Essay: Two Dogs, Two Hundred Paces

(Originally in Dog Fancy Magazine, January 2011)

I am not a morning person. I am especially not a morning person when it is raining, sleeting, snowing, hailing or doing anything else that requires blinking hard in bad weather.

But, when my husband stirred in bed one recent rainy Saturday morning and said, “Guess it's my turn,” I told him to go back to sleep. Then I slipped out the door to walk the dogs.

To say that I “walk the dogs” is to describe what other people think I'm doing. It's true that I have two dogs – an elderly Cairn terrier and a white Pekingese – and that the dogs are on one end of their leashes and I'm on the other. But what I'm really doing is meditating. Walking the dogs has made me realize that, no matter what shape my body is in, it's the shape of my mind that matters.

I discovered this four years ago, when we moved to this house after sliding several rungs down the ladder of the Great American Dream. My husband had lost his job, and the only way to keep our heads above water was to downsize to a much smaller house in a modest neighborhood so thickly settled that you can hear what your neighbor's watching on TV. Moving here made me feel claustrophobic and irritable, even though I knew we were lucky to still own a house at all.

This house has no fenced-in yard, so I had to start walking my dogs on leashes. I reminded myself that walking was exercise, and that had to be good, right?

But no. My dogs aren't into power walking. They stop, sniff, and pee. Stop, sniff, and pee. Or pee, and then stop and sniff. If you move too fast, it's like dragging a pair of cement blocks.

“If I were a hundred years old and using a cane, I'd walk faster than this,” I grumbled to my husband when I first started walking them.

“Who wanted dogs?” he reminded me.

For weeks after we moved to this house, I tugged and pulled at the dogs, frustrated because every minute felt wasted. Then, one morning, I discovered a tiny dirt road nearby. It's not even a road, really, but someone's long driveway.

I walked the dogs down the road and was surprised by how quickly it felt peaceful. Two hundred paces in, and I was in a completely different world, with woods on one side and an overgrown field on the other.

It was peaceful, this road, but hardly silent. The bushes were thick with birds. Sparrows, mostly. Higher up in the trees, a chickadee tracked our progress, chattering. I let the dogs stop all they wanted as I watched the birds.

A few days later, I met the man who owned the road. He looked puzzled but gladly granted me permission to walk my dogs on his driveway. So, early every morning, the dogs and I leave our house at 6 a.m, wander up our sidewalk, then turn left down the dirt road for our private ramble.

Whereas on the sidewalk I feel compelled to walk with purpose, on this dirt road, early in the morning, I relax. While the dogs stop and sniff, I stop, too. I notice things.

Once, I saw a pair of rabbits huddled beneath branches sparkling with early morning dew. I've seen flocks of tall wild turkeys striding ahead of me, blue jays circling with cries like rusty hinges, migrating orange orioles. One icy morning, a snowy owl startled me by flying low over the road, its powerful wings making a shushing sound that made me shiver. Another morning brought a fisher cat – strange, alien creature – crossing the road in front of me.

The plants are ever-changing, too: red berries in fall turned to ice-encrusted branches. Spring brought out yellow forsythia – I think I actually saw the first bud open this year – followed by lavender flowers on the tall lilacs behind them. Late summer there were beach roses and tiger lilies.

Outside this road, I lead a life like the lives of so many other women: a life that on a good day can be called “busy,” but on other days is more apt to be called “frantic” by me or any of my friends. We have jobs and children, houses and husbands, elderly parents and cars that need care during our few spare hours. We're always weighing necessities – a haircut or new hockey cleats? – and priorities – do I stop at the grocery store before or after music lessons?

We think of ourselves as mostly happy. Fulfilled. Yet, at the same time we're aware that the clock is ticking, always ticking, and our lives are rushing by, one to-do list at a time. We make phone calls from the car, answer emails after dinner, bring laptops to sports practices for our children, plan that birthday party or reunion, rush to the gym at lunch hour.

We're rarely out of touch, thanks in part to our gadgets. As a result we scarcely have time to breathe, never mind think. Our responsibilities press down upon us from the moment we're conscious in the morning. Is it any wonder that we fall out of step with our inner selves?

I have never been able to meditate in a group – I'm too self-conscious and twitchy – but being alone outdoors for that precious twenty minutes every morning allows me to be still, to accept my racing thoughts and let them flow through me. Sometimes I wake up worried, as everyone does, about the state of the world: Hurricanes and tornadoes, oil spills and earthquakes, car bombers and world hunger. The news of the world is huge and scary. Or I fret about small things, like an unpaid dentist's bill or when I can take my mom out to lunch to brighten her day. Other mornings I might feel a sense of melancholy as I put away another pair of my youngest son's too-small pants, knowing that he is getting older and I am nearing the end of my daily mothering routines.

No matter what my thoughts, my mind clears as I wander that dirt road. Within two hundred paces, I am breathing more easily as I watch the birds or admire something new, like the sculptural branches of a dead tree with green vines laced around it that I noticed yesterday. Being alone outdoors reminds me that it's okay to focus on what's right in front of you, to remember that we, too, are part of the natural rhythms and beauty of the world.