McKenna Dean: Goat Hunter

Yes, you read that right. McKenna Dean, author of paranormal romance, is a goat hunter. Goat. Not ghost.

And not in the way you might think. I’m not out with a rifle tracking down goats to shoot them. I am stalking them, however.

With a camera.

See, earlier this year, I began walking the dogs in the evenings again. Soon it will be too hot, but we’ve had a long cool spring, and after struggling with plantar fasciitis for over a year, it was good to get back in the habit of daily walks. Our route takes us past some fields where people keep livestock, and I’ve become interested in their inhabitants, as one does.

The goats have proven to be the most entertaining. There used to be a television program in the 70’s called Hee Haw that featured country music and cone pone humor. Given endless life in syndication, it was the sort of show most people knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. I was never a fan (my tastes leaning more toward Saturday Night Live, even as a child), I occasionally watched an episode with my grandparents. One skit comes to mind: a school teacher presents a math problem to a student (let’s call him “Abner”) concerning goats:

Teacher: Abner, you have 20 goats in a field and 2 get out. How many goats are left in the field?

Abner: Zero.

Teacher: Abner! I said you have 20 goats and 2 got out. 20 minus 2 is 18, not zero!

Abner: Ma’am, if two goats got out, they all done got out.

While I’m not a fan of wince-inducing humor, this particular kernel (get it, I made a corny pun) has a lot of truth to it. Goats get out of any field you put them in.

So on any given afternoon, I might turn the corner on my path to find goats everywhere. Tall Nubians with their floppy ears. Stubby little Pygmies and sturdy little Alpines. Goats with spots, goats with horns, goats without horns. Goats with beards, goats with blue eyes, goats with attitude.

It takes you back a bit when confronted with a herd of goats, some of them shaking their horns at you and your dogs. The lovely thing about herd animals, however, is their sense of flight distance. This is the zone you enter that will trigger the herd to collectively move away from you. If you come into slowly and quietly, without taking a threatening posture, you can pressure the herd to gradually move in the direction you wish.

So after attempting without success to locate the owners of the field and tell them their goats were getting out, whenever I’d come across the loose goats, the dogs and I would carefully approach the herd until they zipped back through the opening in the fence they were squeezing through. There was always one holdout: a big horned goat that would give us the stink eye while all his or her buddies ran back to the safety of their field.

It made for an interesting interlude in our evenings walks, that’s for sure. Then one day last week, I noticed a new addition to the field! OMG, a BABY GOAT. Yes, I know they are called kids, but c’mon, it’s like saying Baby Yoda even when you know it’s not really Yoda (or is it?)

As you can see, this is a crappy pic taken with my cell phone on zoom because it was the closest I could get with the dogs. But I decided I’d come back the next day without the dogs and with my Real Camera to take a decent pic.

That’s when the stalking began.

Because the next day, there was no baby goat to be seen. Mama was there, walking about the field, bleating in the most pathetic way, but no Baby Goat. I have to say, this upset me more than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic that I’m so emotionally sensitive right now. I’m an empath, and the degree to which the world is hurting is hard to bear many days. I couldn’t believe how invested I’d become in these goats and how the absence of one little newborn could hurt so much. I thought it possible the goats had left the field again (though I hadn’t seen any recent evidence of that) and perhaps the baby had gotten lost. Or maybe it had just been too cold for it (we’ve had frost the past couple of nights). Or maybe the mother didn’t have enough milk. Unfortunately, because of the thicket that surrounds most of the field, I could only scan so much for the missing baby.

But I was determined to keep looking.

The next day was cold and rainy. No sign of the baby. In fact, most of the goats were huddled a distance away from the fence line. That wasn’t good. I realized the kid probably didn’t make it. Depressed, I continued my walk.

The day after that was sunny and breezy. The dogs frisked along in front of me as we approached the field. I gave the goats a passing glance, when what did I see? THE BABY GOAT! Only as before, I only had my cell phone, and the excited dogs made Mama goat lead the baby further away from the fence. Fine. I’d be back in the morning with the Real Camera.

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is I’ve been forced to slow down. I can’t rush here and there like I used to. I have to give some thought about when and how to go to the store. I spend the evenings at home alone with the animals. Days off are spent at home as well, and I’m doing more reading, more cleaning, more baking. This forced–I don’t want to use the word inactivity because I’m not sitting around doing nothing–it’s more of quietness that has had a chance to flourish–anyway, this forced quietness has resulted in a willingness to be patient, to allow things to come to fruition in their own time.

