A summer in twenty sentences

Today, after almost a year of running, I finally clocked a 10:15 mile.

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My goal is to run a nine-minute mile.

When I began, it took me almost 15 minutes to run one mile.

In July I ran my first 5K obstacle race and jumped over fire.

I trained for this by running at noon on 90-degree days and logging endless hours on the treadmill.

I rode my bike for many miles under the hot sun, through raging thunderstorms, at night, drunk (once; not so proud of that) and with group of spandex-clad, clip-shoed folks, who when you know them ahead of time are nice but sometimes are a bit snooty with those of us wearing cotton and lace-ups.

My husband says, based on the number of pictures I take of it, I should just admit I’m in love with my bike.

One thing I learned this summer is that the moment you let go of something it works out just fine either way.

Another thing I learned is letting go is not easy.

I edited a 75,000-word manuscript in June and July, which killed my interest in working on the memoir this year.

Doing the right thing rarely feels good, such as when I cancelled my trip to Colorado this summer.

I’ve decided the best way to write for future use is to document every joyful, painful, frustrating, interesting thing happening now.

The plot and hook will come later, right?

I am blessed with a great community of friends and supporters.

After three-year hiatus, we finally had a serious primitive camping weekend.

I met a very big owl deep in the woods as I was gathering firewood. We had a stare down, which still gives me chills when I think about it.

I had another standoff with a porcupine, which was nowhere near as spiritual.

I did not cry at my oldest daughter’s high school commencement ceremony in June.

In August, I found my first legitimate full-length, corkscrew-crazy, gray hair poking out of my head.

Then, I cried.

 

 

 

Feathers

It’s funny how the blogging world seeps into your blood. On any given day, you might be walking along the pavement between gas pump and cashier when you come upon a ratty pigeon feather on the pavement. Instead of kicking it aside, stepping on it, or even acknowledging that a bird out there is less one feather or perhaps is a bird no more, you think of a blogger who celebrates feather encounters. You grab your camera and take a picture of a foot and a feather and post it on the Internet. That’s the kind of thing bloggers do.

The feather lightens the load strapped to this 102-degree day manifested in furry, sticky, dense air and the slow and weak sunset holding no promise of relief.

So I go home and take a cold shower and slick back my wet hair, lay down under the vents pumping cool air into the room, and ride on the big, scary wave that is life now. It’s not that anything terrible has happened. It’s that nothing is the same. Not one thing. And I have to be OK with that because like bird feathers, things don’t stick forever. They break loose and drift away. As I glide along the river toward sleep, I wonder if it’s possible for a lone feather to give me enough altitude to fly away for just a little while.

 

Full circle

Caricature of the graduate

I went to my 30th high school reunion and I didn’t get eaten alive.

Not only did I survive, but I also walked away with a smile on my face. That the smile was mostly vodka-induced and not steeped in reality is a story for another day.

In the three decades since I marched to “Pomp and Circumstance” and walked away from the hell of high school, I’ve had an irrational fear of attending any reunion.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I felt if I were to attend any reunion at all, the 30th would be the one. The reunion is no longer a one-evening event; it’s an itinerary from which you can choose your level of involvement. I chose the informal bar night. The price was right and I had an exit strategy tucked in my pocket.

Filled with enough false bravado to fuel five teenage boys at their first middle school dance, I sucked in my stomach, ordered a cocktail at the bar, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the patio.

I survived the abrupt halt of conversation, all heads turning, and the first of what would become the evening’s refrain, this time from the mouth of a busty redhead with a cigarette dangling from her mouth: Who are you? Did you graduate with us?  

It was at that moment that I realized how far I’d come. There was a time (in high school) that if someone said that to me it would have simultaneously pushed all my buttons, triggering anger, disappointment and despair. Now? Someone else’s bad behavior is a reflection of that person and not a measure of my worth. I answered her in a light and breezy tone with a smile on my face. She shrugged and turned away. Everything was OK after that. I am OK with me, just as I am. I don’t need her approval or anyone else’s to be here.

Sometimes being in a room full of people who remember snippets of you at your worst is more excruciating than helping jog the memories of those who didn’t know you at all. I gave up trying to convince one person that I was not goth in high school, just depressed.

Back then I didn’t have the maturity or perspective to understand that the extreme dysfunction of my family life bled into my social interactions.  I was angry and inappropriate. I used alcohol and drugs and outrageous behavior to cope. Every day was a struggle of fear, hopelessness, free-floating anxiety and self-loathing. My only friends were other social misfits or rebels. We spent most of our time as far away from our idyllic suburban landscape as possible, preferring the gritty neighborhoods of Detroit.

