Round Times With Toby


I’m not a good traveler. I used to be a veritable willow-the-wisp, dancing from place to place with the ease of a dragonfly. But no more. Carter and I spent December and the beginning of January with his son and family in Tampa, Florida, and it became a challenge for me to be away from my familiar environs for so long. It’s not that his family was not completely welcoming to me. They are great kids, and my little two-year-old granddaughter, Taylor, thought I was the cat’s meow.

Five years of regular meditation have made me (blessedly and) painfully aware that discontent arises in me not from anything on the outside of my skin, but from within. Within two weeks of our arrival in Florida, I was feeling anxious, unsettled, rudderless, and aching for home. Back here at home now, I am able to find some perspective on the out-of-proportion anxiety that gripped me in the warm, flatlands of Florida. But it was nearly impossible to do so while I was there. My reflections on our time away are proving to be bountiful and varied, and there is one particular aspect of these musings that I want to share here…

Let me offer a bit of back-story to begin. Years ago, when my friends and I offered a series of summer workshops in the Rockies, attendees would rue the end of our days together, saying, “I don’t want to go back to the square world yet.” My teaching buddies always referred to our workshop time together as “living in the round world.” It was a good phrase to sum up the feeling of living in a time apart from the craziness of regular life, with all its societal inanities. The round world was somehow protected from all the dead weight of what most of us would refer to as “real life.”

Without realizing it, I began a years-long project of crafting a round world that I could stay in all of the time. Here in Indiana, I realize that my life looks pretty darn Round. Our house is private and enchanted. Because we no longer work, there is rarely any need for us to be in social settings with any other than people who make us happy and who enrich our lives. We are surrounded with wildlife, silence, and beauty. We haven’t been to a mall in many years, except to walk when the weather keeps us from heading into the forest. I don’t take current events personally. We’ve created a pretty tightly crafted little universe for ourselves.

I won’t say whether this is good or bad. I think everyone crafts their own personal universe, whether they do it consciously or not.  But in traveling to Tampa, I became very much aware of just how deeply entrenched I am in my Round World. Leaving it for anything other than another Round World of like minds and hearts is no easy thing for me anymore. Traveling to Tampa was stepping way, way out of my comfort zone. And I didn’t do it well, I must confess. I learned that I am not a woman who blends into any and every situation with flawless grace. And I learned, too, that part of my reason—perhaps all of it—for crafting myself my particular brand of Round World has everything to do with my health.

In my ongoing efforts to heal myself from chronic depression and fatigue, I have learned that nature and animals are cornerstones to my wellbeing. They ameliorate stress, and stress is something that completely derails me. I don’t live in pretty places because I think it is cool. I live in beautiful natural landscapes because I will die if I don’t. Strong words, but true, true. Urban landscapes deplete me. I can’t think of any other way to say it. Sometimes, I think the state of my mental health is entirely contingent upon how many birds, squirrels, frogs, and flowers crossed my path that day. I don’t just “enjoy” these other relations in my life. I need them, maybe more than most. Maybe I have some kind of nature pathology. I don’t know, but I do know what I need.

Carter’s kids are twenty-somethings, living a military lifestyle in a big city, holding down jobs while raising their first child. They are techno savvy, as most young adults are these days. They like to shop. They like new things and new styles. Round world living is a world you can construct when your choices are primarily your own. When your world includes work, mortgages, car payments, infants, and the whims of the economy, most likely, you are living in a world not entirely of  your choice—the square world. Tampa was a square-world experience for me, and I struggled to adapt to the sights, sounds, pace, and possibilities of so different and fast-paced a life.

When I realized I was having a devil of a time fitting my round peg into a Tampa square cube, the question became, what to do? My first idea was to leave Carter with his family and fly home. As I said, I am not as gracious and smooth as I’d like to be when my feathers get blown every which way. But as it turned out, my salvation was near at hand, because there were two things Carter’s kids DID have that fit my need for some round space They have a dog named Toby, and a wilderness park just across the road from their big, new subdivision.

Toby is a plump black and tan chi-wiener dog. Chi-wies are a mixture of chihuahua and dachshund. Toby has one big, flopping dachshund ear, and one large, fully erect chihuahua ear. His legs are short as wine corks, and his tail is always wagging. Toby was the baby of the family until Taylor came along two years ago.  I think Toby was glad to have someone need him again as much as I did. He moved out of the master bedroom and onto my inflatable bed in the guest room two days after our arrival. And there he stayed each and every night, with his pointy little nose aimed toward the bedroom door and a soft growl in his throat (all bluff, of course) at any sound of possible danger. I called him my little man, and he was not two feet away from my feet whenever we were in the house.