It’s been good for my writing. After months of barely scribbling a word, I’m okay with letting the story simmer on the back burner for a bit if it needs to. When I do write, it’s with the knowledge that what I’m committing to paper isn’t forced, but has come into its growth on its own. My crit group has noticed, commenting that what I’m turning out now is more complete on the first draft and needs less polishing. I think it’s because I’m no longer spinning my wheels in an endless effort to get out of the muddy pit I’ve been mired in for so long. I know where I want to go with this story now and I’m okay with how long it takes to get there.

And this quietness has taught me patience in other areas as well.

So when last Sunday, I took my camera and went up to the field to try to capture an image of the baby goat with a high quality camera, I was able to sit on the hood of my car soaking in the sunshine and listening to the birdsong while I scanned the field, camera in hand, waiting for a baby goat sighting. I didn’t feel as though I had to be somewhere else. It was just me, the brisk morning breeze, the trilling calls of the redwing blackbirds, and the milling about of goats in the field. I never saw the baby goat that morning, but I did identify the daddy. And a handsome fellow he is, too.

I must have sat for over thirty minutes hoping to spot the baby, to no avail. And yet it did not feel at all like wasted time. Now that I knew the baby was still alive, it was just a matter of time before I photographed it. I kept looking for it on dog walks, but I also randomly drove out to the field at different times of day to see if I could get a picture. I began to get a feel for the goats’ pattern of movement now. How they hugged the far fence line in the heat of the day, where the thicket provided shade. How they slept piled around the large bale of hay in the mornings, enjoying the warm sunshine. How they’d flock to the gate when I pulled up in my car (as opposed to when I came on foot with the dogs), indicating they were used to being fed by someone in a vehicle.

Yesterday, I woke to a porch slick with frost and the occasional flake of snow coming down! In May! The afternoon was brisk and chilly, so I decided to take the dogs out while it was still sunny and reasonably pleasant. And what did I see when I reached the field? Not only the baby goat I’d been seeking, sleeping beside Mama in the sun, but MORE BABY GOATS!

Four new ones, to be exact. I don’t know why this surprised me, after all, I knew there was a billy in the group and that he’d bred at least one doe. So yeah, more kids were kind of to be expected. But I felt as though I’d won the jackpot. Because now there were FIVE baby goats to stalk, er… photograph. I finished my dog walk and returned with the Real Camera.

The goats were still pretty far away, but I got some decent pictures…

Are they not adorable or what? You can see they take after their daddy.

The mamas seemed pretty chill about who nursed whom as well. These babies seemed to belong to this doe…

But then they turned around to nurse on this one as well! Yay for the village to raise some baby goats!

And in case you’re wondering, I did get a photo of the original baby goat–now astonishingly bigger than the newborns, with just one week between them!

I don’t know why goat-watching has brought me such joy this spring. Perhaps because it’s brought me uncomplicated peace. Perhaps because emerald-green grass and sunlight fields were made for baby goats to skip across while golden melodies pour out of nearby songbirds and a breeze ruffles my hair.

This spring will forever be the spring of the 2020 pandemic. But for me, it will also be the spring of the baby goats. I hope you can find peace and joy in your lives right now. Be safe. Be well.

 

 

 

How a Stay-At-Home Order Helped Me Bond with My Dog

Let me preface this by saying that while my state is under a stay-at-home order, my job is considered essential, which means I’m still working outside the house–my shift only reduced slightly because of shorter business hours.

I’m also aware of the privilege I have: I have a snug little roof over my head (thank God we’d finished the renovations last spring), food in the pantry, and my income isn’t going to be seriously impacted in the near future. We have a financial cushion. Our circumstances have allowed us to divide our family and send the high-risk individuals and those who can work from home into another residence while I–still working with the public–can avoid bringing something home to them. More privilege. I have a lot of safety nets others don’t right now, so I get it if you want to roll your eyes at me.

That means, however, I’m living by myself on the farm with the animals.

As a former dog trainer, it embarrasses me to even write this, but I’ve struggled these past few years to bond to our newest edition, our young big dog, Remington. (Named for Remington Steele, the TV show, not the firearm)

That’s not to say I’ve neglected him. No, I did all the proper things to raise a German Shepherd. I introduced him to over a 100 strangers by the time he was sixteen weeks old, including lots of children (which he loves). He went through two basic obedience classes, two agility classes, and passed his Canine Good Citizen test. I set up doggy play dates with other dogs to make sure he was well socialized. We went on long rambles in the woods and I taught him to swim. On days when I knew I couldn’t make it home from work at a reasonable hour, I paid a friend to let him out and play with him.

But I had a hard time bonding with him just the same.

