Lesson from the Lake: Soggy Dogs and Smelly Fish

I went to the lake yesterday. I wish I could say that with more enthusiasm. Actually, since this is type you have no idea how much enthusiasm might be going into my typing; my fingers could literally be bouncing off the keys with zest and verve. However, the distinct absence of exclamation points should clue you in.

As an aside: I hate exclamation points. I have a friend from childhood who peppers her writing–she’s not a writer, but in emails and letters and posts–with exclamation points. Everything deserves one! She’s always terribly excited to tell you that she picked up some new shoelaces and a head of cabbage! Things are looking up!!! And the more exclamation points she includes, the more vividly I envision myself beating her senseless with her own keyboard. Er, with her own fucking keyboard!!!!!!!!

Anyway, weekday lake trips buoyed this blog into existence during my second semester of graduate school. (I still cannot believe I’m writing about it in the past tense, now.) I went out there in the snow, and in the frost, and eventually, in the warmth and sunshine. I hiked and sat and wrote and ice-walked and kayaked. It was great. But in all that time, I never once went to the lake in the rain.

Now wait a minute, you say. The rain isn’t a bad thing to a nature-lover. The world feels different in the rain. It’s quiet and wonderfully solitary. Provided you have the right clothing, a hike in the rain can introduce you to things you won’t ordinarily see. The forest smells peatier; tiny creeks form, giving you hints of where ravines will someday turn into foothills and gulches. (Gulch is far and away my favorite word in the English language. I’m going to name my next cat Gulch.) The rain reveals a little-seen world in the woods if you’ve packed the right shoes. And even if you haven’t, as the cantankerous bag-lady at Kroger once sniped at me when I frowned at a downpour, “You’re not made of sugar; you won’t melt.”

You know, I’d really like to stick that bitch in the mouth. I had a pie with me. Meringue.

But for whatever reason, Piedmont Lake has never been a place I want to be in the rain. I’m ashamed to say that it has something to do with the fact that I’m unplugged out there. Even with the world’s biggest pile of books, I sometimes need to feel connected. Now, not often. I usually go to Piedmont to get away. But when it rains, I’m forced into the house, and when I’m forced into the house, I’m also forced into sitting with myself in the silence. And myself and I have trouble when it’s just the two (one) of us. We start thinking about the rejection email we got from McSweeney’s (again), and the fact that we just spent $40k on a degree that offers rejection emails rather than paychecks. And then we decide to open the fridge and dig out last summer’s s’mores kit, which by now is just a bag of sugar-rocks and broken graham crackers that taste like freon. And we gnaw on them and gag at the taste and our self-pity, and I tell myself I can’t stand her presence because she brings me down.

On a dismal day, Piedmont Lake throws off nothing but gray and self-pity. And I hate self-pity. It’s an unattractive quality and a bad habit. Today, though, I just couldn’t shake it.

Some days, I just feel like a jacked-up dock in a cold drizzle.

I went out to clean the cabin in preparation for the summer season and tackled the filthy beast until every dead millipede and every live roach (especially the one I found skulking under my pillow) had been swept away. The dogs waited as patiently as they possibly could for me to finish so they could trot down to the lake, where the scene was quite dreary. As there was no wind, the rain fell straight down onto a mirrored surface. One miserable fisherman puttered along the shoreline past the dock, and I wondered if he felt as cranky as I did. The fish rarely bite in the rain.

To my surprise, Nugget and Maya reacted with an initial lack of enthusiasm too. The one thing I’ve learned from 37 years of owning dogs is that they like the rain about as much as I do. They’ll allow their bladders to fill to the point of rupture before they’ll pee in a heavy downpour, and if she can sneak away from the humans, Nugget will happily leave a steamy pile in the foyer rather than get her girly paws wet. Down by the lake, both girls picked their way through the long grass, which was overdue for a mow, and looked about as happy as I felt.

