breaking a trail, then coming back to check on me..


I am learning to be still.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that it happens mostly when I’m with Cody.  I’m obviously not talking about physical still either.  That would be little hard to do with flat-coated retriever, border colie mix, 70-pound puppy.  (He has the joy of an innocent creature and the strength of a bull.)

I first noticed the stillness when we would go for our late night walks, at speed.  I walk fast which is okay for him as his natural gate is “I want to run like heck.  Did you say squirrel?”

I can get so wrapped up in training him that everything else just goes away.  He takes a lot of attention to control off leash as his mind wanders and you have to keep him focused and commanded, meaning you have to try to see what’s in his line of sight and sometimes try to out-think him.  Most of the time he’ll look over his shoulder at you and you can see he’s waiting for the next command.  We communicate very well, but we communicate very often and intensely.  Our walks are usually a series of commands, reactions and response, with each of us concentrating on our roles and expectations.  And not thinking about much else.

Several weeks ago I took him onto the conservation land that surrounds our neighborhood to explore the large beaver pond we normally use for skating and kayaking.  As soon as I stepped off the pavement and onto the unmarked trails, I knew it would be challenging.  We just had some fresh snowfall, maybe 18 inches or so the previous night and no one had broken trail so far this year.  Odd, the kids will usually trek down to the pond to scrape out a nice hockey rink.  Not so today.  Five feet into the woods and I was already up to my back pockets in deep powder.  Cody was gone, already breaking trail about 50 yards ahead of me.  Three whistles and two hand commands to get him back to the pavement so we could return home for the snowshoes.

Second try, I have a thermos of hot tea, Cody’s water bottle, a bag of dog biscuits and my camera.  I step into the trail again and off he goes.  It took me 20 minutes to get about 50 yards in the woods, the snow was that deep.  I was bringing snow up from the tail of my snowshoes under the back of my jacket.  Who cares, this is a blast.

About 30 minutes into the woods, I sat down on an old dead fall to catch my breath.  Cody was still surfing the snow, his every step was jump up, sink down.  I was giving him direction and he broke most of the trail for me, every once in a while heading off to explore on his own.  I noticed the small tracks that had gotten his attention and he had found a few deer beds too.  I let him explore as I caught my breath and watched him play and learn.  I couldn’t hear another sound. The snow was very deep, very soft and made no noise at all as I sunk into it with each step.  It was the same with Cody.  He must have been 10-15 yards away from me and I could hear his breathing, nothing else.  I could tell he was working hard to swim through the powder, a small furry dolphin breaking the surface, his panting the only sound in the forest.

It must have taken at least 45 minutes to get to the pond.  The edge of the pond is littered with very old trees and up-roots that were knocked down by a micro burst a few years ago.  The shoreline looks devastated in the summer.  It’ll be years before nature takes these trees back into the pond and creates a new shoreline.  Unless the beavers get to it, but they already have a dam now about 7 feet high and at least three large lodges, each probably twenty feet around.

As we trudged across the frozen pond, it started to drizzle.  The snow was only slightly less of a challenge on the pond but we made good time anyway.  Again, there was no sound at all, barely a crunch from the snow in the middle of the pond that had obviously taken a melt during the daylight hours and had developed a crust sometime during the week.  The drizzle was just making it heavier to pull my feet up through.

By the time we got to the end of the pond near the beaver dam, we were a little tired and wet.  I found the old bench we had carried down last year when we cleared the area for skating.  It was buried quite a bit, somewhat broken, but it came in pretty darned handy given its condition.  I treated myself to some Oolong and watched Cody track whatever he imagined he was tracking.  Tail up, nose always down, never in a straight line, I watched him for 15 minutes.  He’d occasionally peek up at me to see if he was in trouble and I’d point him in a direction to keep him thinking.  I said nothing to him.  I heard nothing.  Just the sound of the size of the drizzle getting bigger and dropping onto the crust of the snow.  With the new snow insulating the trees, the low clouds and drizzle covering us like a blanket, we were separate from everything else in the world.  It was then that I realized that I hadn’t a single thought in my head at all.  Nothing.  For me, that’s a change.

I took him to the beach yesterday.  Again, it’s tail up, nose to the ground and a couple hours of zigzag.  The beach is a little different for him though, dogs are allowed off leash and it’s a haven for owners to come and socialize their dogs.  I like to let him run ahead, but he’ll usually realize I’m out of voice range and he’ll turn around.  Today however, winter was struggling to fight off spring.  The mist that was hanging over us made it hard to see either end of the beach.  I looked out over the water and the waves appeared to be rolling out from under a slate grey backdrop where I couldn’t distinguish the ocean from the cloudy sky above it.  I hear the gallop of paws as he trots by me towards some unseen goal and he’s off another 50 yards.

I walked to the end of the beach and towards the path of the point that separates the town’s two beaches.  No one was on the south beach.  The tide was only a half hour above high, so there wasn’t really much beach; hence there weren’t any beach goers.  Just the two of us.

I climbed the rocks out to the point with Cody right behind.  Well, ahead.  Wait, now behind, but slightly off to the side.  Ah, the attention span of a puppy.  I sat down on the boulders just to admire the view, but there wasn’t much.  The mist was boiling in the slight breeze and the farthest end of the north beach was already hiding in it.  I could see only a couple hundred yards out to sea.  And again, the sound of the waves was the only thing I could hear.  Or so I thought.

I heard his paws on the stones and shells that make up the beach.  Coming from somewhere in a direction that I couldn’t pinpoint, I heard the disagreement of two gulls.  There was a subtle background symphony of pops, snaps and squeaks as the water receded from the seaweed and kelp the tide had stranded on the rocks.  I could hear the small rivulets, sprung from the melting snow of the beach path, splashing onto the boulders just above the beach on their way back to the ocean.

Other than that, nothing. There was absolutely nothing.  My mind was busy taking input; I was thinking of absolutely nothing.

I have spent most of my life multi-tasking, always thinking of things at the speed of light, as many things as I could, all day every day until I closed my eyes at night where I let them invade my sleep in order to dwell on them further.  I am the master at hearing two conversations at once, a cell phone in one ear, the speaker phone in the other while reading a text from some client in another part of the world.  No, I am not proud of this.  I am not bragging.  I am a little embarrassed about the fact that I can’t hear over the cacophony of my own thoughts on a regular basis and it’s basically because I am trying too hard to focus on work.  The last time I remember the ability to turn off my own thoughts was when I first got my piano and spent hours late at night with my eyes, ears, fingers and mind all focused on the little black and white doohickeys in front of me, desperately trying to figure out the secret pattern and their relationships to each other.  I know I’ve had this ability before.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I believe we all have too much to ponder now days, too much on our plates, worried about our jobs, about our kids, trying to focus on work, yaddi-yaddi-yadda. This is what kills us, what makes us age, what robs us of the awareness of the beauty around us.  Stop and smell the roses.  What a quaint thought.  I too can stop and smell the roses, think about next month’s budget reconciliation, the 5 year strategy due next week, the deadline for the next campaign and five minutes later I have to ask someone “where the heck are those petunias I stopped to water?”

With so many things coming at us, all seemingly at the same time with the same level of import, it’s hard to be able to take the luxury of emptying one’s head, learning to be still.  The clarity one achieves with it is amazing; maybe it’s a matter of focus.  When you get the luxury to focus on just one thing, it all appears that much simpler, that much more interesting.  If we had the time to give that much focus to each task we had to execute on, how much better would we perform, how much more effective and accurate?  This is my new goal, to learn to be still.  To regain my ability to focus, to lose the clutter.

And chances are, a puppy will train me.