It really bugged me. Animals have always been a huge part of my life. Not having a dog was–and is–unthinkable. But I kept finding fault with him. He didn’t seem as smart as some of my previous dogs, nor as courageous. My previous German Shepherd, Sampson, had been a high-performance dog, built for action. Remington’s confirmation leaves a bit to be desired, and I can look to the future and see hip problems. I also acted as though he was the worst puppy ever, when he was actually easier and less destructive than others I’d had before. I’d come home in the evenings too tired to deal with puppy energy and be annoyed that he had any at all.

The thing is, he wasn’t the problem. It was me.

2017 was a bad year for us that bled all the way through 2018 as well. Part of it was timing: we had several elderly animals that came to the natural end of their lives at the same time, but we also had pet losses due to cancer and illness. I also lost multiple family members within months of each other, with no time for emotional recovery. I put those emotions aside, thinking I’d dealt with them in a mature and rational way, but I’d only spackled over the cracks in the walls and ignored the rot within.

Two months after I’d buried Sampson, I took my husband to look at puppies. He was supposed to prevent me from impulsively buying one, a task at which he failed miserably, I might add. 🙂 I’d sworn I’d never get another big, male dog. That it was time to downsize. That we had enough animals already. But I was also getting inundated with texts and images from well-meaning friends and associates about available puppies that ranged from the inappropriate to the unsuitable and everything in between. I was tired of the onslaught. I suspect I put down a deposit on a puppy in part to stop the barrage of messages. But it was also with the knowledge that I needed another big dog to feel safe at the farm, to make me take long walks, and keep me honest about getting some exercise. And, to be frank, I wanted some joy in my life.

When he was eight weeks old, I brought Remington home. As I said, I did all the right things. In addition to socializing him, I practiced the kinds of handling techniques he’d need for vet visits, and I set him up with short day boards prior to his neuter so that experience wouldn’t be terrifying for him. Though I could have trained him myself at home, I enrolled him in classes so he’d meet lots of other people and dogs, and learn to focus on me in exciting and distracting circumstances. We went to farmer’s markets and to school yards and on walks downtown alongside traffic.

And still, I held myself at a slight distance from him. I can see now that it wasn’t just him, but he became the canary in the mine for my emotional frigidity. I was stretched too thin from a mentally and physically demanding job, and everyone at home bore the brunt of my growing inability to deal with burnout and unresolved grief at the same time. I’d spy a crack in the wall and spackle over it again. I was irritable and short-tempered, and above all, I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with anyone. Because connection was attachment and attachment inevitably led to loss and I couldn’t handle any more loss.

Hah. Apparently, after giving me some slight breathing room, 2020 looked at 2017-2018 and said, “Hold my beer.”

I’ve been on my own here at the farm for the last three weeks now. With the shortened workdays, it’s been easier to get back in the habit of evening dog walks, and tentatively, afraid to reawaken the plantar fasciitis, I began taking them out again.

One of the things dog trainers recommend encouraging is something called ‘checking in’. That’s when your dog glances back at you to make sure you’re still with the pack, that we’re all still moving as one unit. You want to encourage this attention because you want your dog to be more focused on you than your surroundings, like the kid on the bicycle or the jogger headed toward you. Some dogs have to be trained to check in, though it is a natural reaction. My little terrier doesn’t check in at all, unless I call his name or crinkle the treat bag. But after about a week of walking every evening, I noticed Remington would not only check in visually, but he’d often drop back to touch my hand with his nose.

How you doing, there? You okay?

It made me wonder how often he’d done it before and I’d never noticed. That I was the one who’d checked out, who wasn’t paying attention. Daily we’d walk, and finally, finally, I was able to tune in to him.

“Not so hot, buddy. Truth is, I’m not okay.”

As the cracks widen, my emotions have been all over the map. Some days I’m calm in the face of knowing I’ve done all I can and continue to try to protect myself to the best of my ability. A big part of my COVID-19 preparations has been to outline a plan for the animals in case I become hospitalized or die. It’s made me really focus on how I would manage if I got very ill but was able to self-treat at home versus what to do if I became so sick I needed hospitalization for several weeks. Truth is, I believe if I get sick enough to need to check into an  ER, I’ll never come home.

Other days I’m dealing with escalating anxiety and near-panic attacks. Those emotions, never completely dealt with, always bubbling under the surface, erupt in strange ways over unexpected things. I heard someone liken this time period where many of us are waiting for the coronavirus to hit our area hard as pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and I for one, believe it. The other day I compared life as we know it now to being a caveman foraging for food in a hard-scrabble existence and learning there is a saber-tooth tiger somewhere in your area. Oh, and by the way, it’s invisible. My mood can swing from gallows humor to certainty I’ll be fine to wishing I’d get it and be done with it to nauseous with fear at the prospect of going to work again.