In the years since high school I’ve slowly overcome my crippling anxiety and shyness. I’ve come to understand that my past does not have to color my today. I’ve mostly accepted that I will never be a sunny blonde, long-legged, of the proper lineage, and have a button nose. I am me, good or bad, big nose, wide hips and all. Over the years people have loved me for it. Imagine.

I treated the night like a cocktail party of strangers with possibility. Here’s what I learned:

  • Very few people still look really good 30 years after high school.
  • Shared experiences are priceless. I didn’t have any with the people at this gathering. While I had great cocktail party conversations, there wasn’t a bond between us that erased the years and reduced us to hugs and laughter. I realized how much I had missed of mainstream teenage life.

Of course I had my people and our memories. They just weren’t at this partyI don’t know where most of them are in this world or if they are in this world. (In fact, a good number of them are dead; I had a phone call in April telling me of two deaths this year.)

  • I walked away a bit smug at all the free drinks bought by men, who as boys, would not give me the time of day, and who wouldn’t quit until they figured out why we didn’t connect in high school. What a fun guessing game.  I was a bit rattled that some of them were so forward until someone told me most of them were out-of-towners traveling solo and reunions are famous for the hook-up potential. Oh.

Reunions are a step back in time but they also are a chance to affirm — to yourself — where you are now.  I don’t spend a lot of time with people my age. It was good to see the familiar signs of latefortyness on those around me, to know that even if I wasn’t like them at all back then, we had some things in common now, if only because we are parents, spouses, have aging parents, underwater mortgages or fears of aging and death. No longer are we the future; we are dangerously close to being the past.

What pleased me most of all was that my exit strategy never left my back pocket. I stayed until last call.

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Up and down

I watched as a sizable limb cracked free from an elm and plummeted to the earth with a shuddering thud. It was a busy day in a fast part of the city. I think I was the only one to see it.  Who looks up?

Days later, standing on the sidelines of a bustling outdoor market, I watched a bouquet of  mylar balloons bob on the current until they entangled themselves on power lines. The resulting blast vibrated my ribcage and sent the overhead wires bouncing like jump ropes. Again, no one else saw it. I had to point up to several worried folks clutching their chests and looking around in confusion. Someone even called the police.

I don’t know what makes me notice these things. Perhaps some small movement, or a shift of air pressure, but at just the right moment, my eyes shift skyward. I’m a daydreamer, a thinker, and I’m prone to studying even the smallest of details. Sometimes I see things no one else does and miss the obvious.

The severed limb jarred me the most. Something about its limp form splayed in the parking lot, long green fingers enveloping the car next to it, seemed apologetic. I looked up at the tree again, to what seemed a healthy and whole entity. How freakish, I thought, and yet totally the way of nature. Unpredictable, deadly, awesome.

Then, the what ifs began.

What if someone had been in that car? What if a small child had run up to the parked car? What if we had picked that parking space? I’m always asking what if?

Sometimes I don’t see what’s right there. One of our cats has an inoperable tumor.  Just a few weeks ago it wasn’t there at all. One of my girls discovered it as a small lump and called me tearfully when I was in a meeting.  I dismissed her worries. What did she know that I did not? Today that smallish mass that felt like a gummy bear it is now a heavy rock crowding the cat’s pelvis. It grows and grows and there is nothing to be done, the veterinarian says.

Our finances are, as they have been for a while now, like a slowly filling balloon. Letting the air out of the balloon is a careful, discriminating process. Who or what will make the cut? Years before, when we had lines of credit, we maxed out a card trying to save this cat’s brother. All the IVs and shots we could afford, all the tests we could manage did nothing to save him.

Make him comfortable, the vet says. You’ll know when it’s time.

There are a few things on life support around here. Things that even a few years ago I thought were rock solid, like a tall, seemingly healthy tree with strong branches and full leaf cover. But inside, like a tumor, a slow rot devours the core. One day, which seems like all the others, something crashes within inches of your skull.

I’m wide awake, but I’ve numbed a part of myself to imminent loss, to the threat of loss, to upheavals. When pressed for answers I can’t give any. At the same time, I’m making flip-flopped choices.

I spent a month saying yes to every invitation I received at the expense of my yard and gardens and personal affairs. Why not? There’s always a reason to say no to living life.

I spent a month seeking my happiness. I loved it. I felt closer to myself than I had in years. Now, I pick up the rake and shovel, I prepare for another good-bye, rub the healing balm between my palms and massage what is fixable.

I’m easily bored. I’m also a bit of a thrill junkie. When things get boring — or scary — I need something to divert my attention. I had an old tattoo modified, made it about four times the original size.

