Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crazy is Contagious!

My mom believed our dog, Tim, had a story to tell.  I’m sure dogs have stories to tell. However, the trouble started when mom became convinced that Tim was going to tell her his story. That’s just crazy.

As you may remember from a previous blog post (Porcupines and dogs don’t mix) Tim was our German Sheppard. He came to us as a rescue dog after his training on the canine narcotics task force went terribly wrong. Tim suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had to be retired from the force.  The chief of police decided that Tim was in need of pastoral care and that is how Tim came to live with us.
When Tim arrived at our home he refused to enter the house. He would make it as far as the back door and then collapse spread eagle, nose down and shaking. My dad set him up in the back yard with a zip line and long leash giving him plenty of room to run. My mother would take her chair outside and sit with Tim. She would pat his head, talk to him and listen to his story. She would tell us, “Tim has got a story to tell!”
It took about two weeks of pastoral care in the back yard until Tim was finally ready to come inside. My father hung a sign on the back door that said, “Tim PLEASE KNOCK HERE” and he did. He would come to the back door, pause at the sign and then knock. My mom was ecstatic! She said, “See, Tim can read! He’s going to tell us his story! He’s such a smart dog.”
In the evening when my mom would sit down to watch the ABC news, Tim would sit with her. At that time in New England there was a well known physician, Dr. Timothy Johnson, who would come on the news to give his health advice. When his voice came on, “Hello this is Dr. Timothy Johnson”, Tim’s ears would perk up. My mom would laugh and say, “See how smart Tim is, he recognizes his own name”. Then she would begin talking to him, “Tim, you need to go out and get your medical degree. You could have your own ‘Canine Health Spot’. I’d tune in and listen to you”. I would just roll my eyes and think, “My mom is crazy.”
Tim truly was a smart dog except for this one thing. Tim was neutered, but he didn’t know it. If you weren’t fast enough at the back door clipping his leash to his collar he would take off running for the woods. He would be gone for hours. My mom would get mad, and then she’d get nervous and worried. She’d say, “What if he gets lost and can’t find his way back home?” My brother Eric would respond, “Don’t worry Mom, he’s so smart he’ll call for a ride.” Mom would answer, “You’re right! He’s a smart dog!”  And I would think, “They’re both crazy!”

One afternoon, mom wasn’t quick enough with the leash and Tim took off running for the woods. He was gone for hours and had not returned home by the time my sister, dad, mom and I sat down to eat dinner. Eric wasn’t home. Half way through dinner, the phone rang and my mother got up to answer it:
MOM: “Hello, Johnson residence. May I help you.”
VOICE: “Hello this is Tim Johnson. May I please speak to Ted.”
MOM:  hahahahah “Well Tim, you finally did it. (turning to us with a wink, “It’s Tim calling.”) Did you get so tired chasing tail you need a ride. Eric said you’d call. Did you find yourself a nice little bitch in heat today?”
VOICE:   “Excuse me. This is Dr. Timothy Johnson. May I please speak to Ted?”
MOM:   “Oh well now, ‘it’s Dr. Timothy Johnson’ is it? And here I thought you were just out chasing tail today. But you did it. You went out and got yourself that medical degree. You go dog! Well I look forward to hearing your ‘Canine Health Spot’ tonight! But let me tell you something Tim, if you come home dirty, wet and stinkin’ I am going to have to hose you down in the back yard, ‘Doctor’ or not!”
VOICE:  “Excuse me! Is this Reverend Faith Johnson? This really is Dr. Timothy Johnson from the ABC news. I really need to speak with Ted Johnson.”
MOM:  hahaha  “Oh Tim, there’s no need to be so formal . . . “
About that time, my father remembered leaving a message for Dr. Timothy Johnson requesting that he be the keynote speaker at an upcoming event. He stopped laughing and began to wave at my mother, “STOP, STOP . . . it is Dr. Johnson.”

My mother didn’t see my dad, but then my brother Eric walked in the back door followed by Tim. Eric sat down to eat. Tim laid down on the kitchen floor. Tim was dirty. Tim was wet. Tim was smelly. But Tim was not on the phone. And neither was Eric.
We watched as the color drained from my mother’s face. We could hear the voice on the other end of the phone, “Reverend Johnson, Reverend Johnson?” My mother didn’t say a word. She just slowly handed my dad the phone.