I’d joked about giving zero f*cks in the past, but in the face of a pandemic and the potential loss of everything you love, the phrase is taking on new meaning. Growing up in a household where appearance was given undue emphasis, I am no longer concerned about crow’s feet or carrying more pounds than I’d like. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about being embarrassed for squeeing over something I love. And though I have to work to keep both my health insurance and the money coming in to pay the bills, once this is over, something has to give there. It’s a funny thing but when you face your worst nightmare–and for me, that IS a pandemic–nothing else scares you nearly as much.

In the mornings, ten minutes before the alarm goes off, Remington climbs onto the bed, touches me with his nose, and curls up beside me until I have to get up. At night, he sprongs about on pogo-stick legs as we begin our walk, only to settle quickly into our usual routine. He chews on his bone quietly in the evenings now, when he used to pester and poke at me. I kept wondering what had changed until I realized it was me. I’d changed. I was cued in now.

Last night on our walk, as the red-wing blackbirds sang their welcome, spring songs and the wild redbud lit up the mountainside with their gorgeous blooms, I found myself thinking that Remington was a wise, gentle soul in a young dog’s body. That he was exactly the dog I needed right now, even though I’d been too blind and stupid to acknowledge that before.

He checked in with me, turning his head to touch my hand.

How you doing, there? Are you okay?

“Not really, buddy. But better because you’re here.”

Be safe. Be well. And love those you love with your whole heart.

 

 

 

 

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

Surviving the Daily News: Comfort Reads

At this year’s Romance Writer’s Association conference, keynote speaker Jennifer L. Armentrout made a powerful statement regarding our work as storytellers with an emphasis on happy endings: “Your stories save lives.”

On the surface, that may seem to some like a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think so. I can look back at cycles in my life where things were so bad, where every day was a struggle to get out of bed and go to work, where I found little joy in the things I cared about most, and I needed help to get through my day–again and again I can point to certain books that got me through those dark times. I tend to plunge into a series during these times, devouring at least a book a day. The story must engage and MUST end well. Surprisingly, mysteries often fit this bill, as long as they aren’t too grim or realistic. Mysteries that come to a satisfying conclusion can be just as good as romances for pulling me out of a dark news cycle or a life full of stress. The most important thing is that this form of entertainment not stress me further. That’s why romances reliably deliver the HEA I need when the world is a dumpster fire.

When things are really bad, I reach even farther back. I pull out the books of my youth: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or The Blue Castle. I dig out the horse (or dog) books I read as a child: Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, or the Black Stallion by Walter Farley, or Silver Chief: Dog of the North by Jack O’Brien.

Most of the time, I’m looking to recapture that joy experienced when I first read these books–the total immersion into another world. I can look to how many times I’ve re-read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters and recall the happiness it brings me instead of the circumstances which made me read it again.

So when I woke to another news cycle of horror, of people spouting useless platitudes instead of taking definitive action to end a cycle of unspeakable violence in our country, like many people, I furiously made my opinion known. I lent my voice to others saying ENOUGH. I magnified the voices of others calling for change. I wasn’t the only one.

But as the day went on, I noticed other voices quietly begging for recommendations for comfort reads and shows to watch to shut off the anxiety and depression these news cycles bring. I saw fellow authors express guilt for announcing new releases or cover art and heard other creators beg the collective community to keep celebrating their works. It’s not wrong to want relief from horrific world events, especially when we’re all more connected than ever, especially when it feels as though we’re hurtling toward a battlefield from which we can’t turn back.

We have a long battle in front of us. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop and rest along the way. That we shouldn’t eat or sleep until we win the war. That path leads to madness and a level of grief and depression we can’t overcome. It’s okay to curl up with a book and shut out the world for a while. To turn off social media and watch four or five episodes of Due South. To remember what it was like to immerse yourself in the Secret Garden or journey to Narnia.

It’s also okay for us as creators to keep creating. More than okay–it’s vital. Not only to our own mental health but to anyone who reads our story (or hangs our paintings, listens to our music, watches our films) and finds a measure of peace there.

So if you as an artist are feeling despair right now, remember, someone needs your work. And if you feel guilty for promoting your latest work, it’s okay to take pleasure in something positive we’ve created. There’s a lot of negative energy in this world. It’s not only okay to put back some pleasure, it’s part of the battle.

