Four miles down, one billion to go.

26 Aug

For the first time since major surgery, I ran four miles without stopping. This was a significant milestone for me {pun intended}.

I celebrate these small victories of health with mini-parties. If anyone is around, they receive the gift of my wide grin and an endless stream of words explaining to them the awesomeness of my run. If they’re lucky, there is also a vigorous high-five involved. But often, after these moments of effort and focus toward a specific goal, I am alone. Unlacing my shoes, stripping of my socks, walking with sweaty tip-toes across the cream-colored carpet, and still talking out loud a half-octave higher.

Running changed my body, my health. It changed my lingo (hello, farleks and PR). Eight years ago, it changed my perspective.

With these milestones I built a road. A smooth path to remember moments of strength and sweat and rhythmic determination. And miles. Miles and miles and miles. And every time I return from this road, I celebrate the miles I have left to go. Which suddenly seemed odd today, when I looked at how many rows were left in the database, how many to-do items were left on my list, how many months until I graduate. Too many, I thought.

Yet, after running another four miles last night, I considered how many miles I have left until I simply can’t run anymore.

Not enough, I said out loud. With a wide grin.

Docking in Illinois.

15 Aug

As children, we use friendships as boats. We sail along, exploring the world that crashes against our bow. Some days we are pirates — pillaging and lying and singing rowdy songs. Some days we are sailors together, our boats with sails a pristine white against soft blue skies. Our shipmates are our comrades of discovery. We are in this together. Until our boat hits an ice-burg in frigid waters. Or our ship runs out of ocean and we run aground.

Most friendships don’t last through childhood, teenhood, and into adulthood. The ocean ever-expanding as we age, and our boats shrinking in comparison.

Last weekend I drove to Illinois to visit a friend that built a boat with me when we were both twelve — barely old enough to realize how fragile these ships were. Within a year and a half she was gone and our friendship was tested with the distance between Virginia and Florida, and with the naïvety of the strength of a telephone cord wound around our hull.

We lost touch. We found each other. We got lost and found again. Years washed by. There were marriages and divorce, while illness threatened to toss each of us overboard and we hung on over the phone. Meanwhile, she had created three sweet girls that trail behind her like baby ducklings, as I wonder how I haven’t had children yet. Our twelve-year-old selves would not have predicted this outcome.

In Illinois, the middle point between our two homes, I sat drinking tea (which the children tried and declared was just “okay”) and nibbling on dark chocolate (which the children also tried, but decided was pretty much inedible, “like coffee”). I sat and watched and listened and wondered aloud, “How did you figure out all this Mom stuff?” The other half of this story, the half that belongs to the other captain of this boat, is filled with tragic details and heart-wrenching dilemmas that would have dismantled any person, much less any friendship. And yet, I sat there observing what I had only been hearing over the phone for years: She is amazing.

As a twelve-year-old I was shocked by her brazen disregard of social norms. She would plow, headlong, into any situation that she wanted to be a part of. While I, the timid one who didn’t question bedtime, covered my mouth with wide eyes and yelped.

As a thirty-something, I am amazed at her brazen disregard of social norms. She has defied the abusers in her life, the ignorers, the nay-sayers. She has a 3.95 GPA in pre-law and economics. She will be a lawyer.

I have a picture of our bright, preteen faces. One of those thumbnail-sized images captured in a mall photo booth. We’re grinning, squeezed into the frame. The picture brings back memories of silver hoop earrings and seeing how high we can build a ponytail on the top of our head. It brings back tearful conversations about very adult concepts. It brings back a handful of lyrics from a Toni Braxton song. It reconnects me to the rickety frame of a ship, built by two brokenhearted little girls who had no tools between the two of them. All they had was love and complete acceptance. The pockets of their baggy jeans filled with mistaken ideas of what love should be, yet somehow offering each other love unconditional. Vowing to not abandon ship, even if it meant risking tender hearts dashed against the rocks.

