One marriage. Four lovers. Three dogs. One cat. Thousands of walks out the back gate, crossing soft fields to the base of Mt. Ascension in Helena, Montana. Seventeen years in a house, my first house, bought and now sold.
Memories of singular events and memories of daily habits permeate the undertaking of packing. Cleaning out the studio, I remembered burning letters in a clay chimera on its brick patio. My former husband and I had decided when we married to write a letter every year on our anniversary. We would read the one from the year before and write one for the year to come.
The first year we re-read our vows and wrote our first letter. After two years, the husband stopped participating. So I wrote a letter alone and stuck it in the box. After another couple of years of the same passive resistance to the ritual, it seemed tragic and stupid to do by myself. So I burned the letters, mostly all my own, and thought of it no more.
My 130 lbs. soul mate Rotty-cross died in the backyard of this house on a Sunday morning under the plum tree after a ten month battle with bone cancer. Through it all, the efforts, the rebounds, the when she took my hand in her mouth in the alley so to turn me to go home because she could walk no further, through it all I held it to be true that love could heal. But it doesn’t. It didn’t. The Humane Society, where I would take her to be cremated, wouldn’t be open until Tuesday. So the ex and I wrapped her into a tarp and slid her into a giant, blue Rubbermaid garbage can and placed it under the plum tree, the place she had loved to lie and the place she had died with final a shudder.
It was August. The daily temperatures were breaking 100 degrees. Over the next 48 hours, I took several trips a day to the grocery store for ice. I’d pop the container’s lid and dump the bag. I’d stare out my kitchen glass doors at the blue container and smile at the ridiculousness of the situation, and weep inconsolably.
Some rituals demand and invent themselves.
Three months after my Rotty died, I had gotten a puppy, and I took her, as I had taken dogs before, up the familiar trail leading out my back gate. I felt a bittersweetness as we took our first walk, mourning still for my 130 lb. soul mate. But then, on the first ridge, I looked downhill and saw our shadows stretching toward the north, my familiar baggy pants side silhouette, my new puppy following, head up, tail in the air.
There is loss and moving on, the long cycles of the breaking and restoration of the heart.
I watched thousands of sunrises through my kitchen doors.
I sang Cracklin’ Rose with Terri and Dennis at the kitchen counter.
I wrote my novel, Shaking Out the Dead, in this house and remember the moment the title rolled through my mind and the immediate knowing that that was it.
I spent two of the seventeen years I lived there with extraordinarily little sleep, the kind of insomnia that tears apart the adrenals and nervous system.
I’d been on my knees in this house, moved there by desperation, moved there in gratitude.
The rolling hills and fields I crossed on the way from my back gate to the base of Mt. Ascension were encroached upon over the years by housing developments, each hated in its turn as it ate space deer herds had loitered and where angled sunlight had illuminated both snow and grasses. But still there remained a decent corridor of open space leading to the base, although even on my final walk, wood posts with orange tips strung together spoke of uphill trump cards yet to be played.
On that final walk, the day before closing, I walked those trails with that puppy grown old. I remembered the times, the many times, of noting this grey dirt beneath my feet always, one step at a time, always there.
I looked over the valley from the hill, a view I knew, four seasons ever-cycling, fall leaves and the shimmering lights of the valley at night. I was leaving friends, and though I’d always known the love I felt for those sacred comrades, standing on the hill, I was awash in the astonishment that they loved me, too. I thought of all I’d had there and knew myself to be blessed, and lucky.
It was a house on the edge of town, yet just a 15 minute walk downtown, or to the state Capitol where I often had work. Nothing I could possibly need was more than a half hour walk away, or a five or ten minute drive. The asphalt street ended just yards from the house and the dirt road was a constant source of dust.
I live most comfortably in the in-betweens, a house on an edge of town or up at dawn, or rather, the hour before dawn when distinction is barely in focus between the sky and what sits on the earth, a brimming, about to burst, about to bleed, into being.
Border towns are known for dynamism, for trade, the exchange of goods, language, energy, and information. Ecosystem boundaries, vents, and estuaries are creative zones of breeding and hotbeds of evolution over great stretches of time. The in-between is where worlds collide, cross-pollinate, co-mingle, and lines blur.
What lives at the edge is different than what lives deep in the adjacent ecosystems, natural or otherwise.
In my novel, Shaking Out the Dead, I refer to a coffee shop as such a zone.
“It had endured for twenty-five years, surviving economic upswings, bear markets, hairstyles, cultural upheavals, smoking and nonsmoking…Professionals and hippies. Retirees and teenagers. Fringes of different orbits warmed their hands against their mugs while the rich scent of a fresh grind rose toward the tin ceiling…The service might be quick. It might be slow. You might have to remind the staff of your order. It didn’t matter. In fact, Geneva thought it was adaptive, kept the mainstream at bay and protected a critical ecosystem, one of the tide pools where life begins.”
The day my house closed, I took a bath. Then I took down the shower curtain. It was 5:45 a.m.
Now, from my window, I see the Yellowstone River, a flash of white light on the landscape, a soft edged lightning bolt cutting the roll of ranch land, and tree clusters rising up in fall colors and a few swatches of grey asphalt, the twist and turn of road.
A town with a regular grocery store and a wilderness area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, Yellowstone National Park, are equal distances away, about 25 miles, depending on which way I turn onto a two-lane highway. Turn right. Turn left. Towards civilization, or away. Head in or head out, and which is which?
The sunrises to which I am addicted now crack a horizon of 10,000 foot Chico Peak and 11,000 foot Emigrant Peak instead of the slanted line of my neighbor’s roof and the curved top ridge of a cedar fence.
The dog is satisfied with the change, as am I, outside the Park but inside of nowhere, in-between still, a path less beaten and less patrolled, and closer to what’s wild.
K.M. Cholewa is the author of Shaking Out the Dead. Please visit our website to learn more about the author and her book.