So tell me, what are your comfort reads/comfort watches? I want to know.

Pets in My Stories: The Joy and Heartbreak

Trigger warning for the loss of a pet

I’m in the homestretch of the current WIP, and I couldn’t resist adding a dog in the story.

Not just any dog, but this one. This ridiculously cute terrier who is a cuddlebug and the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet–unless confronted by vermin, in which case he’ll turn into a ferocious killer in the blink of an eye.

The dichotomy of his behavior is intriguing–and just a little amusing–to me. And since it suited the nature of the story, Captain makes an appearance in the upcoming Bishop Takes Knight, and if he has any say so in the matter, will be a series regular. I can’t wait to share him with you!

You’re going to find dogs, cats, and horses in most of my stories. Not just because my stories are set in shifter universes, but because animals are a big part of my life and I want to include them in my storytelling.

At the same time, I tend to get nervous when I read about animals in other stories or see them in movies. Killing the pet seems to be a common way of ratcheting up tension or creating emotional impact. Let me say up front that this is something that I don’t do as a general rule. I won’t say never because I believe in writing the story that needs to be told. But since so many times I’ve stopped reading a book or series because of the casual extermination of a pet for the purposes of creating angst, I’m extremely unlikely to do that myself. As a matter of fact, if an animal appears in a story, I frequently read ahead to make sure it doesn’t die or else I get someone else to read the book for me first.

There’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which describes itself as crowd-sourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books, and more. It has icons which indicate what stories include pet death, which ones end happily, and which ones seem to indicate the pet dies, but in the end, doesn’t. I routinely check this site out for movies, but haven’t spent as much time on it for books. I’m definitely going to do that more in the future.

But one of the things I hadn’t counted on when giving my pets roles in my stories is how sometimes it hurts when you lose the namesake–not in the book, but in real life.

Recently, I released Ghost of a Chance, in which the eponymous Ghost is a stray German Shepherd taken in by my heroine after her previous owner dies. The German Shepherd in the story was based on my very first dog, Abby, who’s been gone more years now than she was alive. I gave the dog in my story her personality, her courage. Having lost her so long ago, it was easy to give my fictional dog Abby’s traits and smile while doing so. But I chose the name from a little feral cat I’d started feeding and eventually trapped, neutered, and tamed.

He was still a wild animal, but he’d come running whenever I left the house with the dogs, and join us on our rambles around the property. He’d let me pet him, as long as I didn’t try to pick him up. Making him a house cat wasn’t an option. He wasn’t that tame.

Ghost rapidly became a favorite of mine, despite knowing how risky it is to give your love to a feral cat. Sadly, six months after I published Ghost of a Chance, my favorite wild cat was hit by a car. I knew he’d been crossing the road at night sometimes. I did everything I could to encourage him to hang around and not leave the property. I blamed myself for the disruption to the general environment with the heavy construction we’d undertaken, that probably threatened him enough to make him wander. In short, I was devastated.

For many weeks afterward, I found it hard to look at the book I’d so joyfully written. I couldn’t think about it without remembering the shy little cat I’d loved and lost.

It wasn’t until I re-read another story in which I’d included a cameo from another pet now deceased that I was able to see this with new eyes. I’d written a little fluffy piece of fanfic and included my dog, Sampson, for the fun of it. I lost Sampson two years ago to cancer, but in my story, he was alive, tongue lolling, tail wagging, eyes alight with mischief, ready to go for a walk (or to chase a bear up the side of a mountain). 

When I wrote that story, I had no idea I’d be losing him so soon. I also didn’t give much thought to how I might feel years later, coming across that story again. When I began reading, that same emotional wrench of loss was there–but as I read on, I became fiercely glad I’d included him.

It was no different from taking a photo or video that I could look back on with a teary smile, remembering the joy he brought me. I’d captured his essence, and it would always be with me.

As Abby the dog and Ghost the cat live in Ghost of a Chance. As Captain will live in Bishop Takes Knight.

Being immortalized in that manner isn’t such a bad thing after all.

 

The Right Dog for the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine lost his dog a while back. After a prolonged search for the ‘right’ pup to replace his beloved Max, he finally brought home a gorgeous little Aussie female a few weeks ago.

And has been bending my ear with complaints about her ever since.

She’s too energetic. She’s mouthy. She’s being difficult to housebreak. She’s not cuddly. Max was never this bad.

I get it–I do. It’s hard when everyone you see on social media with a new puppy seems totally besotted with it–and you’re not feeling that same joy. It’s hard to get back into puppy mode when you’ve had 14 years of not-puppy mode. Time tends to blur your memory of how difficult the last puppy was and grief over your loss places the previous dog on a pedestal.