I’ve not had what I call a “shadow dog” for decades, that is, a dog who “shadows” your footsteps and is always close at hand. Toby is such a dog. Because he is so very short, I sometimes forgot that he was at my feet from morning until night, but my unsettled heart knew he was beside me and drew comfort and peace from his presence. The moment I would alight in a chair or on the floor, Toby would crawl up in my lap with an air of great certainty and confidence. Circling my lap a few times, he would plop down with a sigh. He simply oozed acceptance and nurture, and I soaked up every drop. First thing each morning, I would let him out back to pee. We would take a look at the day, and say hello to the lizard who lives on the electrical box on the back side of the house. One morning, two of the Sandhill Cranes who live in the subdivision walked right past us, looking supremely elegant with their slow, measured steps and tall necks.

Carter and I try to walk every day. At first, we strolled around the subdivision with Toby, but then we found a special jewel tucked unobtrusively just across the street from the subdivision’s formal walled entrance. A sign set back behind a tree draped curtained with Spanish moss announced a wilderness preserve that included miles and miles of horse and hiking trails through Georgia pines, palm trees, oaks, and sand. Toby was in heaven, and I found an unpaved piece of nature where I could go and find myself at least once a day. Some days, Carter and I walked in silence, lost in our own musings. Some days, we talked.  Some days, I went to the wilderness park alone—just me and Toby—and talked to myself out loud, either chastising myself for my faults, or cheering myself on. Toby was an easy dog to walk with. At home, our dogs Hannah and Mazel Tov go walking with us each day, but neither is as fine a walking companion as Toby. Hannah runs far and wide, often coursing out of my range of sight for long periods of time. She always finds me again, but she’s not much company. Mazel is crazy for sticks, so as we walk, I need to be constantly tossing sticks as far as my arm is able. For Mazel, it is never far enough. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him worn out on a walk, but he sometimes wears me out with his intense demands for “stick hunt.”

Toby simply trotted from side to side on the path, occasionally veering off for a moment or two to dash after a squirrel, but always returning quickly. He kept his eye on us. Walking with Toby, I could let my mind wander off, and never fear that when I came to my senses, he’d be long gone or dancing around my legs begging “Stick! Stick!!!” He was the perfect escort: watchful, well-behaved, and enthusiastic. In those weeks when I felt ungrounded and unrecognizable to myself, Toby and the wilderness park brought me back to earth again and again, and settled me back into my body.

I had to learn how to be a grandmother in Tampa. Taylor, my granddaughter is smarter than I am, and certainly more rambunctious. I found I did best when I sat back, took deep breaths, and reminded myself of all the tiny wildlings I had cared for over the years. That mindset helped me find a door into my granddaughter. I have never been a mother to a human baby, but I’ve mothered a lot of wild creatures. And that was how I envisioned my granddaughter—vocal as a baby robin, fast as a fox kitten, limber as a coyote pup, and energetic as all of them. At only two, Taylor didn’t seem to be suffering the ills of domestication yet. She was still a wild child, and I could relate to that. I taught her how to collect acorns, stems of grass, and tiny wildflowers growing in the unmowed grasses at the edge of the subdivision. At night, she would creep up to my bed with goodnight kisses for me, and kisses and a hug for Toby. “Oh Toby,” she would whisper. “He’s the best dog.”

Now that we are living in 2012, a year that round-world-inclined people have been talking about for what seems forever, I sometimes find myself in discussion with myself or others about “end times,” economic collapse, “the great cleansing” or some such. I ponder how I would handle catastrophic times, and in my mind’s eye, I see myself bearing whatever comes with creative determination. Then, I whoosh off to Tampa and find myself in a state of calamity for no good reason, and I tell myself that if the times get really tough, I have no idea how I might manage—or mismanage—it.

Tampa humbled me. Life humbles me on a pretty routine basis, and this winter, it was Tampa. I learned much about myself while there, things I will be processing for the rest of the winter. Another thing I learned is that humbling experiences often go hand-in-hand with grace. I think of grace as a gift from spirit one never really deserves, but that is given anyway. Toby was my gift of grace in December. Taylor was my gift of grace. Toby, Taylor, and those dusty trails through Georgia pines and moss-covered oaks.

May you be blessed with such gifts of grace the next time life stirs you around a few times in its crucible.

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