My dad took the phone and said, “Oh Dr. Johnson, I am so sorry about all that. That was my wife on the phone. You see our dog, Tim, ran away today and she thought it was him calling.”
I don’t know what Dr. Timothy Johnson thought of my parents, but I learned that crazy is contagious!

Everyone's got a story to tell . . .

Sunday, September 23, 2012

No Blessing For Those Who Hurry

“Pole’, pole’ child . . . haraka, haraka, akuna baraka.” Slow down child. There is no blessing for those who hurry.

The voices of the elders in Matondoni, Kenya ring out to me 25 years later. Slow down child. How often I have forgotten that lesson over the years. But today their voices are loud and clear in my head. Slow down.

I was 22 years old and I had just completed my final semester of college with a three month program through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I’d climbed Mt. Kenya, hiked through the Masai Mara Game Reserve and sailed on a dhow. I had learned to speak enough Swahili to barter successfully in the markets and travel on my own. I thought I had acclimated to the slow, relaxed pace of Kenyan life but then I arrived at the village that 25 years later continues to change and teach me.

I spent my final weeks in Kenya living among the people of Matdondoni. While our NOLS group had been sailing the coast on the dhows a fire had ripped through the village of Matdondoni.  After the course was over I stayed to help with the rebuilding projects.

It was an amazing experience to become immersed in a culture and a community far different than I had ever known. The people worked in community to rebuild their village. They began by rebuilding their place of worship, then the school, then the homes of the elders and next the homes of the families with the most children. I learned what they valued and witnessed the value of working together as a community.

Each day had a slow, peaceful yet focused rhythm. We rose early and worked hard through the morning and early afternoon. But as the sun beat down and the temperature rose, we rested. Or we played soccer. In the evening we gathered to share a meal and listen to the stories of the elders. I did not understand the language of the stories, but I immediately felt the power of story. I watched in awe as one elder after the other held the attention of an entire village from the oldest to the smallest. I sat spellbound soaking in those stories and marveling at the power words had to connect generations of people.  But the true miracle of those stories would happen during the day as I watched small gatherings of children during the afternoon siesta retell the stories of their elders. I learned to slow down and listen.

As my weeks there passed I heard less often the call of the elders to slow down. But now 25 years later I hear their voices loud and clear in my head. “Pole’ pole’ child, haraka, haraka akuna baraka.” Slow down child there is no blessing for those who hurry.

So for today, I will slow down. I will listen to the stories all around me. I will take the time to share my family stories with my sons. They are my village. They will know where and who they come from. I will know them.

Matdondoni may be thousands of miles away, but there is community everywhere. We just need to slow down and listen for it.     . . . Pole’ pole’ child.
Everyone has a story to tell . . .
Resources for the curious mind:  Find out about taking a course in the wilderness

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Family Matters . . .

Aside from the porcupine encounters (see last week’s post), Timmy had a wonderful life in Nova Scotia. He was everyone’s dog and made each of us feel like he was our own special companion, protector and friend. As I think about it now, he must have been a very busy dog. When I disappeared into the woods to explore my imagination, Timmy was always with me. As Beth hung out near the cabin or on the dock listening to music until her batteries wore out, Timmy was beside her.  As my mother sat in her chair reading, planning or cooking our next meal, Timmy was always by her side. When my brothers and dad went off into the woods to find the next perfect tree to cut down or to drill the well, Timmy was right by their side. How could Timmy be everywhere at the same time? I guess he was a busy dog who made it all look easy and relaxed. He would run between all the members of his family checking to make sure we were safe and accounted for. He’d lie down at our feet and watch our world. I wonder what he thought of us. But I wonder what he thought of his new world with so much to explore, so many new smells and creatures to chase. He explored the woods, the lake shore and us. He probably got to know us better than we knew ourselves.

I guess we all got to know ourselves during those summers spent with family, separated from the world. We learned the importance of family, dreaming big dreams, working together, overcoming obstacles, and sticking with a task, even when it gets hard.