But after constant texts and phone calls from my friend, my stock of patience is used up.

Probably because I’m annoyed with myself as much as I am with my friend.

See, I did the same thing. My beloved Sampson was diagnosed with cancer less than a month after my mother died of a heart attack. I had to say goodbye less than a month after that. And though I knew better, I made an emotional decision to get another puppy right away rather than waiting until I was ready.

After telling everyone I’d never have another big, energetic dog again–that it was time to downsize–that’s exactly what I got. I found myself impulse-buying a puppy after I’d brought my husband with me to look at the litter for the sole purpose of preventing me from doing just that. And it probably would have been okay, only the cycle of loss in my life wasn’t done. I took hit after hit that year and into the next.

I didn’t neglect the puppy. I worked hard at socializing him–both with people and other dogs. He met over 100 people by the time he was four months old, and I set up scores of play dates with appropriate dogs to teach him the skill set he needed to get along. We went through Basic Obedience 1 and 2, and when he was old enough, I started him in agility classes. He even passed his Canine Good Citizenship test (admittedly by the skin of his teeth).

I love him. How can you not love that face? But with all my grieving, and then the subsequent depression, I withheld the one thing he needed the most: me.

I didn’t give him my whole heart. I was still protecting that.

It took listening to my friend gripe about his Not-Max puppy for me to fully realize what I’d done. Remington turned two recently, and I’m only now recognizing that for all the dogs I’ve had, he’s one of the calmest, most “adult” puppies I’ve ever raised.

I don’t think I could have dealt with anything more energetic than he is. He is extraordinarily gentle in nature. I’m so very lucky to have him.

I don’t deserve him.

He came into my life when I was mentally, physically, and emotionally unable to connect. I based my decision to get him on a gut feeling without giving it the full commitment to make the choice a good one.

But as I said in the previous post about Sampson, I believe specific dogs come into our lives to teach us specific lessons. While Sampson’s final lesson seemed to be to teach me how to live in the moment, Remington’s lesson right now is about commitment. That you only get out what you put in. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about puppies, or relationships, or that story you’ve been working on.

I told my friend he needed to commit 100% to his new puppy. Right now. And don’t look back. Because sometimes you get the right dog for the wrong reasons.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have a thing for mushrooms. Not to eat (I think I read too many murder mysteries where the victims were taken out with the local mushrooms) but to photograph. There is something magical about them–not only their variety and color, but also how rapidly they can grow–seemingly overnight!

My mushroom photo collection is extensive, and I delight in spying some delicate fungal growth hiding beneath fallen leaves or nestled in pine needles during my morning dog walks.

Just the other day, I took these side by side images–both probably Aminita species, which contain some of the most toxic mushrooms known. My fingers are in the frame for scale. The first image is of a typical mushroom growing in my yard right now. The second is one I found growing beneath the horse trailer. I’ve never seen one so large before! And I swear, it wasn’t there a few days ago…

I can’t do justice to the second mushroom, as it was hidden up under the horse trailer. But trust me when I say it was bigger than a NERF football!

 

 

 

But while I admire mushrooms in the wild, I confess I am less enthralled with them when they are continually popping up in my fenced yard. It goes back to reading all those British murder mysteries as an impressionable teenager and the likelihood these particular shrumes are Aminita species. Mushrooms in that family account for 50% of all mushroom-related deaths in people and most of them in dogs.

With all the heavy rains we’ve had here, the mushrooms are literally growing overnight. For the last couple of days, I’ve been pulling up mushrooms as I find them in the area where the dogs play, and I’ve been getting at least five pounds a day, I kid you not.

I’ve also had to induce vomiting in one of my dogs, after catching him gnoshing on a mushroom before I could stop him. So under the principle of better safe than sorry, I pull them up.

But their prolific nature has me paranoid now. Every afternoon I head out to the yard with a garbage bag and a set of plastic gloves to pull up mushrooms. They hide under leaf litter. They prefer shade and wet mulchy dirt. They love rotten logs and deep grass. And so I scan the area, digging them up as I go, trying to get as much of the root as possible. Just when I’m convinced I’ve located all the ones there are to find that day, I spy another one: sometimes a bright button of color mimicking the fallen leaves, sometimes a dull brown nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding soil.

