Last spring, as the pandemic swelled and the schools closed, my dog and I began heading outside for longer and longer runs. Our house, quite suddenly, had too many people in it. It now housed two high school "classrooms" and facilitated coursework at a major university. It served as a small architectural firm and a writer's room. We did doctor's visits at home and therapy sessions and handled our important career meetings on a computer propped up on boxes with its camera pointed at the one spot on the wall that wasn't covered in to-do lists written on
Post-it notes. It was too many things for one house. The floors and ceilings all groaned from the weight of work and thoughts and feelings. We needed to get outside.
My dog, Sirius, and I ran the Minneapolis lakes at first, but even with the roadways closed to cars and opened to pedestrians, they still felt choked with people. The river and the creek, too, felt uncomfortably crowded. Eventually, we made our way to the forest. Crosby Farm was our first attempt. The trails were rutted and slushy, slick with hard-packed snow covered with ice. Still, the breeze smelled of spring. Someone had bagged the trunks of the bare maple trees and the plastic sacks sagged with freshly dripping sap. Sirius had a staring contest with a deer and attempted to chase a fox. It didn't look exactly springlike yet, but the swelled tips of the cottonwoods had a buffed sheen to them. They would open soon. I could feel it. I came home with a brightness that I couldn't shake.
"What could possibly take this long?" my exasperated family said when I came home splattered with mud and slush and covered in burrs, the dog nearly unrecognizable in his layer of salt and grime. "And also can you please bring your phone with you next time so we can find you?"
"I'm bearing witness," I said. "I'm watching as the winter shifts, and we find ourselves in spring."
Eventually, we ran the tangled trails between the dog park and Fort Snelling. Then Pike Island. Later we moved on to Wirth Park and Hyland and Murphy-Hanrehan and the seemingly endless trails along the Minnesota River. We didn't care where we went. Or at least Sirius didn't. I picked a park at random from the map on my phone, while my dog waited patiently next to my running shoes and the leash, as though concerned that I might forget to bring him. His tail thumped on the floor.
We ran for 30 minutes at first. Then an hour. Then two. Once I stayed out all day, scrambling with my dog from rock to rise and back again, always keeping an eye out for yet another unexplored trail. We watched the changing bird populations. We watched the decomposing ice as it slid down the river. Stubborn snow in the shaded hollows gives way to ice, which gives way to mud which eventually erupts in tiny shoots. I reached out my fingers as I ran past, letting the changing world drift across my hand.
We didn't know how long this all would last — the pandemic, the lockdown, the separation from friends and loved ones. Who can predict what a year might bring us, after all? We didn't know how accustomed a person can become to a constant state of longing — we long to hug our mothers; we long to be close to our friends; we long for the world as it once was. It is winter now, and once again I am longing for spring.
The lilac bush outside my office has buds already — hard and tight and cold. It will be months before they open. And yet. They will open. The fragile branches hold each bud forward, like a promise. Today I put on two layers of running tights and an extra pair of socks and planned out where I would go. Sirius passed away during the winter, and now I run alone. So it goes. The forest defoliates, then waits; it burgeons, then its leaves unfurl themselves in green. Sometimes a tree falls, returning itself to the place from which it came. We accept this, and we keep going. I pause a moment, holding the leash in my hand, before setting it aside. I head out under the sky, bearing witness as the weather shifts from winter to spring.
Kelly Barnhill is a Minneapolis writer and Newbery medalist for "The Girl Who Drank the Moon."