I showed the picture to her three girls and they giggled. Her oldest is now on the cusp of twelve. They listened as we laughed and tried to explain the beginnings of us. “Who is that?” one pointed to my tiny face in her hand. “That’s me,” I smiled, looking at each of the faces that I hadn’t met before, seeing small pieces of a face I’ve known for more than half my life. A face I’ve only seen once in the last eighteen years.

They looked back at the picture and giggled again. They all recognized their mother.

So did I.

Life as circus art.

29 Jul

I wake up, get ready, pack my lunch bag, pack my work bag, (don’t forget the textbooks), grab my medical bag, bring a scarf and jacket for layers, good shoes for walking, the check to deposit, the grocery list I started, turn on the dishwasher on the way out, take out the pork loin for dinner later, remember to call that person at 10 a.m., text the other person about the appointment later, guzzle caffeine and then water and then caffeine. Is it 8 a.m. yet?

——–

“Plate spinning is a circus manipulation art where a person spins plates, bowls  and other flat objects on poles, without them falling of,” quips Wikipedia.

Sounds like my life (emphasis on the without them falling off  bit). Somehow, while managing my schedule, dietary requirements, close relationships, and autoimmune issues, life becomes some kind of circus art.

Ten years ago, a doctor sat on a hard chair across from me — his white lapel parallel with my knees — and struggled with the decision to declare me legally disabled. I was so young, he said. But he had no answers, he said. I could barely work part-time and spent the rest of my days soaking into the couch in front of the television. Stairs had to be planned for in advance and food was my only enjoyment.

I used to sulk in the monotony of unplanned days — days I couldn’t plan, or wouldn’t plan, because of the likelihood that I would just end up in pain on the couch. I used to weigh the option of effort for hours before making any attempt. Is it worth it to do this, I’d ask myself during commercials. Will things ever change, I wondered at midnight, noon, and all the hours in-between.

My body required so much to be healthy and I spent years balancing plates, giving them a tentative spin, and watching them fling to the ground with surprising force. I practiced and gave up, practiced again and gave in to the couch that had comforted me for years. Every so often, though, I would get a plate or two whirling and enjoy the feeling. I was discovering that this art required training and effort, sacrifice and acceptance.

Now, I busily spin my plates and discover some kind of dizzying art when I manage to keep them from falling all around me. I’ve learned that the circus, which had intimidated me in my inexperience, is simply: Life. In all its wild, flailing forms. In its ups and downs. In all its speed and fragility. Plates spinning.

Thunderclaps on sticky afternoons.

10 Jul

It has stormed here for most of the summer. Loud storms rolled over us with a thick grey blanket of clouds. A shaken aspirin bottle with the cotton still capping the pills. My after-work naps interrupted by a flash illuminating the shadowed living room, and a simultaneous outburst from the mouth of the storm. Wake Up! it crashes against the house.

In between the sudden drenching, the heat shoulders back into the day. One minute I’m stooped against the onslaught walking across the street, tucked underneath my polka dot umbrella. The next minute, the sun crackles heat along my moist hairline.

 

Fog for the river mornings.

Slick and tacky thighs and back.

Weary evenings with moist patio chairs.

No need to water the outside plants for a week now.

The air conditioner ruining the environment, more so than normal.

I haven’t seen the two neighborhood cats for days and days.

 

While at work, I will hear the sudden downpour pattering the roof three floors up. I go stand under the awning  – a smoke break without the smokes. I watch the puddles gather themselves along the dips and ruts of the parking lot, and I nod at co-workers standing along the length of the view. We are birds arranged on a power line. Tittering to each other hear and there, readjusting our wings, nodding our heads, and generally admiring the view. Until the rain stops as abruptly as it began, and again we all wonder aloud how unusual, before we fly back into our little nests.

On the rainy weekends, I crack the windows while in the car and curl my fingers over the edge. I open the kitchen door and stand with a cup of tea watching the wet assalt on the already waterlogged lawn. My bike seat is covered in droplets like a black duck. There are small dirty pools in the recycling bin. Boys ride their bikes through the street during rain-breaks — a stripe of mud along their spine as they hover over seats. Girls are conversational around flooded storm drains, their colorful rainboot-toes pushing the water around politely.