I love autumn. October is my absolute favorite time of year. I love how the light changes in spectrum from white to gold as it slants through the trees on an autumn afternoon. I love how it lights up the grass from within, making it glow. I love the first hint of frost in the morning air, and that whiff of wood smoke, too. I love the sound of dead leaves scurrying across a sidewalk or crunching underfoot. Nothing makes me happier than pulling out my chunky sweaters in maroon and gold, or pulling on my favorite pair of boots. Give me a book, a blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa, and I’m a happy camper. Autumn is a gallop across fields of drying grass while the mountains all around burst into color. It’s watching the dogs frisk with glee on the morning walk because of the nip in the air. It’s smiling as you hear the honk of migrating geese, and look up to see them fly in V formation overhead.

But darn it, it’s also when the mushrooms proliferate like mad. And until we get a hard frost, I’m going to be removing them from the yard.

(T-Rex for scale…)

And Now We Are Two

Captain and I took our first walk together without Sampson this evening.

After an uncomfortable evening, in which more than once I woke up because I didn’t hear the stertorous breathing that has marked Sampson’s respirations these past weeks and I thought he had died, he only picked at his home-cooked breakfast this morning. His legs threatened to give out on him when I took him outside, and I knew it was time.

Of course, he perked up when I took him to the vet’s–enough to eat treats at the hands of the staffers who have known him most of his life–but that’s exactly what I wanted. Him still able to motor in under his own steam, if somewhat wobbly. Not glassy-eyed and in distress because he couldn’t breathe. Still bestowing tail-wags and kisses, even though the wide stance of his legs was yet another indicator of how hard he was working to move air.

The process went as smoothly and peacefully as anyone could hope for. He was ready. A pawprint was made. Next week, his ashes will be returned to me and together, Captain, my husband, and I will scatter them along one of our favorite walks.

But oh, it felt so strange to be just Captain and me this evening. This is the first time in nearly twenty years I haven’t had a big dog by my side. I was conscious not just of the absence of his presence, but of a sense of vulnerability I haven’t felt in a very long time.

There will be another big dog at some point. I’ve been looking at my schedule and seeing when the best time to introduce a puppy would be. Not because I didn’t love Sampson, or because I’m trying to replace him, but because I loved him so much his absence leaves a huge hole that only another fuzzy little face can fill.

Goodnight, Sampson.

Who’s a good boy? You are.

Take Your Time

These days, we’re walking more slowly.

Where once the dogs dragged me along as though we were running the Iditarod, these days, there is slack in the leash. Sampson either walks alongside me in perfect heel position, or lags a few steps behind. Captain and I are learning to match his pace, to not push him too much.

I no longer play Pokeman Go when walking the dogs. Though I still enjoy the game, these days, I’m more aware of how Sampson is breathing, and whether or not I need to give him a break. We’ve been blessed by cool weather–for days now, the breeze has been damp caress, ruffling my hair gently in passing. I’m grateful because it has given us a little more time. I realize even without the increased heat our time together is limited, but the typical Carolina humidity is going to play havoc with Sampson’s ability to breathe.

But each day, I see the gradual decline. His appetite is beginning to fail, and I, someone who can barely be persuaded to cook for herself or family, am scouring the internet looking for tempting, wholesome recipes for my dog that won’t upset his stomach. In the past month since his diagnosis, he’s begun to lose muscle at an alarming rate too. And he seems to have gone gray almost overnight. The rate at which the cancer is aging him is nearly unbelievable. It’s like when one of those space vampires on that show Stargate Atlantis suck the life out of their victims, leaving them old before their time. The hiking trip we took just a few weeks ago would be impossible today. I’m so glad we went when we did.

And yet, while I think he is enjoying being spoiled with special food, I don’t think he needs special trips. He’s happy just to go on our daily walks. These days, we mostly go to the playground, and he actually slows down as we pass the jungle gym in the hopes some children will come out and tell him how handsome he is.

The days when he desperately needed to run off leash to burn the energy off of him are gone. A car can pass within feet of us and he barely reacts. That’s okay. It’s kind of restful, actually. And when we’re in the big hayfield behind the house, I do let him off lead. He and Captain putter around in the weeds, the little Jack Russell running circles around the tired old Shepherd.

And he is getting tired. I can see it in his eyes. I know the time is coming when I will have to make a decision. But today, we sat in the hayfield for a while, admiring the view. I have him to thank for that. For making me slow down. For reminding me to listen for the calls of the meadow larks and the redwing blackbirds. To close my eyes against the background hum of lawn mowers in the distance, and smell fresh-cut grass on the damp wind.

 

Today by the ball field, we were approached by a family who wanted to pet him. Soon we were surrounded by a small crowd, with Sampson in the middle, wagging his tail and holding court. The mother, sharing that they too had a Shepherd, asked how old Sampson was. My voice caught as I answered because his birthday is soon and I’m not sure he’ll see it. I found myself telling them he had cancer. You could feel the sorrow close over the group as soon as I said the words.