So as I finish my series of Nova Scotia stories and pictures, this is what I remember: arterial bleeding is bad, cast iron stoves don’t float, kiln dried lumber does float, leaches suck, rocks are heavy, my brother Eric is indestructible, friends matter, porcupines and dogs don’t mix, the imagination is a wonderful thing, the sound of the loons at dusk is unforgettable. My father is amazing.

This is what I learned:  The smell of the woods enters your soul and never leaves. Life in the woods will change you forever. Family takes priority time. Teenagers can survive without electricity, running water and TV. My mother is amazing. Some things stick with you forever and shape the person you become in ways you never really understand. We don’t need to be entertained 24/7. Silence is good, unscheduled time is vital. Very little in the way of material things are needed to live a full and happy life. And mostly, family matters.
Everyone has a story to tell . . .



Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dog Meets Porcupine

Timmy was our German Sheppard. Although I have mentioned him in previous blog posts, it is time I shared more about our beloved family pet. Timmy came into our lives shortly after my family had made the move from Springfield, MA to Georgetown, MA. It was a move that no one in the family wanted to make but circumstances required. We arrived with our beagle, Lady, whom we all loved dearly. But tragedy struck when shortly after arriving in Georgetown Lady was run over by a car. We were all devastated. I was 8 years old, living in a new house that to me looked like it was falling apart. I had no friends, a yard full of mosquitos and now no dog. But then, quite unexpectedly, Timmy came into our lives.

Timmy had been trained as a police dog to work with a nearby narcotics unit in a midsize city. However, just at the end of his training he was involved with a drug bust that went terribly wrong. Timmy developed post traumatic stress disorder and had to be retired from the police force. He needed a home and we needed a dog, so Timmy became part of our family.
Timmy was an incredibly smart dog with one exception. Timmy was neutered, but Timmy didn’t know he was neutered so quite often he would take off to run in the woods in search of anything with a tail. Timmy loved to run in the woods. When we first arrived at our land in the wilderness of NovaScotia after 17 hours in the car, Timmy was desperate for a run in the woods. As soon as we all piled out of the car to explore this new land, Timmy disappeared and was gone for hours.

Long after the sun had set and the incredibly unfamiliar darkness of the wilderness had set in, Timmy came creeping and whimpering back to our make shift campsite. As he got close enough to be seen in the glow of the lantern we could barely see his face for all the porcupine quills embedded in his mouth, face, ears, throat and chest. His mouth was so full of quills he couldn’t close it. His jaw was permanently fixed open in the position of trying to eat that porcupine. Porcupines are not edible. Unfortunately, Timmy had lost the hunt and learned that lesson the hard way.
My dad tried to pull a quill out but it wouldn’t budge and Timmy just whimpered and cried louder.  My mom recalled passing an animal hospital some miles back from our location so we all loaded up the car and headed out in search of a vet. Timmy laid in the way back of the station wagon with Beth and me. We tried to comfort him, but were crying too hard ourselves to be much help.

When we finally found the animal hospital it was simply a small ramshackle house with a crooked front porch. We pulled into the drive way and my mom got out of the car and knocked on the front door.  The woman who answered the door did not look happy to see us. As my mother began to describe our situation and pointed at Timmy in the back of the car, the woman held up her hand and said, “My husband is far worse off than that dumb dog of yours and he’s not seeing any patients tonight. All you have to do is snip the end of the quills and then yank ‘em out. That dawg’ll be fine.” She then slammed the door in mom’s face after murmuring under her breath, “damn city folk”.

We traveled back to our campsite and by the light of flashlights and the lantern we began the pains-taking process of removing all those quills one at a time. Snip, pull, snip, pull. The moon rose. Snip, pull, snip, pull. The night symphony began. Snip, pull. The moon set; the symphony quieted. The sun rose. Snip, pull . . . all night long. When dad pulled out the last quill, we all crawled into the tent to sleep. I laid awake wondering about this place called Nova Scotia.
I’d like to say that Timmy got smarter as our summers in Nova Scotia continued, but I cannot. I believe the best that can be said is that he got faster and each summer we had fewer quills to remove. We never bothered that vet again, and his wife was right. Timmy was just fine. He was our faithful companion in the woods, in the canoe, in our lap on long car rides. He was family.

