Saturday, February 7, 2015

Memories of Dog Walking


I feel the tug at the end of the leash as Sierra and I start out for a rare, long walk in our neighborhood. With a husband, nearly two-year-old, and another one on the way, “me” time is virtually non-existent. My lone walks with Sierra are a rare treat, often made more rare by the changing seasons. Spring and fall are the ideal times for us to walk for long distances, unless we are hit by rain that leaves her thick fur drenched. I love those spring walks, once the ground has thawed and I’m no longer afraid of falling on the black ice. We can go out after dinner without being afraid of bugs, and we both love the cool nights that Midwestern springs offer. I’ve always loved the change in seasons, and the new smells of spring help reinvigorate me. But then the warmth of spring turns into the heat and humidity of summer, and there is never a right time to walk our dog during the hottest summer nights. Sierra is a full blooded Siberian Husky, and no, we do not shave her in the summer. We get asked that every summer when people see us out with her, but shaving snow dogs is one of the worst things you can do. Their thick fur keeps them cool, and once the skin is exposed, they are more susceptible to bugs, particularly fleas. We discovered that two years ago when we had her groomed; instead of working through her thick, matted winter fur, the groomers decided to take the easy way out by shaving her. We had never seen more fleas on our dog than we did in the months that followed, as early spring turned to a hot summer. It is an experience she never fully recovered from, and we haven’t been able to get her professionally groomed since. I’m sure that she saw it as the beginning of the end of her being the favorite “child,” as our daughter Lydia was born two months after the incident, changing all of our lives forever. Walks are the only time she gets my sole attention, and the only time she gets to escape her little “sister”.

The change in family dynamics has not changed my love of the shift to fall, when I can smell the fires, the trees changing colors, and Sierra gets to run through the leaves that our neighbors have piled up for city pick-up. Sierra loves the change to fall as well. It’s finally cool enough that she is not finished walking after ten to fifteen minutes, and she doesn’t fight me when I want to walk further. Instead, she turns into a puppy again, acting like she did eight years ago when we brought her home and took her walking in the Hobart park. These first walks took us around the small lake that bordered downtown Hobart, IN, giving her the chance to be admired by everyone enjoying the seasonal activities the park offered, as well as instilling in her a love for popcorn due to the trail of popcorn dropped by the humans milling around the lake. The years drop off of Sierra when the weather turns cold. Her tail is up in the air and she bounds from side to side, stopping to smell everything and rolling in leaves that litter front yards. During these times, she often breaks into my solitude, forcing me to wake up from whatever thoughts I have lost myself in because I have to keep reminding her that we have more walking and exploring to do. I am also happy for the escape from home and the enjoyment of fall after a hot, humid summer.

Solitude is really a funny word to me. As a busy wife and mom, my alone time comes in spurts: shopping trips, the days I take Lydia to daycare so that I can get homework and grading done, painting yet another room in our slowly changing house. It is something I know that I need, but I admit to feeling guilty when I take that time alone. Before we had Lydia, I didn’t mind that occasional night that Jeff would have to be away for work. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be around him, or that I didn’t miss him once I was in bed and his side of the bed stayed cold, but because I could have that alone time guilt free. Now one of the only times I can claim legitimate alone time is when I am walking Sierra. We both need the exercise and it’s easier to have one person take her as opposed to the whole family. That doesn’t erase the guilt of not spending time with my husband and daughter, or not working on homework, grading, or the chores at home. But it is something that I need to do, for our whole family’s sake. It’s my constant struggle, and I often wonder how my mother dealt with the need for solitude as a stay-at-home mom with four daughters and a busy husband.

I first discovered the solitude in walking Sierra while walking in our neighborhood in Indianapolis. We lived on the southside of Indianapolis in a neighborhood that was established in the 1970s and 1980s. Modest middle class families occupied the homes that lined the streets, but when the recession started to hit, I increasingly saw empty houses as we journeyed down the sidewalk. Houses that appeared to have a stable family living in them were suddenly empty, with no sign of it being on the market, and often weeks later, small signs were placed in the windows, indicating that the house was now bank property. It was sad to see homes that had so much potential falling apart as they waited for someone to occupy them. Jeff and I had put so much time and energy into fixing and updating our 35 year old house, including remodeling the kitchen, that it was difficult to see other houses in the neighborhood not being taken care of. It wasn’t just the decrease in our home value, it was the knowledge we were working so hard to make our home better, and others weren’t doing their part. In some ways I hope that the stability of our new neighborhood is symbolic of a stability that will eventually greet our family. We went from a neighborhood with several houses for sale and empty to a neighborhood with no houses for sale, all of them occupied by older couples and families with the occasional younger family (including us) adding to the neighborhood flavor. It had also become increasingly important to me that we eventually escape the culture of our neighborhood before our kids were old enough to be aware of what was being said and done around them. It was never dangerous, just not the environment I wanted my children to be in. While I didn’t want to leave Indianapolis, the transfer forced our hand in relocating.
 