Afterward, Sampson turned back toward the car, choosing to cut our walk short for the first time in his life.

I wish I’d started these posts sooner. I know Captain and I will still go walking once Sampson is gone. I know I will get another dog, and will share the joys and frustrations of having a puppy again after so long without one. But Sampson has taught me that more than ever, life is but the blink of an eye, the space of one heartbeat and the next. I’ve never had a decade pass so swiftly in my recollection. More than anything, I’ve spent that decade working. I know I will have to continue to work hard to make ends meet.

But life is also more than just making ends meet. Sometimes we have to chase the ball. Sometimes we need to lie in green fields and drink in the late afternoon sun. Mostly, we need to just be.

That’s the greatest gift dogs teach us.

 

Walking with Sampson

My dog Sampson is dying.

He has a mass in his chest the size of a grapefruit, a lesion called hemangiosarcoma, which is common in older Shepherds. It’s a miracle he’s even breathing, let alone eating, playing, and seriously considering chasing that car when it goes past us on our evening walks. Aside from breathing a little hard all the time and slowing down on our walks, you wouldn’t know he was as ill as he is. The last three evenings I’ve taken him down to the local playing fields. Children are drawn to him like a magnet. They come boiling off the baseball diamonds and tennis courts like a swarm of bees, running up to us. “May we pet your dog?”

I make them slow down (because seriously, you don’t run up to a Shepherd waving rackets or baseball bats) but my fears are groundless. Sampson’s ears melt back in happy anticipation of the adoration that is his due, his tail wagging as the kids run their hands all over him. Several times I’ve been tempted to say something. To tell them he has cancer. But I don’t. I don’t because he is so happy and they are so happy, and how can I spoil that moment?

He doesn’t have much time left. We know this.

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.

I firmly believe that dogs come into our lives at various times to teach us lessons when we need them most. I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing dogs in my life. My first Shepherd taught me what it was like to be loved completely and totally for who I was. My second taught me life was more than just getting through the day and set me on a path of life-changing self-discovery I’d never have taken without her. I changed careers because of that dog.

Even though Sampson has an inoperable mass in his chest, I consider us fortunate in that not only do we have time to adjust to the realization we’re going to lose him soon, but he is teaching me much about living for the present. Making the most of each day. How to be a dog.

I spend far too much time these days either living in the past (reacting to events that should no longer be affecting me but still do) or worrying about the future and things I can’t control. Each of us only gets today. Yes, we’re probably overworked and utterly exhausted because that seems to be the American Way, but we have to remember the things that make life worth living. Believe me, it seems like only a couple of years ago, I brought home a fuzzy little moose-puppy. In reality, it was over a decade, and yet it seems like the blink of an eye.

When I go walking with the dogs in the woods, I am reminded of Thoreau: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

That is what Sampson is teaching me right now. I’m very much aware I’ve spent a good deal of the last decade griping at him to go lie down. I wish now we’d gone hiking more often. That I’d been more patient with his enthusiastic energy. That I’d told my employers ‘screw it’ and spent that time with those that I love.

I can’t undo that now, but I can be the person my dog thinks I am. I can’t quite manage the bucket list thing, but I am determined to make the time Sampson has left be the best it can be. I know on some level, he’s happy as long as we’re together and he doesn’t have to fight for my attention. That’s not quite enough for me, though. So a few weeks ago, I impulsively rented a dog-friendly cabin at a state park, and the four of us–the husband, Sampson, me, and little Captain– went away for an isolated weekend in the woods.

The weather was perfect. The daytime temps were in the upper thirties and lower forties–brisk but not so cold to make long walks in the woods unpleasant. The nights were brilliantly cold in the manner that took your breath away, as did the stars overhead when you stepped outside the cabin at night. No internet. No television. We sat in front of the fire and read while the dogs napped at our feet, tired from the day’s walks. I didn’t want to come home. Best. Weekend. Ever.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. A reminder life is more than just getting through the day. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Hawaii to reconnect with those you love. You just have to unplug and look at them.

There will be more walks with Sampson. And when he is gone, there will be more walks with Captain, and whatever new dog I accept into my life. I just hope I can retain these lessons in my heart so the next dog–and everyone else I love–can benefit from them.

The cabin had a little journal where campers could leave messages. The book was nearly full–there was just a tiny amount of space left on the last page. Most of the entries had been written by children, stating how much they’d loved their week of swimming and hiking. I left this post: