Dakota, my big malamute, is straining at the leash, pulling me forward. But Jessica, my young daughter, is dawdling ten steps behind. As usual, Taz and I are caught in the middle. Taz, my mid-size, part-cocker spaniel, part-chow mutt, stands patiently by my left foot while I sort the others out. I tell Dakota, “Heel!” and say to Jessica, “Hurry up!” They both listen for about nine seconds. Then Dakota lunges forward as she catches a scent and Jessica slows to a near-standstill, gazing up at the tall pines that surround the road, her body tall and straight despite the hospitalizations and surgeries that have pockmarked her young life. Eagerness for life, for adventure, shines from big brown eyes that never recognized me until after a neurosurgeon removed half her brain to slow the seizures. The surgery left her with a crooked smile and me with the fear that she is much too fragile for this world.
Still dawdling, Jessica brushes her golden brown bangs back, dislodging the black knit cap, her small hands awkward in the much-loathed mittens, which she argues that she doesn’t need. She will argue about anything but it’s true that she’s impervious to cold. Also to darkness and to fear. I call her Jessica the Lionhearted and sometimes wish she’d lend me her courage. She does not yield to her fragility the way I yield to mine.
“Snow in the trees,” Jessica points out. Yes, snow in the trees, I tell her. And snow on the road and in our boots. Three feet of snow on the ground and more falling. Some of it falls like glitter on the dogs.
“No more walks,” I threaten Jessica and Dakota. I wouldn’t be reduced to this if either one of them would listen to me and compromise. Taz gives me an adoring, sympathetic look and goes at exactly the pace I set. I call her my good dog, meaning something along the lines of, “sentient being capable of compromising for the sake of the pack.” Dakota feels she alone knows what’s good for the pack and she constantly vies with me for alpha dog status. For the past ten years I have tried to stop her dominance behavior but she still tests me. It must be like that in a wolf pack. Dakota has two paws in the wild and two paws in the domestic world. She understands the universe in a way I never will. At any rate, I don’t call Dakota my good dog. She’s my crazy puppy, my big ole wolf, my sweet girl, but not by any stretch of the imagination, my good dog.
What brought me – a plainswoman, accustomed to seeing the blue unbroken sky – here – the North Woods of Minnesota in winter – started with a minor head injury in August that left with me with ongoing vertigo, and continued with a professional crisis that deepened into a personal one as well. By November, I had no place to stay and no money to ease the situation. At the time it seemed like a temporary emergency had precipitated the events but looking back I realize that the disaster had been a long time coming. I’d been working too hard and for too long on projects that no longer interested me, trusting the words of advisors whose ambitions weren’t mine, not listening to my heart when it said, this isn’t the right thing to do. I’d made the mistake of thinking what Jessica needed had something to do with the number of things I could buy her, despite my heart that said, she just wants to be with you. Somehow, no matter how hard I worked, it was never enough. There was always more to do, more I needed, more I had to acquire for Jessica. I found strength in the approval of other people. The gossamer center of my self was much too delicate to withstand the pressure of living my life in my own way.
When I poured out my story to my sister, I did not know that the crack on my head would lead to a new life. I liked the old one well enough. I thought I could get it back.
My sister listened and said, doubtfully, “I guess you could always stay at my cabin on the lake.” Doubtfully because it’s remote and cold and she didn’t think I knew what I’d be getting into. But it was this or live in my car.
So here I am surrounded by thousands of towering pines and birches that creak and sway in the wind, struggling through three feet of snow for two miles just to get to the mailbox. In the small town in Kansas where I lived, I only had to cross the street to get the mail. There, on the prairie, you could see for miles. Out here, you could be ambushed by a wild animal or a drunk hunter and never see it coming. Shapes dart through the trees and I catch them only in my peripheral vision. So far it has been deer, shying nervously away from the dogs. I can tell from the tracks. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be something else one day.
The lack of wide open spaces is not the only thing I find alarming. I tell my friends it’s quiet here, but that’s not really true. The sounds are just different. Instead of traffic noise, school children laughing, and music blaring, I hear the wind whisper and the eagles cry. On my first walk in these woods, my heart leapt into my throat as the trees creaked in the wind. It sounded exactly like someone opening a door and creeping across the floor. My mind couldn’t process it, could find no reasonable explanation. I peered anxiously among the trees, trying to spot the door I knew must be hidden there, thinking if I looked hard enough I could see it opening.
Then there’s the cold. Stepping outside, all of your senses but one shut down and all your brain can focus on is how cold you are. You can’t see or hear or smell or taste. All you can do is feel the cold. When it’s forty below, you know that one small mistake means disaster. I envision Jess or the dogs breaking through the ice on the lake and make stern rules about asking permission to leave the house. I worry that I will slip and fall in the snow and never get up again. I worry that the furnace, which has an electric starter, will fail, or the electricity will go out and we’ll have no heat. There’s a wood-burning stove but I’m not entirely confident that would be enough to keep us from freezing to death. We are so vulnerable, I think. I am not sure we will make it, but what choice do we have?
Other things also make me nervous about my new home. I know there are moose out here and I worry about crossing their path. I have spent almost fifteen years learning martial arts and self defense but I know my sidekick would never save me from a stag in rut. The bears that inhabit these woods are in hibernation now, but I’ve no doubt they’ll come exploring as soon as the ice thaws. I’ve seen the tracks of the wolves, and know there’s a pack of about six of them someways east of the cabin. Sometimes at twilight Dakota howls to them. I hope she is saying, stay away and not, come and play.
I worry about Jessica, who has had so many medical problems in her life that I feel my entire experience of mothering has been one long, caught breath. When we walk, I am constantly afraid that something will happen – she’ll fall and get hurt, or that afore-mentioned moose will show up and trample her. I’m afraid her seizures will begin and not stop; I am afraid her shunt will fail; I am afraid her penchant for adventure will drown her in the lake when I’m not looking.
