Title: WALKS WITH SAM
Author: DAVID W. BERNER
James Dodson, the best-selling author of Faithful Travelers and Final Rounds: "The poet Wallace Stevens wrote that sometimes the answer comes with a walk around the lake. In my case, it's a daily walk around the neighborhood at dawn with the dogs that provides an answer to the unknown challenges of the day. Writer David W. Berner knows this truth better than most, a timeless phenomenon splendidly explored and revealed in his wise and insightful Walks with Sam, a moving memoir about how a young dog can teach an old man new tricks about mindfulness and presence. Hard to remember when I've enjoyed a walk with two friends more, a reminder of the important things dogs help us discern about ourselves -- and the world around us."
It was the summer of 1963 and my best friend was moving away. He lived a block up the street in a brick bungalow, and on many summer days after elementary school had let out for the season, Mark and I would build forts on the home’s wide stone porch. We draped a bed sheet over an old chair and a couch his parents had planted there, and with our green plastic Army guns we would climb inside, preparing ourselves to battle the Nazi soldiers who would soon be coming over the hill. We played for hours, pretending we were under fire from a determined enemy, an enemy we would always overcome. During a break from the skirmishes, his mother would bring us lemonade. As we refreshed ourselves under the billowing sheet, there beside us standing guard was my dog.
Sally was a tri-colored collie given to me by my grandfather, my mother’s dad, just a few months after I was born. “A boy needs to grow up with a dog,” he told my mother when he came to the door, the eight-week old puppy in his arms. From the time I could walk, Sally was right there with me. She followed me on walks in the woods. She came along when I visited my grandmother’s home a block away. And on that porch up the street on that hot day in August decades ago, Sally was there. Not only keeping an eye out for Nazi soldiers, but also reminding me she would never leave me, even if my friend would soon leave forever.
When you are seven years old, you struggle to understand the concept of change, that things would not always stay the same. I knew my friend was moving, he told me so, but I could not comprehend what that truly meant. People in my world did not move away. My parents grew up on the same street where I grew up. My grandparents lived a few houses away. My aunt and cousins lived on a parallel street, a five-minute walk from my home. Change—someone leaving—seemed a dreadful concept.
The day of the move, a long, tall truck parked on the street outside Mark’s door. Big men moved tables and chairs, box after box, table lamps, dressers, and trunks. Mark and I stood in the front yard and shook hands. “I guess I’ll see ya,” Mark said. “When?” I asked. Mark did not answer.
On the slow walk home with Sally at my side, I tried not to think about what was happening. How far could he really be going? Maybe he’d still be at school? I stroked the top of Sally’s head and rubbed behind her ear. She nuzzled against my hip. “You’re a good girl,” I murmured. I was certain that no matter what was happening with my friend, Sally would stay. She would always be my dog, always be my friend. She was not packing her things into a moving truck that would rumble down the street and out of sight.
About halfway to my house, I stopped and sat in the grass along the sidewalk. I wasn’t ready to go home. Sally sat next to me and curled up to rest her head on my knee. For a good while, the two of us silently sat, waiting for my confused feelings to go away. I patted Sally’s back. She licked my hand. I hugged her around the neck and held on for a long time. When we started to walk again, we did not head straight home. Instead, we took the long way, through the backyards, across the alley, and down another street.
We ambled over a hill dotted with evergreen trees and through a stretch of maples near a creek. Time stood still. Sally and I were less than a few tenths of a mile from home, but looking back, we were walking a great distance from one thing and closer to something new. I didn’t know this then, but I believe that time with Sally was my first encounter with the beauty and redemptive power of a contemplative walk, and especially a walk with one’s dog. The little boy in me would not have comprehended this, but in time I would realize how that day was my first lesson on how a journey, even a short one, could deliver solace, how you could make things right by putting one foot in front of the other. Kierkegaard—a famous daily walker—once wrote in a letter to his favorite niece who had been struggling with personal problems—“If you just keep walking, everything will be all right.” This little boy knew nothing of Kierkegaard. But he knew how he felt after that walk with his dog, his constant companion.
It was a tough day for a little boy, but without Sally, it would have been unbearable. She eased me through the first big change in my life. Sally was there when I realized that nothing would remain, life would forever shift. She was there to hold open the lens a little longer so I could see that a walk, especially with your dog, could heal but also open you up, permit space in the soul’s tight chambers, allow your heart to heal.
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What’s your favorite activity to shake off the winter doldrums?
Riding my stationary bike and reading, always, reading!
Why is your featured book a cure for the winter blues?
It’s a walk with one’s dog in the summer months when the weather is lovely, when the world is awake, and the journey opens up new thought and new adventures.
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Runs March 1 – 31, 2021.
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David W. Berner is a best-selling and award-winning writer and author of eight books. He has been honored as the Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando and at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. His books have been recognized by the Society of Midland Authors, the Chicago Writers Association, and the Eric Hoffer Book Awards. David writes from his writing shed on his property outside Chicago
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