I have always hated venturing out on moonless nights, and this was especially true in our last neighborhood. If I left our home after the sun had set, I was guaranteed little light on the sidewalks unless every family was home on the block and had their front porch lights on. This was usually not a problem during the summer months, as people were often out and about. Teens, and preteens pretending to be teens, would walk up and down the street, ignoring the sidewalk that neighborhood planners had put there long before they were born to give residents a place to walk safely. Depending on the day of the week, we would see our “red-neck” neighbors from across the street riding their four-wheelers up and down the street. It was a busy neighborhood, but I was still able to find peace in knowing that I was out on my own, with only my dog to interrupt my thoughts. During these warm months, as I walked Sierra around the block, I could smell the remainders of grilled dinners or the start of small fires being lit in the privacy of backyard firepits. Usually, the only thing I feared on those nights were the unexpected encounter with neighborhood dogs that were allowed to roam free, their owners not appearing to care where they were or whether they were safe. I hated these encounters. I would be lost in thought, completely shut out from the world with earbuds in, enjoying whatever was playing on my MP3 player, and suddenly I would have to reign in Sierra and make a quick decision about where or what my next course of action was going to be. I knew that most of these dogs were not behind electric fences, and I didn’t know who to call on if we really did have a problem. I am not normally afraid of dogs, but those moments terrified me, and in my head I would run through all the possible scenarios, making sure that I had my cell phone in my pocket in case I needed to make a quick call to Jeff. This was yet another example of people in our neighborhood not taking care of their belongings, which never stopped being frustrating. I also didn’t want to cut the walks short, but often felt like I needed to. The irresponsibility of others led to my inability to return home to my family mentally, physically, and emotionally refreshed. And I needed to return home refreshed. Otherwise, why was I spending time out in the neighborhood when I could instead be at home snuggled up with my husband and daughter?

The dark nights were primarily a problem on those winter nights when I decided to brave the cold. I often got home from teaching or play rehearsal too late, which meant that if either of us were going to get exercise, it had to happen late. People on our block often did not shovel their sidewalks in addition to their driveway, and when we did have snow on the ground, I either had to trudge through the snow, which I’ve decided is worse than walking in sand, or be careful of the ice that would pop up at the most unfortunate times. There was the one afternoon that I was at home for a day off of school and slipped and fell, sending me back to the chiropractor. Sierra noticed that I wasn’t following her anymore when she hit the end of her leash and did her best to help me by returning to me to make sure I was ok, but the rest of the walk home was slow. Since then I have been cautious to go out in the snow, which Sierra fails to understand. It is frustrating for both of us, but I know she thinks that I’m just keeping her a prisoner inside. The reality is, the winter months are difficult for me as well, as I feel the need to stay inside where it is warm and safe and I rarely get the walks that I need for exercise and alone time. Cabin fever becomes a real problem for both of us, and I repeatedly have to remind myself that she is more anxious to get outside than I am, which is why she is driving us all crazy by the time the snow has all melted.

Darkness is also a problem in our new neighborhood. With few streetlights, and houses set off of the street, it is a struggle to see the path in front of us as we walk at night. While there are dogs in our neighborhood, there are fewer dogs roaming free, and I’m less concerned about an unfortunate run-in. There is the one house with the dog the size of a bear that bounces and barks behind an electric fence, but even he does not pose a threat. But we still do not really know the neighborhood, and it not only makes those winter walks spooky, but often lonely. It is those times that solitude can turn to isolation, a feeling I loathe, but it is a feeling that is inevitable in a new town. A part of me hopes that we will develop relationships with some people once the weather turns warm and are outside again. Thankfully, the house we bought has been plenty of an icebreaker with neighbors. Our house was empty for so long, that most people in our neighborhood are curious about the people who were not only “stupid” enough to buy it, but I know they want to know what we have done with the property. At least I know that is how we felt about the houses around us in Indianapolis as they were bought up and given, at the very least, facelifts.

Now as we adjust to a new neighborhood, we are even less in the city than we were before. Our neighborhood is even older, with houses, including ours, built starting in the 1950s. We have no sidewalks, so I have to walk Sierra on the road. We have learned to appreciate our new neighborhood, and I like walking her around quiet streets with no fear of being run over by a rogue four-wheeler. We have our “short” route and “long” route, and while family walks often entail us taking the short route, Sierra and I get to enjoy the long route whenever time, daylight,  and energy allow. The houses in our immediate neighborhood have large yards, which gives Sierra even more space to explore as we walk up the slow incline which takes us further from our neighborhood and closer to the newer subdivision that sits behind our subdivision. We often jokingly refer to the neighborhood as “fancy-pants land”, but while the houses are nice, they are not ostentatious. 

