Maisie is spinning around in circles, making guttural grunting noises and attacking her tail, hopping as she bites it. It really is a sight to behold, a tiny feat of coordination and insanity-inspired athleticism. I am watching her while I am warming my hands on a mug of freshly brewed Masala Chai tea, holding the steaming cup up to my face and standing in front of the wood stove. There is a fire going, but it is taking its time getting to roaring. I am trying desperately to get grounded, but I can’t help but feel like my brain and my dog are perfectly in sync. A diverse list of tasks — from laundry to website design to practicing at least one of my instruments to sorting through the leaning tower of paperwork that is perched on the dining room table — is tugging on my sleeve, threatening to upend my tea and my sanity. It is not really a pleasant way to start the day.
Yoga, meditation, writing, hot tea. Those are the pleasant ways with which I like to start my day, but most days, since caffeine seems to be the only nonnegotiable, I’m working with a 250 batting average — which isn’t horribly dismal in baseball but kind of sucks in the real world. My list is way too important, though, to put aside for even a few moments of quiet, steady breathing and so I walk with a great deal of purpose and determination to my office, set my tea down on the desk, and start up my computer.
Until I start doing my own version of Maisie chasing her tail, which means bouncing from one task to another, like a captive ball in a pinball machine, never breaking free from its tiny cage, never finishing even one task, just ping, ping, pinging all over the damn place. Yes, a few things get done, in my rather haphazard way, but there is rarely any sense of accomplishment because of how scattered I am.
The dog-lingo term for Maisie’s antics is FRAP. And while the term might seem as though it is referring to a bit of caffeine-induced mania, it has nothing to do with that sugary, calorie-dense drink posing as coffee consumed in large quantities by the masses. It is an acronym for Frenetic Random Activity Period, and it is exactly what it says it is. Apparently, it is a way for Maisie to burn off pent-up energy and one that we’re not really supposed to encourage.
My mental rendition of a canine FRAP also has a name, but neurosis is far less flattering and its manifestations are much less charming and amusing. Fortunately, though, I recognize that whether I’m having a neurotic episode or my dog is having a physical FRAP, it probably points to the same truth and that is that we both need, on a fairly desperate level, to get outside.
On a day like today, when the temperatures are in the single digits and the windchill is in the negative double digits, it is tempting to stay in by the fire. But I don’t believe anyone has figured out how to train a dog to use a litter box and so there is the issue of Maisie’s bodily needs and while we do have a backyard, it feels grossly unfair for that to be her only outside time.
So we bundle up. I am wearing three shirts and tights under my fleece-lined, wind-stopper running pants. Before we head out, I will put on a fleece then a down jacket, two hats (a hat liner under a homemade wool hat I made for my husband and subsequently stole) and bulky but insanely warm mittens I picked up in a post-ski-season bargain box for twenty bucks twenty years ago that I affectionately refer to as my boxing gloves.
Maisie’s outfit is far less layer intensive but getting her dressed may actually require more machinations than getting me into my 47 layers. As soon as she sees the sweater (a cute little wool number given to me by a neighbor whose dog was too big for it) she backs away, her head cocked crookedly, turning one way and then the other with a look of suspicion and distrust in her eyes. All the while she is barking at me, not quite aggressively, but not really happily either. I’m on the floor trying to coax her to come to me. We play the game of “Maisie, come,” bark, bark, bark, “Maisie, do you want to go for a walk?” bark, bark, bark, “Maisie, come on, this is ridiculous,” bark, bark, bark. Until eventually she stops barking (though I know not why) and walks over to me, her head bowed down, her nose nearly touching the floor, and her general demeanor looking more like she is going back to the shelter instead of getting a sweater put on her.
But once we are outside — actually, once her harness and leash are strapped on — she is back to being excited, happy Maisie and she can hardly wait to go on the next adventure. And once I am outside, I do not know why I dreaded it so much. (Okay, there was one walk when the wind was blowing — constantly — at about 35 miles an hour, when my eyes were not only watering behind my sunglasses, they felt like they were being pierced by little knives, and maybe on that walk I knew why I was dreading it so much. But that truly is the exception.)
Because when we get outside I stop running in those tortured, neurotic circles. I feel the sun, and yes, occasionally that prairie wind, and I get to look into a vast, blue Iowa sky. I feel like I can breathe again, even when my nostrils are instantly freezing (no matter how hard I try to keep my face covered). I can breathe again because I am where the air is clear and fresh and I am away from my computer screen and the work and the housekeeping that always seem to be staring me down when I am at home. When I am outside, the nattering and nagging and worry just seem to float away, drift behind like leaves falling from a tree and scurrying down the street behind me on the wind.
Years ago, when I lived surrounded by wilderness in Colorado, I got a puppy named Henry. I wanted a hiking partner, someone to accompany me on my afternoons up into the mountains that were right there in the backyard of my quiet town. And we hiked all over southwest Colorado, up to alpine meadows and through tall aspen groves, along mountain creeks and over sandstone trails in the desert canyon lands.
Taking Maisie out to an Iowa meadow is not the same thing as hiking remote trails in the San Juan National Forest. The coal trains, with their steel wheels on the tracks, rattle our quiet, the occasional engine breaking of the diesel semis hauling grain drifts from the highway near the park, the jacked up pick-up trucks gunning up the hill into town (why?) make their presence clearly known.
But there is this: the lone, inimitable cry of a circling hawk; the creek flowing under the ice and snow; the wind through the evergreens and dormant deciduous trees; the crunch of the snow or the uneven terrain of frozen mud and ice under my feet. There is the rare sight of a snowy owl, with its massive wingspan, flying silently overhead, or the even rarer, breathtaking glimpse of a fox off in the distance, eyeing us momentarily before it disappears into the woods.
I love being outside with my dog. Being forced to get outside is one of the best things about having a dog. There are so many days when the idea of our hour-long walk seems like such a chore and I really have to gear myself up for it. Days when, were it not for Maisie, I wouldn’t even be considering a walk. But little Miss Maisie does not understand “too busy” or “too cold” or “too tired” and when I brought her home from the shelter, taking her for walks was one of the things I signed up for.
The beautiful thing is that I am never not incredibly grateful once we are outside. Even when I tell her it will just be a short walk, inevitably once I’m out there with her, I just want to keep walking. I know she wants to keep walking. And these cold winter walks are my favorite. It is only the hearty souls who are out there and we often have the park and the trail to ourselves. The peace seems like it belongs to us exclusively and I guard it selfishly, relish every moment, knowing that as soon as the weather starts to warm, we will have to share it with others.
While Maisie doesn’t run in circles once we are outside, my brain still does — but it runs in different kinds of circles. I don’t fret, I don’t obsess over imperfections in everything I do, I don’t wonder how it all (whatever “it all” is) will get done or come together. I write, in my head, and I dream and I create and I reminisce and I laugh at the antics of the little dog who got me out here. And I celebrate every single minute of being outside — with her and the hawks and the mice and the cold and the sun and the wind and that blue, blue Iowa sky.
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So dear readers, do you make time to get outside, even when it’s brutally cold? Are there ways in which your animals force you to brave the elements, for which you are then grateful? Or do you prefer winter curled up inside? I always love to hear from you, so please feel free to use the comment section below.