I just got back from ten days at a writing retreat in New Hampshire, so I'm a little gaga from culture shock. Ten days of peace, quiet, beautiful surroundings, and a gourmet chef placing wonderful concoctions in front of me every time I sat down, is bumping up against laundry, barn-mucking, and a heartbreaking loss.
Toad Hall is a private, non-profit writer and artist retreat about an hour north of Dartmouth. It is run by poet and publisher Maria van Beuren, and it is a marvel. A rambling New England house in the middle of 100 wooded acres, it provides space, comfort, and good company for groups of invited guests during the summer. Maria makes sure everyone is happy, extremely well-fed, and comfortable.
I thought I was going to get a lot of writing done, but I spent most of my time wandering through the woods and sketching, and that's okay, too. There was a lot to sketch: birch groves, a pond, carpets of fern, Maria's gorgeous gardens. It was a visual feast, and I discovered that artist and sculptor Ken Flynn, another guest, was right: there aren't enough kinds of colored pencils to capture the many varieties of green you see if you really look.
There were real feasts, too. Each evening, we gathered for a gourmet vegetarian dinner cooked by Rebecca, a local chef and magic-maker. I could definitely get used to this. And anyone who thinks vegetarian means boring or tasteless needs a forkful of Rebecca's fabulous ratatouille - a miracle of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, and - swear to God - poached eggs. It's a concoction to dream about.
Needless to say, it was hard to leave, although I was starting to miss everyone back home. Sadly, my culture shock at having to actually do chores was nothing compared to discovering when I got back on Sunday that our sweet old German shepherd, Moses, had passed away the day before.
Rick had waited until I got in to tell me because he didn't want me to drive upset and grieving, a good move, I think. Moses, who was 12 1/2 (ancient for a shepherd), had been fine on Friday - spent the evening outside with the other dogs playing, then snoozing on the grass. On Saturday morning, though, Rick could see he was ailing - he was not interested in getting up or eating, although he did not seem to be in pain and drank some water. Rick had to go out for a little while, and when he got back, Moses was gone. We spent Sunday digging his grave under the pine trees near our greyhound Holly, and we buried him with his favorite yellow ball and dog blanket.
Moses was something of an insider in the literary world, although he was terribly discreet and never gossiped about the writers he'd known. He had belonged to Priscilla Hodgkins, the former associate director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and many of Bennington's MFA alums remember him fondly. When Cilla moved two years ago, she was unable to take Moses with her, and he came to live with Rick and me on our farm.
He was a joy. An enormous joy, literally - he weighed over 100 pounds, and had paws the size of tennis racquets and a tail that could sweep off a coffee table with one wag. One of my friends called him "courtly and gentle," and that really captures him - sweet, dignified, and kind. He got deafer and more arthritic over the two years he lived with us, but he never lost his dignity or his lovely, loving nature.
Certainly it is a mercy that he went so peacefully and quickly and didn't suffer, but we will miss him. And anyone who thinks dogs don't have souls never met Moses.