We lived, then, in New York City, which has its own particular version of winter. After the first half hour, the snow isn't beautiful. It's just this inconvenient thing you have to slog through to get some place you wish you didn't have to go. Then, giant snowplows driven by angry New Yorkers scrape the snow violently into piles (scraping the side of your car along with it). The "snow boulders" just sit there for months, in great unattractive heaps the color of dung. With some piss-yellow thrown in (courtesy of men and dogs).
The cold in the city is more biting, more aggressive, somehow. City wind knows how to turn corners, fly up your skirt and speed through intersections as if trying to beat the red lights. And then there's our source of heat: steam radiators that clang at night, as though some ghoul were hiding under your floorboards, banging a wrench against your pipes.
For dogs, the NYC version of winter includes all of the above, plus paw pain from chemicals spread on the sidewalks and the indignity of being forced to wear clothes, such as plaid Burberry lumberjackets and little canvas booties with "anti-slide" soles.
Don't get me wrong. I love New York. And dogs love anything. But New York in winter? Not recommended by SAD doctors.
So we moved back to the Catskills, to Woodstock. Back to the garden, as the song goes, back to the land of peace and love. And light and space and air. One of the first things we did after unpacking was visit a local park called The Comeau Property, 76 idyllic acres of meadows, woods, streams, swimming holes and grassy fields. Chloe had plenty of land to roam on our own six-acre property, but I wanted her to make new friends. I wanted new friends, too; people with SAD should avoid isolation.
Thus, we met Greg, a way-cool musician and conceptual artist in his 50s, and his handsome Setter, Rainbow. (It was love at first sight for the Rainbow and Chloe; they have now been engaged for seven years, but have yet to set a date). Next we met Lilly, a witty photographer and her dog Sparky -- a Pointer mix who had the air and expression of Nietzsche. The three of us humans not only had dogs in common: it turned out that we were all recent transplants to Woodstock. Greg and his family, up until then, had lived full-time in NYC, and Lilly came from Miami by way of Los Angeles. All three of us were also prone to SAD and facing our first Woodstock winter with trepidation. But, we had our prescriptions and we had our dogs.
Prescription 1: Avoid isolation. In the winter, those of us with SAD mostly want to hibernate. We want to hide in our emotional cocoons of lethargy and also in our literal cocoons of heavy down jackets with giant puffy hoods, which we zip from head-to-toe and cinch tightly around our faces. Nothing shows except a nose, which is always red and runny from the cold.
Dogs, on the other hand, expand in winter. We've all witnessed this. They get friskier, more energetic. They tend to bounce around more, run in circles at every occasion (a ringing doorbell! A trip to the mailbox!) and exhibit new hidden talents for leaps and pirouettes. As the temperatures drop, their coats thicken and their pupils shrink to focused pinpoints, which somehow makes them look more alert, and feral.
At Comeau, our dogs seemed overjoyed with the new weather and their new pack. I loved to watch their ecstatic, bright-eyed faces as they ran through the white fields, and the way they seemed to smile as they leapt through the high drifts in buoyant, dolphin arcs. I loved the way they threw their bodies into the snow and shimmied on their backs, pushing themselves upside-down through the drifts, only to leap to their feet again and shake it all off. Rainbow saw any dog on his or her back as fair game, and took the opportunity to get in a playful nip on the neck, rump or leg. I loved the way they would dive, twist, and nip, exhausting themselves with their clever dog maneuvers, and how they would pause from play, just slightly, to scoop some snow-powdery and pure-into their mouths for quick refreshment. Chloe always seemed rejuvenated by her "snow snack," as we called it, like a hearty Russian explorer clearing her head with a shot of ice-cold vodka. Snow, I realized, was like a drug to dogs. A puppy upper.
Something else I found endearing was that Chloe was the least athletic among her new country-dog pals. Rainbow could clear six-foot fences and outrun snowplows, and Sparky-thick in the middle-could take a hit like a seasoned defensive lineman. Chloe, however, walked around puddles and, when she ran with the boys, was always a few yards behind, her ears flopping behind her as she ran with cure girly determination.
She didn't mind being at the bottom of the hierarchy. She was just happy to have friends. She always trotted back to us with a smile on her face, as if to say: See, I'm hanging out with the cool guys. That smile warmed our hearts. This was much better than hanging out isolated at home with a SAD woman.
