Sunday, September 4, 2011

Zen and the Art of Puppy Maintenance

There are times in the summer when we can go for days in our part of the world without seeing sunshine.  The marine layer rolls in and just stays put.  This summer, the fog has been particularly thick, lying along the freeway in pea soup pockets and clustering in the trees to condense and drip down onto the earth in plate-sized splotches.  There is a house along our morning walking route with a giant spreading scrub oak in its front yard.  This tree is such an effective fog-catcher that it has created its own little microclimate.  Fog condenses in its leaves and along its branches, the droplets become heavy and patter down onto the ground around the tree’s base.  It sounds as though there is a sprinkler running in the yard twenty-four-seven.

Tourists coming from the hotter parts of the country or the world rave about our natural air-conditioning.  During the worst part of the heat waves this summer, my sisters came west for a sisterly retreat.  As they talked with their families back home, I’d hear them say, “Ninety-five by 9 AM?  It’s fifty-five degrees here!  I’m wearing a sweater and a jacket!”  The envy on the other end virtually flowed from their cell phones.  I’ll admit, it’s taken me all twenty-six years that I’ve lived here to develop an appreciation for our fog-bound summers.

Still, sometimes a body just needs some sunshine.  So this morning, I promised Cleo that she and I would go in search of the sun.  John had a gig ninety minutes’ drive away, so after he left, the puppy and I popped into the car and headed out toward Carmel Valley.  Often, the fog breaks just at the mouth of the Valley, but today we were nearly to our destination, Garland Ranch, a regional wilderness area, before the day brightened.  But then, it opened up into the quintessential summer day, blue skies, cool breeze, scraps of high clouds.  In a word, glorious.

The truth is that I nearly reneged on my promise to Cleo.  This is a long weekend off from school and I have a million projects on my To Do list.  I have an article to write, annual school-oriented training to complete, student reports to submit, a presentation to the trustees to polish, and all of my usual weekend chores to check off.  In short, my list for the “holiday” weekend consists of a week’s worth of projects, and though I had started on several of them, not one was completed and crossed off the list.  My anxiety was mounting, the world was too much with me and the thought of taking an hour and a half out of my day to walk the dog was sending my usual stress level into the vicinity of the space station.  I almost fell back on our default neighborhood walk just to get the exercise over with so I could chain myself back to the desk.  But I had told John we were going to the sun, and I could all but hear the concern in his voice if he learned on his return that I’d spent virtually the whole day sedentary and working.

So off to Garland we went.  The trip out seemed interminable.  Heavy traffic; every light red; Good God, has it always been this far away or did I somehow manage to pass it?  At last: arrive, park, turn off the car, leash the puppy, lock the car, hustle, hustle, let’s move.  Quick swing by the river, hurry-up-and-sniff, time to march.  Aren’t we having fun soaking up the sun?

We passed a family: mother, father, tot and toddler (clad in a t-shirt and fetching pair of diapers).  “Next time we’re here,” the dad said to the tot, “we’ll bring your bike!”  They strolled along.  I marched by with a purpose.  Cleo trotted around them, fascinated by the children, casting her nose in the direction of the diaper, then hurried to catch up.  I wanted to put some distance between us and the family so they wouldn’t be a lure for her.  I began to run.  She loped exactly beside me, keeping perfect pace, glancing up at my face from time to time.  Enough distance covered, I started walking again.  Cleo led the way, a jaunty angle to her tail, turning back to check on me every few seconds.  We took a spur off the trail into a clearing with several old barns.  I stopped, Cleo kept going.  “Here we go!” I called, and she spun in mid stride and came back to my side.

Go ahead, call me slow on the uptake.  It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how perfectly she was behaving.  I was so obsessed with getting the walk completed that I was failing to recognize that my little girl, the puppy I had once despaired of ever teaching to heel, was joyfully walking the trail with me, behaving respectfully with toddlers, and all around proving a source of pride and pleasure.  I’d almost missed the moment.

Garland Ranch in spring.
Photo courtesy of the Ranch.
Woody Allen said that ninety percent of life is just showing up.  It seems to me that sometimes we can be so caught up in getting things done that we forget to show up while we’re doing them.  The air as Cleo and I walked was rich with the scent of sage, eucalyptus and dry grass.  Underlying everything was the loamy smell of the Valley’s topsoil.  This, I thought, is exactly what this area smelled like a hundred years ago.  More.  The river flows, warm and lazy, nourishing a riparian thread that runs through the valley.  Scrub oaks, Manzanita, mugwort, purple thistles and Sticky Monkey flowers climb the hills and ring open meadows full, at this time of year, of multiple varieties of dried grasses, but which, in the spring, are bursting with blue and white lupines and dazzling splashes of California poppies.

Time slowed as Cleo and I moved on.  We greeted fellow hikers, canine and human, stopped to admire the vulture gliding on a column of warm air just over our heads (though we made it clear to him that we were feeling healthy and very much alive), breathed in the fragrant air, and, yes, replenished our vitamin D and generally celebrated the sun’s rays.

True to form, by the time we got back to the car, the Velcro-dog bristled with burrs, sticks and foxtails.  We sat in the back seat, the breeze blowing across us and the whoosh of cars as our soundtrack, carefully separating fine, soft hair from plant matter.  Cleo flopped on her side, panting, gazing up at me and presenting one leg after the other for inspection and cleaning.  As I passed my hands over her, feeling for any remaining foreign objects, I realized that for the last several minutes, I had been solely focused on my task and the little body before me.  All other thoughts had simply stilled, quieted.  There was nothing but this one moment and the peace that accompanied it.  Taken down to a single point, my mind, and the world with it, opened up.  Puppy Zen.

Post hike torpor.

1 comment:

  1. what a beautiful story, enjoyed every word you paint a beautiful picture of everything you see.

    thanks, jan