It is amazing what time in the wilderness will teach you. Life can be prickly sometimes, but we will all be just fine.
Everyone has a story to tell . . .
Resources for the curious minds:   News from Georgetown, MA  Plan a trip to Springfield, MA  Be prepared for whatever your pet gets into.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mom in the Wilderness


Up until now, you have not heard much about my mom in this Nova Scotia saga. So it is now time to introduce you to the most amazing woman I know. I mean let’s be real. How many women in this world would agree to venture into the wilderness with five children, a husband and a dog knowing that for seven weeks you would have to feed these hungry beasts without the benefit of electricity, running water,  a nearby grocery store, take-out food or pizza delivery.  There would be no escaping your family to the comfort of your sympathetic girlfriends. There would be no phone to call friends for a sanity check and no opportunity to gripe or celebrate via the daily Facebook post. Oh and you must manage this task on a shoestring budget with no access to extra cash through ATM’s or credit cards. Are you up for the challenge? I wouldn’t be, but I am ever so thankful that my mom was.

My father’s original dream for our Nova Scotia summers was that we would “live off the land”. My mom’s reaction to this was, “Absolutely Not!”  She knew that although my dad was a big dreamer and visionary, he was also a practical reasonable man who loved her. So she immediately set about altering his dream a bit. She agreed to the idea of building the cabin from logs and resources found on the land, but feeding her hungry family mushrooms, fish and bugs was out of the question!
Until recently I never gave much thought to the incredible role my mother played in our Nova Scotia summers. I think this is true of the role most mom’s play in family life. Mom’s quietly get the jobs done that family life requires and are often taken for granted and not appreciated for all their dedicated work.  I now know how much I took my mom’s role for granted.

I hate grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking and cleaning the kitchen. I dislike most chores that involve the kitchen and over the course of my adult, mom, life have complained about these chores regularly. However, now that I examine the ways in which my mom managed all things food related in Nova Scotia I am quite humbled.
While we were building our cabin mom was quietly, without complaint, feeding us. She did this on a Coleman camp stove, over an open fire and without the benefit of refrigeration, running water, counter space or storage cabinets.

Trips to the grocery store involved canoeing or sailing across the lake and driving 30 miles of back country roads to the store. After loading up the car with enough food to feed a family of seven for seven days in the wilderness she would stop to pick up blocks of ice to load in the cooler and she’d head back to our pond. She’d load the groceries and ice coolers into the canoe and paddle across the pond to our cabin site. Then we would all pitch in to help unload the groceries and carry them up the hill to the “kitchen” in the woods. If something was forgotten, tough luck! There would be no going back to the store until next week.

For all my mother’s efforts, I honestly remember only two “meals” in my ten years of Nova Scotia summers. I remember on the way home from our first summer stopping along the side of the road for a “picnic” lunch. Our family of seven sat around a picnic table, each with our own plastic spoon eating Bryers Blueberry ice cream out of the carton. I later learned this was because after seven weeks in the wilderness, with unexpected medical expenditures (see prior “Arterial Bleeding is Bad!” post), the budget had been depleted. We traveled 17 hours home from Nova Scotia with a gas card and spare change. It was the spare change that provided our “picnic”.

The second meal I remember was during our third summer at the cabin. We went “modern” that year and installed a floor, a cast iron wood stove and a double sink (Beth and I provided the “running” water). While dad installed the woodstove, Beth and I picked blueberries all day and that night mom cooked our first meal in the oven of that stove, blueberry cobbler. Yummy!  (The stove also came in handy for drying wet sneakers.)
As I think of all that my mother accomplished, with humor, creativity, dedication and grace, I am humbled and amazed. I am thankful that she rose to the challenge of managing day to day family life in the wilderness of Nova Scotia. And, I will try to remember my mom the next time I’m grumbling and complaining on my way down the street to the grocery store.
What's your mom's story?
                             Everyone has a story to tell . . .