Prescription 2: Sunlight. For those of us with SAD, doctors prescribe at least 40 minutes each day in front of a light box or in direct sunlight. When our pack gathered at Comeau in the mornings, we always stood in the open field, in the sunshine. As the weeks passed, our positions shifted slightly so that we could get as much exposure and vitamin D as possible. We seemed much more aware of time after winter solstice, because we gained a full two minutes of sunshine every day. I loved the way the low, slanted light sieved through the bare trees in the morning. The sun seemed put in extra effort, just for us.
The dogs seemed to be putting in extra effort, too. If our conversations started to veer toward the negative some mornings (it's cold, it's dark, we have no mental or physical energy, Woodstock has no decent coffee), the dogs would increase the intensity of their play. They'd position themselves right in front of us and take turns spinning, biting, chasing, pouncing and wrastling. (I know wrastling is not an actual word, but it should be). Usually, Chloe was on the bottom of the play-pile, pushing the male dogs off with her hind legs. As she twisted her body to the right to get in a defensive leg-nip, Rainbow would leap over her head, Sparky, as if choreographed, would circle around them and then swoop in for another chomp on her neck. It was kind of like a canine Cirque du Soleil. After several minutes of dramatic play, they'd pause, gulp some snow and then smile at us, as though expecting applause. Which they always got.
Prescription 3: Laugh. On weekends, Greg's wife Mindy joined us, along with their seven-year-old son, Clayton. Clayton was the instigator of many a dog game. In fact, he played as exuberantly as the dogs: he'd dive, tackle, roll, and had no problem falling face-first into the snow. He would insist that we bury him neck-deep in the higher drifts so that the dogs could play "find the avalanche victim." Clayton insisted on riding his toboggan down the hill by himself,so the dogs could follow along, like a great team of bodyguards, and pig-pile on him en masse at the bottom of the hill. Once, Clayton somehow wrangled Rainbow onto the toboggan, wrapping his legs around the dog to keep him in place. Rainbow looked positively miserable, his tail curled underneath him as we pushed them down the hill, but still, he submitted because he loved his family. Dogs will do anything for love.
Prescription 4: Establish a routine. We met at the park at 8:28 am exactly. Greg had to drop Clayton off at his school bus at 8:17, and it took him 11 minutes to reach Comeau. This meant I had to leave my house at 8:21, and also that around 6, Chloe would be at the door with her nose pressed to the crack, tail wagging, dancing up and down with excitement. Our small foyer was narrow, and it was it difficult to open the door with an exuberant, 60-pound dancing dog trying to wedge her way through. Her enthusiasm made me smile. And smiling is a nice way to start a day.
It took me seven minutes to drive to Comeau, and in those seven minutes I always tuned in to Writer's Almanac on NPR. I loved listening to Garrison Keillor recite poetry in his smooth, soothing voice. (Poetry: another wonderful antidote to SAD.) Meanwhile, in the back seat, Chloe would be pressing her body forward with a serious and focused look on her face, as if she alone was responsible for guiding us.
When we arrived, Chloe leapt out of the car and ran in circles, looking for her friends. Lilly, Greg and I usually arrived at the same time. Lilly drove a Jeep. Greg drove an old but elegant Mercedes wagon, which, being a Mercedes, ran quietly. But if Greg was late, we could hear Rainbow yowling in excitement from a quarter-mile away. Rainbow, the most vocal of our dogs, greeted Sparky with a chummy grunt and a body slam; his girlfriend Chloe got a more emotional "a-woo-woo-woo." Chloe-not much of a barker-whimpered in a cute, coquettish way, and Sparky would just do a little leap and then stand calmly by Lilly again. Sparky kept his real thoughts to himself.
After this brief canine greeting, the dogs greeted the humans with kisses, tail wags, crotch-poking and figure eights. Then, led by Rainbow, they tore off into the fields, bounding through the snow. Next, we humans would walk to our spot in the sunshine, drink our coffee, complain about the cold, absorb our daily dose of vitamin D. After the prescribed 40 minutes of sunshine, we would start the official walk.