I welcomed the cutting, stinging sensation. I can deal with this, I thought. This pain has a beginning and an end. I can breathe through it, manage it. The tattoo artist was young and good-looking and he bought me cookies from the bakery next door (because I admitted I hadn’t had much to eat that day.) It was not lost on me that although it was part of his job, he was leaning into me for more than an hour. Pleasure for the price of pain?

All week, the sting at the site, the healing throb and itch, kept my thoughts away from the inevitable. It’s the free-floating emotional pain, at sea without land in sight, that is unbearable. I’m not so good with that. Is anyone? Is that why so many of us don’t look up?

Who carries the seeds of a fast-growing tumor? What heavy limbs dangle over our dreams?

What can we do to make the most of every day?

Edenland's Fresh Horses Brigade
Edenland has resurrected her Fresh Horses Brigade meme. In it she asks: Who are you? I wrote this a few days ago while trying to make sense of recent happenings. It says as much about who I am as anything else on this blog.

 

Paying my dues to the club

If there is a heaven, this is what it would look like for my father.

The day my father died suddenly was the day fate handed me a lifetime membership in The Dead Dads Club. Everything shifted in my world, which had already turned on its axis 18 months earlier with the birth of my first child.

I like to think I grew up that year, that I became a better person as a result of these events.  I like to think once I change for the better, it is a permanent change. Just as all of life is fleeting, so is any state of being. One day I woke up to realize I am riding the same trajectory as my father.

Today, my post is on Mama Mary’s newly launched site, The Dead Dads Club. It is through this longtime endeavor of Mary’s that we met online four years ago. The site is a companion piece to her book, a compilation of essays from other members of the club. It’s  a club we all wish didn’t exist, to which diminishing membership would be a plus. But life is not like that. People come into our lives and they leave. Ours is not to know the when, where, and why, only to know that it is inevitable and we must stumble along the dark path from grief to healing.

Click on over and read for yourself. Thank you.

The one thing

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month. This post is a coming out of sorts for me, so if you’re reading this know I am squirming a little, no, I’m squirming a lot, on the inside. I wrote this as a part of The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse, a monthly online event. Can we prevent child abuse? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is no one should suffer in silence. Talk. Tell. Report. Help. A life depends on it.

——–

A first-grader's interpretation of me

The other day a friend sent me a link to Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s 2006 “This I Believe” essay on NPR. Gilmore writes of his struggle to overcome addiction and find peace. One line snagged that loose thread I always have trailing behind me:

“I basically managed to break my own heart.”

Until I read that line, I don’t think I ever acknowledged that I had done this to myself.

How do you break your own heart? Let me count the ways: Maybe you skip school on field day, where you qualified for three events, including relay; or you burn all your artwork and poetry in the fireplace and not submit it to the school’s creative publication; or fail to show up for your college graduation ceremony; or break up with the first guy who says he loves you; or walk away from honest, kind people and chase after projects and enigmas. You do it out of habit, believing you are diverting attention away from yourself. Really what you are doing is serving yourself before others in the most unloving way possible.

As Gilmore says: “It came as a great shock to discover that my real spiritual problem was not a product of the world’s condition, but of my own self-centeredness.”

Over and over I lost friendships and love interests because I couldn’t get past myself and this unnameable thing inside me. The worst part is I failed to see this. I’m still struggling.

The one thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that this stuff came from somewhere outside myself.  For the longest time I thought it hatched from a dark, unreachable pocket within me, almost like a partly formed twin. It must be so because all I ever heard was: We don’t know where she gets this stuff. Not from us, I’ll tell you that much.

Healing teaches that at some point you need to take responsibility for its long-term residency, no matter the terms of occupancy. You are the landlord. Issue an eviction notice.

Long before this knowledge, these inklings of wisdom, someone knew all about this unnameable thing. She watched. She kept quiet. She wept inside. One day many years later, she sat me down and told me everything (because she was tired of watching me do it all over again to myself) and said she was sorry she watched in silence. She was scared of consequences. She wanted to make up for all those years. So she loved me with all her heart. She put me above herself, the greatest gift anyone can give. I hold that love in a little box inside my heart, all that is left of her.

I am a woman of 47 years, a wife,  a mother, a survivor. I paid my way through college. I made a respectable if not modest place in the world for myself. I am old enough to know better but inside I’m still that skinny, hollow-eyed girl with the bull’s-eye on her back, the one who wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, or anything enough to capture the attention of anyone with good intentions.

