Monday, December 20, 2010

Lessons Along the River Bank

It was a dark and stormy night…. no it wasn’t. It was a beautiful fall morning. The orange leaves looked even brighter against a blue sky, proving once again that complementary colors make each other pop. The air had a fresh, slightly damp smell kicked up by the fallen leaves. I was all dressed and ready for work complete with new boots with heels. (It’s still a treat to be able to wear heels after almost a year in flats.)

I was moving toward the door, when I happened to look into the eyes of my beloved Labrador who was clearly indicating that she thought it was a beautiful day too, and perhaps there might be walkies in her future. What can you do? I grabbed a leash for her and for Cookie (her 5lb sister) and off we went. A walk along the river was the clear choice with meadows, protected woods and leash-free pleasure. I rarely have to use a leash for Ceilidh (kay-lee, the Gaelic word for celebration, which she is) but I always use one for Cookie (short for Christmas Cookie since she was born a year ago on Christmas day) because she’s very fast and makes her own decisions about responding to the word, “Come!” But she never strays far from her big sister so I felt secure in letting her enjoy some freedom on this glorious day.

It’s been interesting to see the relationship develop between my two companions. Ceilidh will be thirteen in January, still lively, enjoying life and relishing her raw food diet. She’s never met a dog or human she didn’t like so I thought I had a good chance with her accepting a new puppy. When Cookie arrived, she was eleven weeks and just under two pounds. She was about the size of one of Ceilidh’s ears. My fears of having her inadvertently squashed by a playful paw went unfounded with Ceilidh’s supreme indifference to the new member of our family. Cookie, on the other hand, had an immediate crush on the coolest dog she’d seen in her young life. Every opportunity to be in Ceilidh’s face was seized with gusto including swinging from that Labrador trademark -- soft, silky ears. Still, we scrupulously maintained the hierarchy and Cookie was clear who was top dog even though she tried to share Ceilidh’s bed and was firmly rejected.

On this beautiful morning, I have to admit that I was in my own world. I loved watching the dogs running, sniffing, exploring, living in the moment. I took a lesson from them and told myself that work can wait for half an hour while I drank in the gloriousness of this day and told the universe how grateful I was to be independent again and walking freely. I watched the river, swollen with recent rain, racing through over-hanging trees and foaming its way up and around those famous New England boulders left by ancient glaciers. I thought, “I bet its cold in there.”

It was then that I realized that Cookie wasn’t in sight. Unworried, I called. I called again. Even though her response time depends on her mood, she will generally show up, if only to make sure she isn’t missing a treat. I called again, this time I heard my voice go up an octave. Ceilidh was throwing side-glances at me. I walked towards the river bank which was particularly high and steep in this area. No way, she went down there. At five pounds, it must have looked like the Klondike. But I’d forgotten that she’s fearless. Ceilidh and I approached cautiously, me picking my way through the long wet grass in my new boots and trying not to get snagged by the various bushes. At last, close enough to peer over the edge.

And there she was, big round eyes looking up at us. Relieved to my core, I urged her upwards. She did try. I watched her as she backed up as far as she could without falling in the river and hurl herself at the slippery bank. She’d make it half-way up, suspend for a moment and then fall back down again. I was helpless having left all means of communication behind. It was then that Ceilidh took matters into her own paws. She surveyed the bank, walked along it and then cut diagonally across winding her way down until she reached the river. There the great Labrador stood, wagging her tail ready to lead Cookie to safety. Heart in my mouth, I watched Cookie get the message and walk forward perilously close to the rushing river – but she was thwarted by an impenetrable bramble; although she tried several times she couldn’t get through. Ceilidh stood for a moment, assessed the problem and climbed the bank back to me. Her look said, “Now it’s your turn.”

There was nothing for it; I had to go down. I eyed a sapling in the middle of the downward slope, set it in my sights and slithered towards it trusting it would stop my momentum, which it did. Fortunately, it was the perfect size to fix my heel around. Grieving for my boots as the mud oozed its way into the stitching, I reached lower and lower to try to grasp Cookie. She was tantalizingly close, about an inch away from my outstretched hand. I used all of my coaxing skills and finally, I was able to slip a finger into her collar and pull her towards me. Head-first down the bank, I twisted around and with one quick motion, I sort of threw her up the Klondike where I told her that if she moved, she was a hot dog.

Ceilidh had worked her way down the bank and was right by my side as I considered my options: a) remove my heel from its tenuous hold on this sapling and slide down the bank hoping that I don’t end up in the river, b) claw my way up the bank on all fours hoping that I don’t slide down the bank and end up in the river. Neither option particularly appealed. Ceilidh’s eyes said, “You’re stuck.”

Then I saw a root sticking out and I pulled on it. It released. I pulled again. It released again. Again and again until finally it held. Now we’re cooking. Bit by bit, pulling on this propitious root, I inched my way up the bank to victory and the three of us were on level ground at last. Cookie made no protest when I fixed her firmly to the leash. Ceilidh walked quietly by my side – mission accomplished.

When I look at myself in the mirror, nature-girl stares back. Leaves are woven liberally through my hair and mud decorates my cheeks. There’s nothing for it, I have to start all over again, (the older I get the longer it takes). But before I tackle the restoration, I realize that I’m feeling exhilarated and alive. It’s been years since I climbed a mud bank or used my wits to get out of a scrape. And I look at my partners in crime and see that they enjoyed it, too. But more than anything else, I marvel at the amount of wordless communication that took place in those few minutes. I marvel at the way Ceilidh figured out the problem and worked out a potential solution. Words can’t express how I feel as I look into her chocolate eyes, and loyalty and love look back. I pick up my little one and give her a hug; she licks my nose.

Now it’s December and the river that was cold in the fall will be frozen soon. We won’t be walking along it again until the spring. And in between are the holidays. So this seems like the right opportunity to wish you all the happiest of times. May you always have someone to help you figure out life’s challenges. May you always have someone who likes nothing better than just to be with you. And may you always have the experience of unconditional love, even if it means letting someone swing on your ears.



Clare said...

What a lovely post. The holiday time can potentially be a chaotic blur of shopping and stress. Your thoughtful words remind me how much more I enjoy my beloved pets and nature's wintery beauty.

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