This morning, my dog Loki — who has a puppy heart still at 14 months, and will no doubt always have a puppy temperament, whatever his age —stepped out into Thanksgiving morning; into the upstate New York, rural, outside world.
He walked onto the porch of the house where we are staying, as if he was witnessing the most extraordinary miracle. He paused and gazed in evident wonderment. Blue sky, arcing overhead! The slope of the earth down to a little valley! Slow silvery river meandering at the bottom of it; foothills in the distance, covered in trees now bare of leaves! Astonishing.
There is a cemetery to our left, with headstones going back to the early 19th century. It is still active; week by week earth-moving machines still prepare to lay to rest the fathers and mothers of this long-established small-town community, who have passed. There are Mardi Gras beads draped onto some of the headstones, a touch I find hopeful and comforting. Some gravestones are decorated with American flags; perhaps these were veterans. Some now have small pumpkins nestled against them, and some have artificial poinsettias, adorning them early, preparatory to Christmas. Love, clearly, carries on; among us, as in every culture, we long to include the beloved dead in the celebrations that mark our lives.
There is the white 19th century wooden church in the midst of the cemetery, with its spire lifting to heaven; it is now a sculptors’ studio, which is also oddly comforting; rather than God’s house having fallen into emptiness and disrepair, God’s house now shelters people creating beauty for His human family.
The bushes outside are rust-brown now, but studded throughout with enamel-like scarlet pods, like jewelry. The formerly crimson Japanese Maple has shed its leaves, and reaches bare black arms to the clear blue sky.
I can’t imagine the scene entirely through puppy eyes, but I understand Loki’s incredulity: through human eyes, too, yes, it is all a wonder.
I turned with Loki and headed into the grassy slope to the left of the house, now planted with mature trees. The hillside had been bare, we were told, when the people who built this house and planted these trees forty years ago, made their start. The couple who made the decisions to plant — especially the wife, whose vision had directed the placement of the trees, and who had nurtured the cozy but elegant garden; who had put a small sculpture of an angel in the center of a walkway between beds of now-dormant lavender — have both passed away. There is a stone bench that reads “Gone But Not Forgotten”, and a grieving stone angel near it, both devoted to their memory, under the sheltering trees.
When I walk under these trees, I think with gratitude of them both, though I have never met them. They are not here to see how much beauty they have left behind them for others to enjoy, but their legacy is extraordinary. I believe the husband was a New York City police officer, who then retired; I believe the wife was a homemaker. They were not handed privilege, but they nonetheless accomplished remarkable things. By planting trees on this bare hillside, by believing in growth, by believing in their own powers to shape their world; by having a vision and pursuing it; by building a house and planting a garden, by placing a stone angel among lavender beds, they created a magical world that lives on, that affects the living, that will inspire people who visit this place, into the future.
Loki dove into the grassy stretch under the trees, delirious with happiness. He leapt and leapt into the light and shadow as if into the spray of an an ocean. He looked back at me: that was my signal to run. When I run (and yes, I am running again with Loki, more carefully, now that I have recovered from my fall), he is all joy, all speed, all pure instinct of movement. He darted; he couldn’t believe it. Piles of fallen orange leaves to smell! Animal scents! Squirrels! He dashed this way and that, and I did my best to keep up the race behind him.
At one point he paused and looked back at me again. Behind him, about thirty feet away, I saw a stag emerge from just past an ancient low stone wall. The stag rose up like an apparition. He had a flare of white on his chest, powerful buff-colored shoulders, and a noble neck; he lifted his elegant head to gaze directly at me. His antlers, not yet large – he must have been young – were like a crown. I was not afraid, and he seemed not to be afraid. We beheld one another in perfect calm.
‘Loki!’ I whispered urgently. ‘Look! Look behind you!’ But Loki simply stared at me quizzically, entirely missing the majestic creature that loomed just behind him. This was not going to be a moment off the puppy bucket list.
The creature melted away again, and Loki resumed his ecstatic dashing through the dry leaves.
Loki does not need a rare apparition to astonish him. The dry leaves on the earth are unbelievable enough. Every day that he goes into the world, is to him the newest, most amazing day.
When we came back into the house, I resolved to start Thanksgiving morning, and to try to meet each day after that, seeking a ‘puppy heart’; which is surely parallel to the Buddhist goal of attaining ‘beginner’s mind’ – a mind that is open, grateful and unburdened.
Each day is, as Loki sees it, a divine gift: light, sun, clouds, living body, movement, scents, beating heart.
With that in mind, I looked afresh at Thanksgiving Day.
This day is replete with miracle after miracle. But also, all the gifts we are given every day, today we are simply tasked with seeing and acknowledging.
Loved ones, turkey, brussels sprouts; all miracles. Potatoes peeled by a beautiful stepdaughter; all of it, a miracle!
The fact that anyone joins in marriage and throws his or her lot in with one another; the fact that anyone bears or welcomes children and stepchildren – that we are not all lost, alone, fragmented entirely – the fact that humans create families and communities of friends: all of it is a sacred miracle.
Music that the young adults are playing on their phones, as they share new songs with each other; a cranberry-lemon curd pie made by a child, now an adult — miracle. Inside the adult bearing this impressive, magenta-hued, fluted pie, I see and feel the memory of a six-year-old intent on baking awkwardly-shaped cookies for his cookie stand. I recall at the same moment, the sacher torte that was famous among us all, made by an elder of our family, also gifted in baking, who has since passed away.
The past is with us, the dead are with us, their recipes are with us, their admonitions are with us; and the young adults and the twelve-year-old are adding new music, new jokes, new relationships to the ancient stories that, on both sides, they inherit.
Nothing is broken. Nothing is disconnected.
Nothing is ever really lost, no one is after all ever really alone. We are none of us really alone, even if we are spending this day in isolation.
Love holds us all in spite of ourselves.
Love gathers it all together for us even in the depths of our despair, though we do not believe that that can really be happening.
Love molds new shapes for us from the imprint and echo and aggregate of the past.