Tina Fey, in “A Mother’s Prayer for her Child,” implores: “May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty …”

Obviously, there is a connection between the unprotected, the damaged, and the predators, who will find that loose thread and pull you in.  It’s so easy to spot the damaged ones, the unprotected ones,  especially girls.  Maybe the kindly grocer didn’t see the mark on my back, but the wicked doctor did. Who would believe anything bad about a doctor  – back then?

I dreamed that when I grew up I would magically transform into a golden, blue-eyed goddess, an iridescent rain forest butterfly. I’d rise above.

You should be a writer, they said, you have such a wild imagination.

What was the truth? Where was the line between fact and face-saving fiction? Who knew anymore.

Year after year, sitting in one hard plastic chair after another, in one institutional counseling office after another, a middle-aged woman with red half-moon glasses or a balding man with the beginnings of a paunch and an IBM pocket protector, would lean in closer as if to count my blackheads, asking again and again:  “What is bothering you? Why are you fighting the world?” They’d ask, but I had no idea what to say. Were there words for such things? If so, did you say them out loud? I wasn’t fighting. I was hiding. I wanted to be let alone, ignored.  But this not knowing, this dark thing within, churned until it shaped a cold stone. It’s taken decades to chip away. It left a deep impression, one that cannot be smoothed away.  Sometimes I cannot resist the urge to run my fingers over its rough terrain.

Others taught me how to break my heart. Long after they were gone, I continued swinging the bat. At some point, I set down the bat and accepted the offer of healing balm. Books saved me. Writing saved me. Words in books opened a world of possibilities. If I couldn’t transform on the outside, I could decorate my insides any way I wanted. I could hatch a forest of butterflies within.

Every day, I continue to do so. Three years ago, I answered a call for help issued by the troubled local public school system. They needed volunteers for their literacy tutoring program. It hasn’t been easy. The conditions, the children, the system is a mess. The teachers are stretched to their breaking points. In spite of the obstacles, I keep at it.

Today,  I feel I have found my calling: I want to teach children how to read. Reading is power. Reading is hope. I don’t know what I’ll do, where I’ll end up, but I do know that reaching out to children in need feels right, the right-est anything has ever felt.

Week after week, building a bridge of trust, forging a bond, no matter how tenuous, you realize how vulnerable children are, how much power adults wield, how carefully you must tread. It’s dizzying how much trust children place in adults when they have no way of knowing what intentions lie within.

In his essay, Gilmore says:

“I finally discovered the beautiful, paradoxical truth that genuine concern for the welfare of others is the gateway to the only real satisfaction for myself. I cannot claim to consistently live up to this ideal, but it is with genuine gratitude that I can say I have come to believe the words of the Indian philosopher-poet Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery in the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”

Reading helps.
Writing helps.
Letting go of the self altogether helps most of all.

 

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A week in pictures

No time to post this week. But I did make an effort to really experience each day and search for the one thing that made it special.

Monday morning walk to the bus stop. It's oddly warm and humid for mid-March in Michigan.

Did I ever tell you that produce is like porn to me? The colors, textures, shapes and the scent, oh the scent of earth and leaf.

Self portrait of a woman who needs more vitamin D in her diet.

How about this? I dress to please myself. There are a lot of these message cars and vans rolling around town and I'm not sure what to think. Freedom of speech at its finest, I suppose.

Give me Play-Doh, this is what you get.

Sign taped to the door of a used-book store in my neighborhood. Real books, damn straight! My husband and I debate this all the time. I win the argument with this one: Does a Kindle smell like a book? No. It never will. Case closed.

Roses aren't my favorite but these creamsicle colored ones look good enough to eat.

It was like going to a Led Zeppelin concert, except it was all girls -- and they were pretty hot. Oh, and some 20-something guys asked me to hang out with them. I didn't but, wow, best ego-boost in a long time.

I'm a sucker for this kind of cute art. It makes me happy. (Artist: Jason Gibner)

 

Word

My night stand is like a cheap motel. Books of all sizes and backgrounds take up short-term residency. We have our thing. Edges curl under the weight of words. Spines twist and crack. Minds expand. Then, it’s over.

One book, on a long-term lease, sits quietly to the left. It’s plain, unassuming and solid. Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart is a safe place, a treasure chest, a beacon of light.

It gives me this quote:

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

For one year, those words gave me the strength to go on.

Here are two more quotes by Chodron:

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished.

That’s not the idea at all.

The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”

 ________________

“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched.

It is both.

Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction.

On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple.

Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”

____________

Eden asked.

I answered.

Open mic at a party. What words would you share?

Edenland's Fresh Horses Brigade

Interruption

One of the biggest disappointments of late is realizing we won’t be moving out West, as was the goal set 12 years ago on our honeymoon. We’ve known (even if we’ve never said it out loud) for the last three years that it would not happen in 2012. If you ever visit our house, this goal will be obvious. Almost every room has a picture of mountains or alpine flowers or something painted by Georgia O’Keeffe or cowboys on the set of “Lonesome Dove.” We even have a sign that says “2012.”