Right now the sky is bright and young, summer is still new. After a slow rainy morning, it covers itself in cloud puffs organized in a grid. But they are moving fast, hurried along by a high mother-wind like kindergardeners on a field trip. A pale sky blinks blankly as they all pass. The horizon is murky and uncertain, while streets are still brown-flooded from the days of rain.

It seems, like me, the sky has no set plans for the evening.

Dinner on the porch.

24 Jun

We sat with old friends. The aroma of the hot meal mixed with the scents from the surrounding countryside. Honeysuckle and tilled earth. White fish, hot and flaking, on a bed of sautéed kale. White wine and pineapple.

Our conversation drifted throughout the last couple of years, as we played catch-up with news of life from different countries. It was good to sit back and listen. Good to hear familiar voices that remind me of songs and white elephant Christmas parties. I breathed in the fresh twilight and smiled as they all laughed around the square table.

We hiked along a wide-cut trail through the hillside, stopping now and then to smell the fresh-bloomed trees. Still talking. Still laughing. Until the dusk settled like dust in between the blades of tall grasses, where an abundance of ticks slowly crawled. Until the fireflies came out and spoke their bright, spotted language on the horizon line.

Some springs are a tame lion, purring with a depth unheard by the ear, but only felt in the vibrating marrow of our bones. Some springs offer calmness and solitude, some offer reconnection and renewal. Some simply bloom the landscape around you, if you choose to see it.

I’m glad we moved the dinner table, room enough for four set of elbows, out to the crumbling cement porch. I’m glad we talked easily, and later walked easily, as the end of the day came in closer — its darkness brightening our moods with the textured sounds of swaying grass and wandering insects.

Ribs and other connections.

14 Jun

I relented. I gave in. I finally called my doctor’s office: “I have this pain near my upper ribs,” I said, instinctively touching the aching spot though no one was around to see.

Pain, and odd medical “issues” as I have learned to label them, are a continuous source of confusion in my life. (For instance: I often stub my toe and it hurts. Every time I stub my toe — and yowl like I’ve been shot in the foot — I am encouraged to handle it better. This encouragement has come from everyone in my life and is correct and well-meaning. So, the last time I stubbed my toe I remained completely silent and concentrated on walking gracefully to the couch – to sit without alarming facial expressions. I succeeded. My husband, who was sitting a few feet away, had no idea that I had stubbed my toe (yet again). But an hour later I had a round purple-ish grape where my pinky toe should have been. I had dislocated it and would walk around in a boot for weeks, the pain coming back a handful of times over the next year.)

A few weeks ago, this strange pain began zipping and pinching along the intersection of upper ribs and sternum. I attempted to have better posture. I stretched and iced. And then I finally saw my doctor, labeling myself a “woos.” A rib was out of alignment and was compressing part of my lung. I coughed for the better part of the afternoon as ice in a ziplock bag burned my numb red flesh.

The problem is, the pain is not a trustworthy indicator of the severity of what is actually going wrong with my body – if anything is actually going wrong at all. I hit my elbow on the dinner table – it hurts. I rib is out of alignment – it hurts.

When I was small, my mother crouched over me. I was crying about some fresh injury. How bad is it? she inquired. “On a scale from 1 to 10,” she instructed. For a moment my mind was flooded with the implication of actually rating pain and I forgot all about the present pain. I had no idea where to place myself on this scale, but she couldn’t deduce from my tears whether she should give me a hug or call 911.

A few years ago, I was at the walk-in clinic sitting before the nurse – my shoulders cramping and burning like my veins were filled with acid. I couldn’t control my face. Or my tears. She asked me to rate my pain: “From 1 to 10,” just like my mother. I was 7 again. The pain a background distraction as I attempted to qualify the experience I was going through. Were my tears justified? I asked myself. Was it worth all this fuss? I wondered.

I looked to my left. Fastened to the door was a chart to qualify pain. Emoticons representing each number. A number 1 equaled a toothy smile. 4 earned a frown and furrowed brow. 6 wore tears on the edges of each eye. 10 was a red-hued, open-mouthed, close-eyed mess.