I worry about someone seeing Dakota and mistaking her for a wolf, which is why I keep her on a leash during our walks. Only one or two people live on the lake in winter, but you never know who’s poaching. You never know what idiot’s going to take it into his brain to get the rifle down and shoot the wolf, even though she’s not a wolf. I worry about Taz being overcome by the cold. She thinks she’s a lapdog, entitled to every luxury of indoor life, and out here the snow packs into her paws and the shapes in the trees scare her, too.
Mostly I worry that I will return to an answering machine with no messages. Nobody wants me. More precisely, nobody wants my work. Before, the phone never stopped ringing. I had to hire an assistant so I could get my work done. But now the silence is eerie and foreboding. I feel compelled, at first, to go on these walks, to leave the silent empty cabin. The walks do not relax or reassure me.
But there is always hot chocolate after. The first day, I got cocoa and sugar out and heated milk on the stove and Jessica watched silently, her cheeks bright with cold, until she finally felt compelled to say, “What is that?” and I realized she had never had hot chocolate before. Because I had never had time to make it before. Now it’s a daily ritual. Time is something we have a lot of and there are so few demands on it.
While I may feel isolated, this isolation makes our lives extremely simple. The nearest town is about an hour away, on terrible roads. I don’t have a four-wheel drive truck, just a little front-wheel drive passenger car and it doesn’t handle the roads well. About once a month the weather cooperates (meaning the temperature climbs above zero and it doesn’t snow) and I get a contractor to plow the road. Then I throw down a hundred pounds of sand and we drive to town, where I pick up packages from the post office and stock up on groceries and do laundry. We stop by McDonald’s for dinner, a rare treat that was once a near-daily chore. I am careful with my money because I don’t have much, but there is always exactly enough for what we need. Food for us, and for the dogs. Maybe another warm pair of socks. But we don’t need big screen televisions or fancy clothes or expensive toys. Crayons and paints for Jessica, pens and paper for me.
The isolation means that I cannot do this without Jessica’s help. She stacks the wood in the cellar, prepares the dogs’ food and water, patches me up when I slice my hand on a kitchen knife. In my eyes, her fragile figure transforms to a sturdy, strong young girl. I begin to see that she might be capable of anything. The chores give her faith in herself. Someone depends on her, and this adds a lift to her chin and a glint of determination to her eyes.
Even so, I feel shattered. To be here means I have failed at everything, that I barely have a toehold left on the mountain of my ambition. My first impulse is to pick up the shards. But I realize walking through these woods that there are parts I don’t want back. The part of me driven to work without rest, the part of me that wants, wants, wants. Immediate gratification is hard to come by up here, so instead of looking for external things to make me feel happy and fulfilled, I turn inward. I write what I want to write and I meditate and I go for walks with Jessica and the dogs. I watch the sun set over the lake, turning the sky lavender and orange, and see the snow fall on the pines, and on the dogs. I start teaching Jessica to read and we cook simple meals together; rice and beans, broccoli stir fry, toasted cheese sandwiches. The food delights us both. We practice Tai Chi in the living room.
Gradually it dawns on me that this is sufficient. My professional life may have fallen to pieces, but that doesn’t mean I have to as well. I have everything I need: Jessica and the dogs; a place to write, and something to write about. I start to believe that maybe I can live a new way; that I can write what is important to me, and in doing so make my way in the world. I earn my living by my pen, but I don’t have to earn as much as I used to. I can be content with less, and I can find my authentic voice. The breaking has not destroyed my gossamer center, only revealed it, and my illusions. The strength I thought I had was merely ego; the success no such thing because it was not my dream. It was someone else’s.
Now, as Jessica hangs back to stare up at the trees, Dakota begins straining at the leash in earnest, settling low to the ground and putting all the power of her deep chest into the effort. I understand that I can’t keep her on this leash forever. I tell myself that it will be all right. I let her off and she runs as fast as she can down the road ahead of me, stopping for nothing, wriggling with the joy of speed. But she doesn’t go too far before pausing to look back at me. Are you coming? she seems to say, and starts sniffing at the side of the road, digging through snow banks, leaping effortlessly over drifts but always circling back, her curved tail wagging in delight.
Taz, dancing along at my side, decides she wants to join Dakota and I let her off leash, too, and she dashes forward, shooting past Dakota. They play a game of who’s the leader for a few minutes while I turn to wait for Jessica. But the dogs’ antics have gotten her attention and she moves faster to catch up with Dakota. Soon they are playing a game: when Jessica gets within a few feet of Dakota, Dakota dashes off, then pauses farther down the road. Jessica runs to catch up and then Dakota takes off again. Jessica is laughing so hard she can hardly keep running.
I watch their joyous play and it gives me joy too. Sometimes you just have to have faith, I tell myself. That the little girl won’t fall and hurt herself, that the hunters have put away their rifles, that the dogs will come home again.
Taz bounds back to me. She wants to be by my side. She is my good dog. I put her leash back on, and I take Jessica by the hand. She is breathing hard from her running, but stays with me, chattering about the game she and Dakota have played.
It’s twilight, time to go home. I have to call Dakota twice but she comes barreling towards us, swerving at the last possible moment to slide by and screeches to a halt a few paces behind me. She turns around, tongue lolling out of her mouth, grinning, and trots over to me and waits patiently as I snap the leash to her collar and we head for home. The answering machine may be silent, but there is hot chocolate waiting, and everything we need.
This essay first appeared in Minnesota Monthly about five years ago. The dogs are gone now, though Jessica and I still talk about them nearly every single day. Every year at this time, I think about them and that long, cold winter, and I’m grateful for every moment of our lives together.