We’ve suffered many financial setbacks, endured job loss, and now, we are slowly rebuilding. Things are getting better, but not good enough to walk away from a house underwater and scant savings. I want to live in the mountains, but not in a tent.

Let me make this clear. I will not let go of the goal. It will happen some day, some way. Right now my biggest goal is to find a happiness in each day right here in Detroit. Yes, Detroit.

Even before I found this site, I began playing a game with myself, one I invented during a particularly difficult time, when depression hovered like a dank mist around my shoulders. My challenge each day was to find one thing to appreciate, to make me smile and feel grateful.  Whether it was the perfect cup of coffee, a clean apartment, an achingly blue sky, a new shoot on a bedraggled house plant,  or a genuine smile from a stranger.

The game continues with today’s offering:

What makes me happy is listening to “Love Interruption” by Jack White, and anticipating the April 24 release of his first solo album.

I’ve followed this guy’s career for 12 years. Even when critics called him a passing fancy, a novelty act, I just knew he’d become a major player in the music industry. I have a little shelf in my office of White Stripes unauthorized band bios, Rolling Stone issues, concert ticket stubs, and one of their original band buttons I scored at a resale shop. You know, basic rabid fan stuff.

Although Jack lives in Nashville, his roots are here in Detroit. He is who he is today (I believe) because he was born of the Detroit ethos. The day I discovered The White Stripes was the day I rekindled my love for Detroit. I couldn’t get enough of their music, of the scene around town. I tried, somewhat successfully, to get to every live show. There was a time when I could go to see a local act at a dive bar and turn around to see Jack towering above the crowd, sucking on a cigarette, a beer in hand, intently focused on the stage, appearing oblivious to anything else. Just another guy in the audience. It felt like a special time. It feels gone now. But the music goes on.

So does Detroit, in his absence, as the scene changes, the focus redirects.  And so do I. There is much to dislike here in Detroit,  but I credit White, among others, for opening my eyes to what is here: the creative energy, the poetry amid ruin, the idea that here lies the raw material to shape into anything the artist can envision.

The White Stripes disbanded last year as anticlimatically as my husband and I realized that we wouldn’t be house hunting in Boulder this summer. The signs had been there all along.

Did you watch Jack’s performance on Saturday Night Live last weekend? I was blown away by the duet with Ruby Amanfu. Maybe you like his music; maybe you don’t.

Sometimes all it takes is the right chord, pitch, and lyrics to turn a dark day around.

Today, I am grateful for good music in all its forms and the power it holds.

 

 

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Rare gems

When we meet at a formica table in that echoing hall, I do all the talking. He sits in silence, studying something in his lap, his hands neatly folded and out of trouble. I’ve known him only a week. He is an unexpected mid-year replacement. The last relationship spun far out of my reach; I wonder where this one will lead.

In spite of the sudden change, I find this new one’s demeanor soothing to my psyche, which is in recovery. How could the last one, who was such a charmer, have been so unreachable? That blinding white smile. That great booming laugh. Those linebacker shoulders and arms that pulled you in but never answered your questions. Not a one.

Minutes into our second meeting in the hall, the new guy begins fidgeting in his chair as if he’s sitting on something alive. Every noise, passing person, draws his eyes away from me. Last week’s silence was really a swollen reservoir on the brink of bursting. Today, the dam gives out, gushing thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions, and how much he likes robots. He really likes those robots.

Touching his hand lightly, I ask him to look at me. I ask him to listen.

Let’s make this work, I whisper. Let’s be a team.

He stops. His brown eyes lock with mine. 

Is this going to work? I ask myself. Will I be able to shine a bright light through the fog? 

I look away and count to 10, studying the beige ceramic tiles racing toward a vanishing point. I give him time to compose himself, to settle his hands and feet.

“I have something for you,” he says.

He leans to the side, digs into his navy blue pants pocket and pulls out a small, opalescent object. He sets it on the table.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s a gem. I found it on the gym floor. It’s for you.”

You know what? I’ve been at this for almost three years now, tutoring children who, if they had a chance and prayer, could work their way through the dense fog and shape something of their lives. I hope they do with all the hope in the world. I hope in spite of the  odds against them.

I pick up the gem, which is really a sweater button, but I’m not going to say anything to him about that, and tuck it in my pocket.

“Thank you.”

He nods.

“You know what?”

He shakes his head, brows lifting in anticipation.

“You are the gem. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”