The long road leading from our subdivision to the back entrance of the newer subdivision feels more like a country road, even though we are still in the city limits of Fort Wayne. This time of year, Sierra’s presence sends the Canadian geese occupying the field adjacent to the new subdivision flying, their annoying honking irritating us both as we walk past them. Sierra rarely tries to chase them, preferring to stay safely by me, which makes Jeff and me wonder if we got the least adventurous Siberian Husky on the planet. The houses in the new subdivision are newer, slightly larger, and more decorative, which I guess makes them nicer than the houses in our more established neighborhood, but they are no longer brand new. I’ve always loved houses and architecture, and as I look at the houses I catch myself dreaming that we will someday own a similar house, even though our fixer-upper is the largest house in the neighborhood, and by the time we are finished with the hundreds of projects facing us, will also be the nicest. Still, it is nice to dream of moving into a house that does not have to be completely redone, a house that just needs painting and unpacking for us to be happy with it. But these ventures into “fancy-pants land” are really just an escape from the responsibilities and problems facing me when I return home. Since moving into our house, we have not only torn out carpeting and painted several rooms, but we also had a surprise replacement of our HVAC system and well pump. And then there is the bathroom that we feel we need to renovate before the baby arrives in four short months. When I’m home I’m reminded of what still needs to be done, and that the money has completely run out. But the dream to “fix” is still there, probably instilled by watching This Old House with my dad when I was younger, and Jeff watching his parents completely renovate their old farmhouse over the last 25 years they have lived there.

When Sierra and I get those lone walks together, I finally have a chance to experience the quiet and think, without someone invading my thoughts or asking me questions. Even when I have my earbuds in, it is just the two of us, and Sierra is more interested in sniffing out the trail of the last dog to walk our path than she is in my thoughts. During these walks I have pondered the various decisions that have faced us over the last eight years she has been a member of our family, or come up with new lesson plans and strategies to use in my classroom. I sometimes wonder if I should start taking a recording device so that I can record all the thoughts that I have while walking, as often they prove very helpful to either me or others.

It was during a walk with Sierra that I devised my initial plan for returning to graduate school. I had been working as the theatre director for our high school, and the increasing pressure of not having studied theatre in college convinced me that my new life goal should be to get my MAT in Theatre at IU. Little did I know that my rejection would become a blessing when in the year following our daughter’s birth, I discovered that I really just wanted to teach English and work on improving myself as an English teacher. I wanted my career focus to be on the students in my classroom, not the smaller number of students that I saw after school for several hours. This change of heart was also brought about by the change in our family dynamics as I realized that I really wanted to spend my time focusing on being a wife, mother, and teacher. Everything else had to be put to the side, something that became even more apparent shortly after our daughter was born. 

When Jeff came home the day after we had friends over to celebrate my thirtieth birthday and asked me how I felt about moving to Fort Wayne, walking Sierra, with Lydia strapped into a front carrier, became the only way for me to deal with the questions that had my head spinning. Sierra knew our walking routine, and I let her lead me as I cried and repeatedly asked God why he could possibly want us to move to another city, away from a job and friends that I loved. There didn’t seem to be an easy answer, but because I had a difficult time doing anything but acting like a sulky sixteen-year-old when Jeff would want to talk about it, I needed those times to myself. Lydia was still young enough that she wasn’t aware of what was going on, and was often rocked to sleep by the motions of the front carrier. Even my crying didn’t awake her during the first couple weeks of me trying to come to terms with a potential decision that would change our family forever.

Once we moved to Fort Wayne, walking the dog in our neighborhood was often the only time that I could really be honest with how difficult life had become for me. In the last seven months, walks in our neighborhood have calmed me and allowed me to return to my husband and daughter refreshed and ready to deal with the issues that face us as a family, instead of ignoring their needs and wallowing in my own depression and loneliness. And those walks have helped me figure out how I really feel about being here, and have given me the space to accept that this might be the best place for us right now as a family. I am looking forward to the spring, and seeing what our neighborhood looks like as it wakes up from a winter slumber. We first saw our house in late March, when we felt like our home search was coming to a frustrating end, but we were so focused on the dreams we had for the house, that we never really paid attention to the changes that were occurring around it. And still, as I walk with Sierra and prepare for the birth of our new baby, those walks will continue to be those rare moments when I get to be alone and refocus so I can turn my attention to my growing family.

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