It’s a 10, I thought to myself.

“What would you rate your pain?” the nurse asked again patiently. I looked away from the numbered faces and over at her.

“6,” I said, and sniffed.

On traveling.

11 Jun

Throughout my life, I have traveled to new places by various modes of transportation – by car, plane, train. Each time I experienced the violent fluctuation of exhausted regret (“Why did I do this?”) and exhilarated awe (“I’m so glad I did this!”). Of course, memory often filters out the truly miserable moments and refines the exotic. So much so, that a few months later I long to go back – to do it again.

As a child, my parents used a cross-country move as an excuse to see the nation. We drove in a small-bed silver Mitsubishi truck. The back covered and carpeted, carried my brother and me and our precious travel-belongings. I had my supply of books, Danny always drinking Snapple, both of us freshly supplied with Slim Jim’s every few stops. We saw the Grand Canyon before I realized just how Grand it was. I will always be grateful to my father who convinced his fearful daughter to climb the metal spiral staircase – a view at the top, holding his hand, that I still remember through the fogged vision of an 8-year-old mind. Red wood trees. A petrified forest. Moon rocks and coyotes by the side of the road. An indian reservation and a turquoise ring (my birthstone) that I possessed for a solid 15 minutes, until I dropped it through the vacant space between the back of the truck and the front bench seats where my parents were.

As a teenager, I traveled by train from eastern Virginia to New Hampshire with my brother. Just short of a full-day of rocking along metal track, we arrived to visit family in the snowy winter. Cold water to wash your hands. Shoveling the heaviest snow imaginable. Layers of padded clothing on a white hike on a trail that crossed over frozen streams. And then, a delayed train – too frozen to complete the trek back south. Days later we climbed onto the locomotive - the only thing still frozen were the lavatories. And then, after an hour, my feet. My brother layered all our combined clean socks over my toes and sat on them, while I curled next to him trying to be quiet as I cried. I was warmed by Philadelphia and our connection to a train with working heat.

On my first (remembered) plan ride to Texas, I sat next to a man who already claimed half a career as a plane engineer of sorts. He prattled the entire crawl along the run-way, the wait for our turn to go, and the ascension into the sky – through the feeling in my stomach traveling to the top of my head as the wheels pulled up from the tarmac, neighborhoods like ant farms and their streets like insect tunnels, carving through the layer of clouds so they sat below us like a pillowy safety net. First he told me how this “bird” shouldn’t even be allowed to fly anymore. “Grounded” because of it’s now ancient technology. “This model,” he said, was known for its many mechanical malfunctions. I tried to marvel at the houses below: What neighborhood is that? I thought. He went on to tell me of the last time he flew on one of these death traps: An emergency landing because the overhead console (with the fasten seat-belt lights) detached and dropped on a man’s head, resulting in a very bad concussion. I nodded without looking over at him and then politely uncoiled my headphones and portable CD player. At 20, I was still learning about fear.

Within our second year of marriage, my husband an I drove a loop around Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls and my unsuccessful attempt to convert US dollars to Canadian values in the margins of my checkbook. Skies I can only describe as majestic. A Tim Horton’s with an English and a French menu. Wolf Island and a trillion tiny gnats that saved us from camping the night on an un-policed tiny blob of land. The handful of campsites identified by the gentleman sitting behind the counter at the visitor’s information building. This, told to us shortly after he remarked on my beautiful and expensive diamond ring (which still sparkled brilliantly because I was a newlywed and faithfully cleaned it with a toothbrush every month) and shortly before he explained the absence of police. We caught the last ferry back to the mainland as the sun set in fiery tones.

These vivid memories buoy me on monotonous and unrewarding days that run on in numbing succession. What I don’t remember is the insecurity that I am plagued with daily – the self doubts and recriminations, the what-if wonderings. I don’t remember loneliness or any desire to be anywhere else. I only remember adventure that reads like YA fiction. I only remember the time of my life.

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