But of course, dogs impart teachable moments to us wherever they go, if we’re receptive. When you’re a dog, something always comes along to perk you up. Rather than mope and pity themselves, they keep their noses to the ground, always seeking treasure, ever-confident that it will appear. Dogs’ opportunistic nature should be a lesson to all of us; something great lies just around the bend at any given time. For my girls, something great did indeed lie around the bend. Something great and dead and decomposing.

What can we learn from the dog?

First and foremost, we too must keep our noses to the ground so we don’t miss whatever wonderful, smelly, desiccated corpse happens to be lying on the shore of the lake. And when we find it, we should roll in it with abandon, digging our shoulders into the acrid, rotting scales because these rare jewels come along infrequently in life.

Follow me through the guts of this metaphor, if you will.

Yes, I’m telling you to roll in the dead fish like a dog. Carpe carpem: seize the fish. Roll until the stink of joy covers you, because that joy, that stink, is fleeting, and all too soon some higher power will come along and lure you out onto the end of the dock and throw you into the lake.

Poor Nugget never saw it coming. She was so happy to reek and so stunned when I tossed her in the drink. Yet, like any dog, she bore me no ill will and came right back onto the dock with a sodden, wagging tail, never once imagining that I might do it again. I didn’t. And while I apologized to her, and wrung out her dripping beard, Maya found the fish and plucked it from the wet grass in her jaws, carrying both it and her tail high. A most precious treasure.

I admit I didn’t see it this way at the time. Possibly, I yelled, “Oh my gawd put that down you dirty dog!” Possibly, I ended the excursion and went back inside, wet and resentful and appalled. Possibly, I’m now only realizing that I stripped them of their beloved prize in a predictably human way.

I mean, it was a rotting carp. The girls stunk. And I despise the lemons-into-lemonade cliche. But, perhaps we should all look for the dead fish on dreary days. Otherwise, it’s just a soggy walk in the rain.

Bonus Entry: Chatty Writer Blathers Truth

*Please see the next blog post for the Official Nature Writing Blog Post of Week 6. This is a blather that I cannot keep in, because I blather.*

Now that I’ve spent a brief few moments exploring my senses and paying homage to the brilliant sun and a sky that makes me feel as though death would be nothing more than lying contentedly on a slab of ice alone (in a good way…sometimes lying on a slab of ice isn’t as much fun as others, say, after a hockey stick to the face or when you’ve just been pulled out of a morgue drawer), I can tell you what else happened. If you read this one, read the post below first. That’s the official one. It was all true and honest. So is this. Pam Houston and her 20% can go pick an ear.

When I left the house it was in disarray. School was letting out at 11:30am, and I had to make a 50 minute drive out, do my contemplative thing, and make another 50 minute drive home. AND make time to tinker with the toilet because it needs antifreeze and I had so much coffee that there’s no way I was going to get away with a quick wilderness tinkle behind my mother’s boxwoods. I left childen unshodden and a husband in the shower undoubtedly staring off into space having deep thoughts about man things like boobs and NATO.

When the girls and I arrived, they bolted for the lake. In the cabin I donned heavy snow pants, ski gloves, a balaclava that makes me look like an egglplant, and a hat over top of that. (I knit the hat myself, so I might as well have worn a paper towel on my head for all of the warmth it offered.)

I had my phone/camera out taking photos of the rock where I learned to jump as child. I was taken by the way it has a quiet cave underneath its eastern corner, and I always think I’d be the fat little bass that hangs out under there 5 days a week until the children come on weekends to throw sticks and pee off the edge. Being a writer, I can’t really just enjoy looking at a rock. I have to find meaning in a rock. Metaphor. Make a comparison. Find a symbol. Gah. It’s a rock that has an uppy corner. Shut up. You’re not a bass. You’re an ass.

The warmth of the sun called me out onto the ice and I decided to test its thickness with my own body weight rather than something sensible like a rock or one of my dogs. (That’s why I take two out there, right? Let’s be honest. I’ve got my ice-testing dog and my spare dog. They’re like birth control–it never hurts to double up because nobody likes an unexpected swimmer.)

