My Empty Nest

It's not always empty.

Women and the Dogs Who Walk Them

An Empty Nest can be full of surprises.

I've been trying to kick a 20-year habit of being on someone else's schedule. Our dogs have been my methadone. They cannot feed themselves and we don't live on a farm so they don't run wild and free. But I find them to be far more flexible than my former charges -- our children. Dogs will pretty much eat whatever and whenever you feed them. They don't complain, or say ew, what's that? Dogs don't voluntarily become vegans overnight.

I used to have this fantasy that involved our teenagers walking the dogs every day. In this dream world there was order and exercise and human-animal bonding. Now that the job has fallen to me the dream is becoming a reality. I actually do walk our dogs every morning, at approximately the same time. Not because I have to, but oddly enough because I want to. It's a good way to get the brain in gear without really breaking a sweat. And since as we all know dogs are color blind, my outfits don't have to match.

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There are a lot of dogs in our neighborhood and a lot of women who walk them. Some of the dogs are barkers, some of them are sniffers. None of the women bark or sniff; they mostly walk like me in a slightly fast and mostly methodical fashion. We nod and smile at each other, stop and chat if the dogs allow, pick up the pace when they don't.

After the walk we all go back into our houses, into our lives. I wonder what they're up to, these neighbor women of mine. I never had the time to give them much thought before. But now that I'm in this rehab program,(some call it an empty nest, I say I'm a recovering mother) letting our dogs provide the barest of framework for my day, I've started to look and think beyond my own invisible fenced backyard.

Some of these women with dogs to walk still have children living at home, and some of these children will occasionally walk their dogs like my kids did. They (the moms) have a harried look that I recognize because it used to be my face. My face is older now but no longer wracked with angst over SATs and APs and all those other letters.

Some of the women dog walkers are older than I am. Possibly their dogs are their primary companions. I live in a town full of death and divorce and distant relationships. Just like you do, I suspect. Maybe the best way to define us is to say that we live in a town full of dogs. Some of these dogs are canines, some are adults acting out.

Some of the women I see are clearly hired to do the walking. They rarely make eye contact with me. They don't seem to get much out of the experience. It's just a job to them. But a dog walk just like life is more or less what you make of it. Boring, delightful, engaging, annoying -- take your pick.

And what is it to me? Not a job, not a hobby, not really even exercise. A walk with two dogs is an excuse to get outside of my house and with any luck at all, outside of myself. I can take in the neighborhood, check out the newest renovations, and see where we are in the cycle of seasons. Late fall is sad but also lovely - -a cluster of bright colored leaves will still surprise one when rounding a corner.

A few years ago a teenage boy wrote an article for our town's high school paper. In it he said, oh so smugly, that all the women in our town spend all of their time walking their dogs. But that is the beauty of youth isn't it? To be absolutely clueless. And I'd like to thank that numbskull, wherever he may be. Because he reminded me that I am a feminist and that's a good thing to be, before during and after the kids leave home. Feminism helps you remember who you were before you had kids. That would be you.

And then there are the terriers, the purported reason for my daily walk. One is on the old side; she is dear and a little ditzy. One is on the young side; she is feisty, affectionate, fun. Our other dog (yes we are crazy, yes we have three) is too old to go on a walk anymore. He stays behind and tries not to get tangled in the lead that I tie him to. I have to tie him up or he wanders off. Too old to walk, yes. Not too old to wander.

I'm not too old to wander either. The daily dog walk gives me focus. It's just a little almost inconsequential part of my day, but it seems to mean a lot. To my dogs, to my neighbors, and myself. And when I return from my dog walk to my empty house -- husband at work, kids at college -- it always seems to welcome me home. And then, if when I go online I find an email from my husband (re line: just checking in), or my daughter or a friend, I know I've got the beginnings of a really good day. And maybe something to write about.

Madora Kibbe is a Christian Science practitioner and writer who lives in New York.

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