It’s 7:30 a.m., and I am practicing my Bach for an upcoming piano lesson.
My chocolate Labrador retriever Lucy tiptoes into the living room and sits down close to me behind the piano bench.
Could she be ill? She usually retreats to the farthest reaches of the house when I begin to play the piano.
I stroke her and ask her what’s wrong. She is still.
I begin to play again. She does not move. Very unusual.
I stop playing and listen for strange noises that might have driven her to my side for safety. Nothing.
“Do you want to go out?”
I get up and move toward the door. She is all waggy and full of smiles, but when I open the door, she backs away.
“OK. I’ll go out with you.”
We walk down the driveway and back toward the house.
“OK. Time to go in. Come on.”
I stretch my arm for her to pass in front of me and through the door.
Lucy sits down in the driveway — her way of saying, “No.”
I think I get it.
My morning routine is pretty structured during the week: up by 6 a.m.; read and sip coffee until 6:30; exercise until 7; shower and get dressed; practice the piano until 8; then begin work, usually at the computer. Today that would be drafting my column.
But over the weekend, I introduced a new walk into the schedule between times at the piano and the computer. Results of recent lab tests for cholesterol suggest that, until snow covers the ground and I can ski, I simply do not get enough exercise. So I decided to double my time on the trails with Lucy.
But today is a work day. I have a long list of things to do. Do I have time for that extra walk?
I stand in the hall weighing the value of walking against the tasks I must complete. Lucy sits in the driveway, making a quiet statement on behalf of my health. She won’t even look at me when I call to her.
I take her blaze orange vest out of the closet. Lucy smiles and wags when I return to the yard and adorn her for a short walk. But once we are out on the trail, a longer walk becomes more appealing. I will get that work done, probably with more energy from the extra oxygen in my blood.
How many times have I quoted the statement that people on their deathbeds rarely say they wish they had spent more time at the office? And yet, for me to act on that wisdom, I need a reminder from my dog.
I can’t give Lucy all the credit. I have read two books recently that underscore the message: “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” by Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. and “Power Foods for the Brain: An Effective 3-Step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen Your Memory” by Neal D. Barnard, M.D..
Using his personal and professional experiences, Nuland demystifies the reality we all must face eventually: death. Barnard delivers new evidence that a plant-based diet can preserve brain functions and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
On Sept. 28, 2012, I wrote about the dramatic effects of plant-based eating on the lives and bodies of people with high risk of heart disease in a column titled, “Teaching healthier lifestyles in the County.” Now Barnard reveals that what is good for the heart is good for the brain — that a healthful diet combined with exercise keeps arteries clear and maintains a flow of oxygen to the brain.
I would not have read these two books were it not for the Center for Global Humanities of the University of New England. Nuland and Barnard are the first two speakers in a nine-part lecture series, which the center provides live in Portland and simultaneously live-streams to participating libraries in Maine.
Nuland spoke Sept. 30 and Barnard will speak Oct. 14. Cary Library in Houlton is the only library currently participating in the state and I feel privileged to be able to hear these authors and then discuss their ideas with people in the Houlton area who gather at the library for the monthly program.
Learning from Nuland more about what happens when we die not only reminds me of the importance of living every day fully, but it also heightens my appreciation of the human anatomy — pumping blood, inflating lungs, replacing cells — the miracle of life.
And Barnard has convinced me that more plants and fewer animals in my diet can enhance that life. But not without exercise.
“It is essential to exercise along with a healthy diet, not in place of it,” Barnard says.
Fortunately for me, Lucy knows that.
For more information on the lecture series visit www.une.edu/cgh and click on Seminars.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.