My ego decided to come with me today. In my yoga class we’ve started this baloney of taking off all of our clothing, putting on some gaudy yoga pants and a tank top, going out into the snow and striking a yoga pose. And then we send them to each other and dare each other to top it. I wasn’t about to take off all of my clothing, but I decided to set up the camera, hit “record” and film myself doing a bit of eagle out on the ice. Wrapping my legs around each other, binding my arms was tough in so many thick layers, but I did it. As I retrieved the camera phone, again my vanity got the better of me and I hit “play”. There was my dumpy winter form on the beautiful ice, contorting itself into knots, and there behind me was my German Shepherd succumbing to an explosion of bloody diarrhea. Namaste, idiot.

Eagle ego: dog diarrhea
not pictured

That smart phone has an uncanny ability to reflect buffoonery every time. It calls me out like an overly-honest 4-year-old, the same one who appeared in the shower stall the other day to tell me I had some real nice flappy boobs, and how did I to go the bathroom without a penis anyway?

The commotion was happening along the shoreline. I was down-dogging on a slippery patch of ice uncovered by the wind, and for once there was no hot breath in my face. Again, as with a little kid, silence means they’re into something. When I regained my footing, Maya and Nugget were on the shoreline, digging furiously, and something was squealing. Chirping. Barking?

Boat pose: the only boat on the lake

Moving in snow pants and thick boots isn’t easy when you’re moseying; when you’re hauling buns it’s nearly impossible. I couldn’t get there fast enough, and when I did, there was blood all over the ice. Maya was smiling up at me with a beet-red mouth, and I couldn’t tell if the blood belong to her or the shrieking varmint who was hiding in the sand under the thick lip of the ice where it piled along the shoreline. Clearly, dog and beast battled it out and beast dove for cover. Unable to break the thick frozen barrier, Maya took a different approach and set to work digging from the other end, through the muck. The thing screamed.

WARNING: Some blood

From my angle I couldn’t see at all what it was, but only a few possibilities extended themselves on a such a bitter day: squirrel or woodchuck. The latter hibernates, but this seemed to be making more noise than I’d expect out of a nut-gnawer. Regardless, the critter tangoed with a big dog and probably lost a foot in the process. Most likely, its life’s pendulum would stop swinging within a day or two. Suffering animals prefer to hide themselves away, to make themselves small and quiet, and only in their most desperate hour do they call out in anger and defense the way this creature called out. I could offer it nothing but the peace in which it might die.

Instead I turned on my video camera and slowly inserted it into the crack in the ice, hoping to identify whatever victim lurked beneath the surface.

I had that coming, I’ll admit. Not only did I react with a distinctly anti-eco-feminine nancy-boy yowl when it squalled at me, I also caught it on film and feel obligated to offer it up on the confessional altar of Google’s favorite blogging platform as penance. My name is Laura and I tried to film a wounded weasel-thing under a block of ice because I was afraid it would bite my face if I looked too closely.

Bastard varmint.

The clock inched closer to the time of my required departure and the girls tore themselves away from the ugly scene. Happy to leave it behind, I took an extra 10 minutes for an ice savasana and received, in return, a hot tongue in my ear. Not the good, Saturday-night kind, either. The kind that smelt of resentful muskrat.

Up the hill in the house, I sat one more time on the world’s coldest toilet seat, not having been smart enough to turn on the heat when I arrived. But the car was still warm, and I loaded up the girls and drove out of the empty neighborhood, saying goodbye to the cabin for another week, and considering what I’d learned.

When a nature writer is in her chosen place in the year 2014, she may be doing any one of a number of things which do not include actual reflection. The intrusion of the smart phone into nature will prove to be the downfall of the deep thinker. Too great exists the temptation to amuse ourselves doing stupid-ass things that ultimately serve only to make us laugh, to give us an excuse to stare at our own faces rather than the face of the sun (actually, don’t do that – you’ll go blind). Hidden wonders wait under the ice for the soul un-tethered to her technology. A dog cannot find all of the gems in the wilderness for me. Next time I’ll have to look for myself, look at what’s before me.

