On Chaos and Change: A Chrysalis Year

It’s the first week of October. There have been multiple cool mornings, and as I write this now the mercury hovers around freezing. Hard frosts have killed plants, although I still see yellow jackets stumbling around drunkenly. Somewhere, somehow, the foliage has exploded into the firestorm of peak colors, amplified by dry clear cold air. In short: it’s deep into fall. 


And…..the dogs haven’t run yet. 


The dogs seem more or less ok, as dogs don’t have the ability to regret what isn’t happening. They do radiate back my own frustration that we haven’t run yet, and paired with them knowing what time of year it is, they express their frustration with an amped up expectation for when I walk towards the kennel without a dogfood bucket in my hand. Ariel’s barks have become more insistent, Gem’s eyes more eager, Hawkeye has woken up from his drowsy summer state and almost knocks me over with his giant paws, and for awhile a dog was getting loose almost daily. 


And….the dogs haven’t run yet. 


Some of this was due to an unbelievably busy work schedule for my day job for September. For the most part, I can control my schedule and ride the pendulum swing of intense work periods to less-intense work periods. This is a dramatically different work pattern from my previous job, where there were two clear breaks in the year, the months of October to March consistently quiet. Now, the pendulum swings faster, the shifts more inconsistent. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting. It is something that is becoming harder to transition out of and focus entirely on the dogs. 

The other reason why is the dog box. To train the dogs, it always requires loading and trucking to a trailhead. This summer, the big project was taken on of removing the bed of the truck, putting on a flatbed, and installing a double-decker box. Earlier this spring, I had come across a used double-decker box built in modular pieces, making it easy to get on and off as single person. It was August before I finally had the truck turned into a flatbed, and Labor Day weekend when I finally picked up the box, which was custom built for, it turns out, a custom built flatbed. 

And boy—do those kinds of projects require more than it seems at first.  It required building four boxes new. It required cutting off welded steel pieces from the used box to make them fit onto the flatbed. It required a lot of head-scratching and texting with my three trusted mechanical engineers to refine decisions. It required almost daily trips to the hardware store because bolts were not long enough, or too long, or because I dulled drillbits. This was work done in the evenings, on spare weekend days (of which there weren’t enough). It was September 22 when I finally started building and assembling, so I really shouldn’t be so hard on myself that I’m not further along. And I haven’t entirely put this off all summer, I started calling body shops in late June for quotes and asking for recommendations, settling on a small-town shop in VT that had the best price and best work.

It still isn’t done. But I am getting closer. The boxes are all bolted to each other, and bolted to the bed. The center channel has a roof, and I will frame a door today. I felt ready enough that I pulled out the harnesses and put together the gang line and loaded them into the truck. Warm humid air has moved in for now,, clearing out tomorrow night. For my own sanity, and for the dogs, I need to have this done by then. 

I wrote to my friend Erin that this year is a ‘chrysalis year.’ A year of mushy mucky internal change, done in a hardened shell where the internal change is worked out, isolated from the world around it. There are a lot of changes going on, yearlings becoming two year olds, two litters of puppies. Most importantly, there is a big change when I realized that I can’t keep training the dogs the way I used to when I worked in my old job. These are different dogs, and I am different as well. 

Blank space of an empty and new house, looking out into a future dogyard.

Blank space of an empty and new house, looking out into a future dogyard.

The largest, most impactful, and critical change? In about two weeks, I’ll be closing on a second property that has direct trail access, enabling me to train dogs without loading them into boxes for the first time in the lifecycle of my kennel. Two weeks after that, a couple is moving into my family home to take care of my siblings and enable me to spend time at the the training property without scrambling constantly for a house sitter. This is a big deal. This is a lot of work. This is a lot of change in the ground beneath my feet. 

Taking on this change is the big challenge this year. It’s not training for 250 mile races, it’s not building for a big splash, it’s one of those years that seems, often, not as exciting as it’s about sustainability. Or, as I work in the nonprofit world, it is a year about internal operations, about internal sustainability. Sustaining a dog team is a multiyear build, an alignment of a vision of life. This year will be a re-alignment. An investment in the future. A chrysalis year.

This wakeup call is a result of last year, of realizing how unsustainable the system was. The ways I trained the dogs were time intensive, more time intensive than they needed to be. That was ok in my old world, in my old job. I have been reading recently about how, neurologically, it is possible to be completely blind to the obvious, especially if you are overworked and overdrawn. It took a combination of disaster and direct feedback from those around me to realize this. It was a lot of small conversations, but when I point to the moment when I realized this, it was at a motel in Fort Kent on a Tuesday. Ward Wallin and Erin Altemus gave me the no-nonsense direct feedback, and as people who are not part of my daily life and my local relationships, they have voices that are tough to ignore, tough for my mental blinders to block out. They are removed from my world just far enough that they aren’t caught up in detail, but see enough of the headlines of my life to realize that something is whacked. They said ‘You need to stop trucking your dogs. You need to stop lifting dogs over your head. What you are doing does not work.’

To maintain confidence as I plan and forge forward into this future is tough. It adds a lot onto a complex system that already swirls around me: the book I’m editing, the grant proposals I’m writing, the new land conservation I’m stewarding, the Medicaid application for my brother that I missed and need to get in tomorrow so his benefits don’t lapse, the time I want to spend with my partner Chuck, and the electric bill that I don’t remember paying. It is not surprising that last Friday I tried to get into someone else’s car in a parking lot, taking a full slow brain cycle to realize that my car was the next row over. There’s just… a lot going on right now.

 I usually don’t commit to racing goals until the end of October. I will say that the vision I have for the year to come is to see as many start and finish lines as possible, and not necessarily enter any 200 mile races, for the first time in six years. There are 20 dogs training this year, five of which are two year olds. There will be 8 puppies to harness break, and raising those puppies well is another investment in the future. I’ll be redesigning the training schedule, the training approach. While we are late to the game of starting our training season (our Canadian and MN friends have been running for months!), it will still be a good year.


And still…no matter how much I intellectualize or think about the long list, the ecosystem that is shifting….


The dog box still needs to be done. 

The dogs still need to run.


‘Work is love made visible’—K Gibran. 

Sally Manikian