend at the knee,  backs that won't arch, hands that cannot touch the floor.  Bending forward, touching my nose to my knee, I ask  wonder, "If I couldn't reach the floor with my hands, or flex my knees, would I even think of coming to yoga?"

But those arms are reaching as high as they can; those knees are striving to bend;  and with each forward bend, hands stretch closer to the floor. The instructor guides us into warrior one.  I raise my arms as high as I can, keeping them close to my ears, and pushing my shoulders down.  My eyelids flutter open and I see someone in front of me whose right arm won't go up at all, but whose left is raised defiantly towards the sky.

This, it dawns on me, is the real warrior pose, the pose of courage and strength, and what we aging yoginis practice on Friday mornings is the real yoga--no head stands, plows, peacocks or crows--just showing up and doing whatever each of us can reasonably do, accepting ourselves and the cards the universe has dealt us. 

By the way, of all the yoga classes I've been in--and they number well over a dozen--this one chants the most harmonious om's of all.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Verging on Vegan

Having just watched Forks Over Knives for the second time, I'm verging on going vegan.  The stars of the film are Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn.  Silver-haired, ultra-fit, and bursting with energy in their eighties, they made me think that perhaps, if I ate a "whole-food, plant-based diet...centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants" I too could be ultra-fit and bursting with energy.

For a long time now I have been mostly vegetarian, using meat only as a "condiment," in deference to my spouse's carnivorous preferences.  And since coming to Wake Robin, which offers a mind-boggling variety of food choices, I have almost completely banished animals from my plate.

I have not, however, abandoned animal products.  It would not be impossible to eat a vegan diet at Wake Robin, but it wouldn't be much fun.  However, since the Forks Over Knives diet "excludes or  minimizes (italics mine)" animal products (as well as highly refined foods, and oils),  I figured that a reasonable compromise would be to eat a daily vegetarian meal in the dining hall, and make the two other meals, which I prepare in the cottage, as vegan as possible.  And while I was at it, I would give up desserts other than fruit.

The problem with a vegan diet, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's time consuming.  It makes sense that, if you take the heavy foods--meat, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, oils, sugar--out of the diet, you have to put a lot of light foods in.  This means a lot of shopping, and a lot of chopping.

The Forks Over Knives site gives a plethora of vegan (as well as mostly gluten- and sugar-free) recipes, all of which sound tasty to me.  But oh, the lists of ingredients!  A seemingly simple  Burrito Bake includes shredded potatoes, nutritional yeast, onion, bell pepper, zucchini, crimini mushrooms, a handful of beans, a lime, basil, garlic powder, oregano, chili powder, pepper flakes, diced tomatoes, black beans, and fresh cilantro.  But that is nothing compared to the Shepherd's Pie, which calls for twenty-seven ingredients.

Being an enthusiastic undertaker of projects, I can see myself heading out to the store with a two-page shopping list.  I can even see myself doing all that chopping--I rather enjoy chopping, actually.  But what gives me pause is what to do with the leftover ingredients. 

Say I wanted to make a simple batch of vegan blueberry muffins, which calls for twelve Medjool dates, non-dairy milk, oats, millet, baking powder, cardamom, applesauce, lemon zest, blueberries and walnuts.  I assume that Medjool dates, whatever they are, come in packages of more than twelve, so that after eating the muffins I would be left with a considerable number of highly caloric dates which, like the non-dairy milk, won't last forever.  I can envision the jar of applesauce moldering in the back of the fridge along with the forgotten remains of the zested lemon.  The oats, blueberries and walnuts wouldn't be a problem to dispose of, but I have my doubts about the cardamom.  As for the leftover millet, maybe I could buy a canary--canaries will sing for millet.

Still, the radiant health and exuberant vitality of Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn made such an impression on me that I'm willing to give this almost-vegan way of life a try.  I'll share my impressions along the way--if suddenly you see me posting daily, you'll know it's working.