For example, the log I smacked with my own face on the way back.

As I rubbed my split lip in the car an orange exclamation point lit up my dashboard, and an icon indicated my right front tire was low.

Low? That sucker was limp. Moreover, it was hissing. A steady stream of air was pouring out of the husk of its bulk. In the rubber flesh was embedded a tiny spearing rock. Like Dillard’s frog, a water bug had come up from under the tire and eaten out the inside, leaving a crumpled skin. Mother f*cker. This is because I tried to film a rat under the ice, isn’t it? As I crouched in the 3-degree air, it occurred to me that today was Friday the 13th. I wasn’t yet out of the shade of the hill, and the cell signal was at least a few miles away. Crap, I thought. Can I roll out of here on what little air is left or should I go back to the house and use the land line to call AAA or Shawn? I decided to gamble on the nearest gas station, 20 miles away.

As I emerged into the sunlight, I dared to pick up a little speed and thought I might just make it.

Rounding the bend, movement caught my eye and I slammed on the brakes as an inky black tomcat shot out of the bushes, crossing the icy gravel road in front of my car.

A better writer would come up with some conclusion. I’ll come back to this blog, soon, and write one. Until then, put that in your corn maze and husk it.

And then I got stuck behind the Amish.

Under the Belmont Sun

*Note: I’m going to try to be short this time. Try.

The weather forecast had me confounded this week. Friday is the sunny day, Weather Channel said. The catch was that Friday was a cold day. Last night I got an alert: Friday morning wind chills 10 to 20 below zero. I told my family it was a bad idea. Saturday calls for several inches and a low of 0. Sunday calls for a high of 10. As I hit the pillow I felt certain I’d get up and go to the gym and write my hind end off all day at home.

It’s a little chilly.

But when I woke up this morning I saw the dawn, unclouded, and had my long underwear on before I could stop myself. I love the sun. And I decided that I was going to bundle up and have a meditation on cold, and suck the marrow out of today.

I am so very glad I went.

Why does the weather over the eastern US trap stratus cover like a kid under a blanket? I could Google the answer, I suppose. Our region is so cloudy, and the clouds only pile misery on top of the obesity and poverty and meth problems and just plain ugliness of this area. But the sun was out, and there was nothing in the sky but it’s crescent nighttime companion, setting in the west, and this wasn’t a blue dome, as they say. This was a lifetime stretching above my head.

I thought I’d be tired of ice, but when I felt how solid it was, I was only energized. After so many cold days and such deep temperatures, it’s thick. It barely bubbled, and I might have walked right across the middle of our cove were I not responsible for 2 little lives at home. It’s thick. Thick enough to stroll right across. I walked 50 feet out from shore with nary a concern.

Snow, or sand?

The wind has been scraping at the snow covering. It looked just as the sand does, at the beach, when it’s packed down and hard. Little blips of bluster had been scratched from the surface, indicating a wind coming from the southeast, and in the strong white light of 9am it looked very much like the sugar beaches of the Gulf Coast of Florida where I used to live.

The sun’s warmth on my right cheek, Nugget’s butt on my left.

If it had been cloudy I would not have laid down, but I did. It was three degrees when I arrived, but there was no breeze and the sun felt warm. I had many layers, and snow pants, and thick ski gloves, and two hats, and the solar radiation blossomed in my chest and I could have laid there all day.

Because the sun came with me to the lake, I asked myself no questions. Uninvited memories kept their distance. Sun and blue, snow and silence. The warmth took its place at my side and in my head as today’s reason for being and being there. It was three degrees, and I was so warm. When I retreated into the shade of the woods, I felt such a longing to stay.

Windswept ice, thick enough for an ice hut
We don’t understand why you don’t want our tongues on your face when you lie down.
Savasana on the ice