Prescription 5: Spend time in nature. Comeau is a large park, but the hiking trails are modest. It would take a dogless person probably 20 minutes to walk them. Our pack liked to amble, so it would take us 45. We liked to pause and point out the beauty of ice clinging to pine needles, we liked to stop and listen to the sound of water flowing intrepidly beneath the frozen surface of the Mill Stream. And, of course, we liked to watch the dogs: blazing their own trails through the snow, chasing the squirrels who chittered at us from the trees, or-glory of glories-finding deer poop to roll in (Rainbow ) or eat (Sparky) or both (Chloe). Somehow, Chloe's rolling offense seemed less gross in winter, because I could quickly wipe it off with a handful of snow.
Seeing beauty is also important for a person with SAD-or anyone, really. And while winter beauty can be lonely and stark, it is a beauty that points forward somehow. With the trees bare, we could see the mountains beyond and the steeples of white churches, and soothing curls of smoke rising from chimneys. There is something about being able to see through the distances, especially in winter, which reminds us that there is always a beyond.
Plus, we had three bird dogs, the sort of dogs who always roamed far ahead of us and pointed at things worth seeing: bright red berries on the holly bushes. Chickadees and cardinals. Our dogs were our rangers, our trail guides. I liked following their paw prints in the fresh snow. It felt as if we were doing something entirely original and new.
The trail led us straight back to the parking lot, where we would say goodbye for the day. It took a lot of coaxing and bribing and promises of bacon to lure the dogs back into our respective cars (Chloe usually wanted to go home with Rainbow). But they always gave in, knowing that they were going home to hearty breakfasts and warm fires.
Prescription 6: Take care of your body. On the way home, I stopped at Sunfrost Café for carrot juice with a shot of wheat grass juice. The juice rejuvenated me in a way that, I suppose, Chloe's gulps of snow rejuvenated her. There was a sense of freshness, of eating something clean.
Then we'd go home. In the foyer, I'd remove my boots and Chloe would shake off the final flakes of snow. I loved the way she smelled-it wasn't so much the smell of wet dog as the smell of cold. Of winter at its best. After Chloe had licked the final chunks of ice off her leg feathers and from between her toes, both of us would go upstairs, where I'd light a fire and brew a cup of tea. As soon as I latched the door to the woodstove, Chloe would curl herself up on the hearth.
Prescription 7: Rest. The hearth-that's the best thing about winter. The center, the source of warmth, the fire element, our own personal sun. Whenever I see a dog lying by a hearth, I have the sense that life is exactly as it should be. That winter is a time to be home.
Prescription 8: Practice gratitude. Some days, the mornings at Comeau were the only sane hours I had that winter. But those hours accumulated and built upon themselves, as did the vitamin D in my body from the sunshine; the number of times I laughed at the dogs' antics; and the number of great, deep breaths I took in that pure mountain air. Slowly but surely, I found my frame of mind shifting from, excuse the pun, SAD to glad.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki-roshi once wrote: "If you can just appreciate each thing, one by one, then you will have pure gratitude. Even though you observe just one flower, that one flower includes everything." Dogs seem to instinctively know this.
I remember that during one particularly grim winter, before I had dogs, I had to work very hard to find things to appreciate. (Such a statement might sound obnoxious, but this is the state of mind of a person in the throes of SAD.) I have always loved stars-their calming presence, their cool, serene beauty-but that winter, not even stars made me happy because, well, because of SAD. The fact that I could not even appreciate stars made me feel even worse. Then, I decided to be grateful that other people appreciated stars. And that one shift in perception and attitude lifted everything up again.
The winter night sky in the Catskills is beautiful beyond description, with stars plentiful and bright and acute. When I step outside at night and look up and out, I feel as though I am seeing all of eternity. And I realize I never would have experienced this feeling if I didn't have a dog. Because, believe me, I would not be outside in below-zero weather for any other reason.
In the mornings, I am the one who has to coax Chloe inside after our walks. But at night, it is she who rushes back to the house first. Now, even on the darkest, longest winter nights, I feel as if I could stand underneath that starry sky forever. It reminds me that there is no such thing as sadness. Just an infinite number of worlds, working in harmony. "Look," I say to Chloe, pointing up. "Sirius. The dog star. That's you!" She wags her tail, and her breath forms a cloud in the air, which seems like a loving answer. And we go inside. Where it is happy and warm.
This post originally appeared in Bark magazine (#68 January 2013) as "The Chloe Chronicles/Part IV: A Canine Cure for the Winter Blues"
Illustration: Hadley Hooper