I took Aussie out in mid-afternoon to our old hang-out in the woods overlooking the Montague Farm, where Zen Peacemakers used to have its offices. I’ve been walking dogs out there for almost 20 years.

Arctic gales are expected tonight and tomorrow, taking us into below-zero territory (Fahrenheit), and the winds are already kicking up. In that situation it’s always best to go into the woods where the trees protect you from the blasts coming your way..

It was barren out there this afternoon. Not a bird chirped, not an owl hooted, no people or dogs anywhere. It’s winter: bare, frigid, a delicate balance for the deer that survived hunting season, the small critters and birds.

In our first winter in our house, in 2004, I came out one freezing morning and found a dead coyote on the front lawn. It had no violent marks, I think it simply starved to death. It had come to our house in a last desperate effort to find food and died during the night.

Two years before that, in 2002, Bernie and I arrived in Massachusetts and lived communally with 10 other people in the Montague Farm. That first winter, a local man told me that I faced a choice: Stay at home for 5 months, or buy the right clothes, accessories, and footwear, and go out every day.

20 years later, it hits me that he was describing how to make it not just through a New England winter but also life.  Circumstances change—it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s sad, exhilarating, fun, depressing, or I’m just plain not in the mood—but out I go. Try not to close up, not to slip under the covers. Go out and out to the very edges of not-knowing. Search inside a hollow trunk, scrape away at the ice to see if water runs underneath, look carefully at an unidentified print. Who left it? What was here?

At times I’m asked to go back to old roles and containers, things I know how to do. That feels like staying home instead of facing a New England winter.

My January dog-walking clothes tend to be on the old side: a pair of brown lined jeans a decade old and a gray sweatshirt my mother brought me from her trip to China many years ago, an unattractive burgundy jacket I found in a Salvation Army store 20 years ago. Aussie’s the only one who sees me wearing it.

Since I tend to lose gloves, I wear a different glove on each hand, a heavy black one lined with fleece on my left hand (I lost the right a week ago) and a red mitten on my other hand (its partner was lost five years back). A heavy gray shawl rounds my neck and a green wool hat, knitted for me by Sensei Franziska Schneider in Switzerland, covers my head.

No prizes for style, but I stay warm. My feet are encased in wool socks inside a pair of faded fur-lined boots, yaktrax on their bottoms. I know there’s warm outdoor gear out there that’s lighter and prettier, but this does fine.

The biggest prison I know is the one erected by my own thoughts: What I did, what I didn’t, what I couldn’t. What he did, what she didn’t, what he couldn’t. Why something happened, why something else didn’t happen. Practice has taught me how to leave that prison behind anytime.

Aussie runs up and down the white slopes, impervious. We won’t go out tomorrow, there’s an alert about the freeze. I let her rush freely now; she’s careful, not reckless. At the same time, I know that if she runs into a band of hungry coyotes in winter, for all her sauciness, there won’t be much she could do.

We turn back. The pine needles shiver in the air, the trees shake and moan, dry leaves sweep across the snow and furrows turn brittle, the wind begins to howl, and Aussie’s tail is making circles as she runs parallel to me across the forest. In what feels like a dead, icy wasteland this afternoon edging towards evening, I’m aware that everything is right here, nothing’s absent, and it’s all alive. Vitally, uncompromisingly alive.

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