Fledgling Ravens and Voices in my Head

The baby ravens were yelling their heads off this morning. I don’t know why they yell like that. Some days they do and some days they don’t. I guess it’s for the same reasons most humans yell their fool heads off: food or sex. Hopefully, given that these are mere fledglings, it’s the former.

Listening to the baby ravens’ raucous cries is a treat, unadulterated aural delight. I walk along laughing silently, amazed at my blessed circumstances. I saw a young buck this morning and a toddler porcupine. I saw rare warblers and now I’m listening to ravens.

It’s been over a week since Cinder died. I’ve picked up her ashes. I’ve washed and put away her dog bowl and been blindsided by photos of her on my phone. These rituals of loss and grief are almost comforting to me. “Ah yes, that pang of sadness tinged with self hatred, I know it well. Been here before.” At first, I avoided the clearing in the woods where the fight occurred. I just couldn’t bring myself to go there – literally or emotionally. Then avoiding the place became bigger than the place itself and I found myself going there out of some strange sense of convenience, a getting it over with – like it was suddenly better to take that route and feel those feelings, better than anything else I could have done that day. It makes no sense and yet it was logical to me at the time.

I went there and was surprised at how little I felt. I thought I’d be blasted by emotions and have some sort of dramatic catharsis. I imagined feeling cleansed by the process, offered new wisdom or perspective. I felt the sadness that I now feel at every hint of her. But no drama. No catharsis. No wracking sobs. Just quiet. I came across an Alan Watts quote and it feels accurate: “Quieting your mind is like a cloudy pool. Leave it alone and it’ll clear/quiet itself.” Standing there on that spot I didn’t try to do or feel or think anything. I just stood there letting my mind and that spot clear themselves… letting that place become just another spot in the woods. Sure, it has history. But it no longer has power. I stood there while the cloudiness of blame and guilt and avoidance cleared to just leaves and dirt and, if I searched for it, I guess blood and fur.

Since her death, I’ve been hiking without the dogs every day. I’ve been even more obsessed than usual with wildlife and photography, stalking Otis the adolescent bear (I haven’t seen him), camera in one hand, bear spray in the other. I carry the bear spray every day now, a nod to Tom’s anxiety and insistence. I don’t believe I’ll ever use it, but that’s not a commitment. If I need it, it’s there. I stalk coyotes, Otis, the collection of porcupines both named and unnamed, ginseng, foxes, fishers, mink, bobcats, and anything my phone app tells me is rare. This morning two warblers I photographed were identified as “rare” by my app. I’m over the moon.

I have to learn to trust myself again, and to trust the dogs. What happened was not normal, not predictable, not an escalation of something I should have seen, something I missed. My dogs are not ill, untrained, feral, psychotic, etc. My leadership skills are not in the toilet. I tell myself all that, but there is another voice in my head – a critical voice. I realized today it’s the voice of a dog trainer. Not any specific dog trainer, just the imaginary hater from the comment thread that tells me how badly I’m handling everything. It’s the naysayer, the harshest critic, the most unkind pro, exposing my amateurishness. The backseat driver of dogness, this voice tells me I am an imposter, just “lucky” that more disasters haven’t darkened my doorstep. This voice deems my dogs generous and kind, as they protect me from my own ineptitude. This voice promotes shame and guilt.

It was a revelation today when I realized I should just turn that tape off. While it’s not quite that simple, it was a moment of clarity. That’s what I would tell any friend, any dog owner, any parent torturing themselves with hypercritical internal dialog. Find the atoms of truth in the critiques, learn the lessons, and kick the rest of that shit to the curb. Easier said than done, perhaps, but the seed has been sown. I can start noticing and applying brakes every time I start up that internal dialog. I can starve that evil spirit until it finds some other soul to haunt.

Meanwhile, I have been testing the waters of hiking with the dogs again. Not the same as before, but trying different places, different combinations, different levels of freedom and restraint, to both regain my feet and reestablish my trust in myself. I rode horses (badly) as a kid and then again (still badly) when my daughter was a child. She was an excellent rider, gutsy and skillful at age 8. She got bucked off a bratty pony who took her on a wild ride, and she took a break before she got back on. I trusted her that she would do what was right for her – leave riding altogether or getting back on that horse, quite literally. She did choose to ride again, and she rode beautifully. But it took her some time to heal the self doubt and fear. She did so in private, without me offering help or interference. I remember my total faith in her to take care of herself. I try to conjure that same faith in my own ability to make good decisions and take care of myself and my pack now.

Life goes on. Get back on that horse and ride. Listen to the ravens’ incessant complaining and feel the joy of witnessing such moments. That’s what I keep telling myself. The best dog owner and the best human is the one who is present. I have to keep showing up, welcoming the joy as well as the pain. While I was writing this, Hawkitt and Bindi played a rousing game of bitey face wrestlemania on the studio floor. It was pure canine joy, unbridled and carefree. It was annoying and distracting and beautiful and instructive. I hate to romanticize them as teachers or god forbid gurus, but perhaps, just for today, the shoe (or muzzle) fits.

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