Safe Passage

WindowI had a front row seat when they began to dismember her. Chunk by chunk, they dissected her and spread her out and scrutinized her. They scooped and sawed and chipped at her until there was nothing left inside; until eventually the wire she was made to walk became so narrow, tight, and sharp, no one could have walked it without bloodying themselves in the inevitable fall. With no recourse left to her, she fled. Her paychecks, every single one vitally necessary, ceased, and for weeks she lived by her wits and her faith in God and in the loving arms of her friends. Her children watched, angry and confused, to see how their mother, loved by so many and loving so many herself, suffered. They struggled with adolescent embarrassment and childish fear for the parent who had always been their touchstone, which she continued to be despite her shattered world. Swirled into this thick soup of pain was their fierce loyalty for the mother who loved them equally fiercely. Ultimately, they stood beside her. On the side of the right. As she taught them. They inspired her with words she used to inspire them, and in the end, they comforted each other and held each other up above the mess. She, so hurt and damaged by people she respected, trying to keep the love that was the focus and the force of her life, the impetus for all she did and all she was, in the forefront of her new reality, gritted her teeth, screamed inside over and over, shed frustrated grieving tears, pacing through those long quiet nights, and when the sun came up, just slogged on through the mud, as she had many times before. I have never respected anyone as much as I respected her in those desperate days.

One day after she had moved and was gone, I received a call from our friend who was at her empty house. “There are some things here that I don’t know what to do with. Can you help?” And I, of course, can. And do. It was clear she had endured all she could before just shattering and disappearing into the abyss. Her home was no longer her refuge. The army had arrived, banging on the door with hard fists. They ransacked her tired defenses and left her life in ruins. Desperate, she gathered her children and fled. I’d have done the same, but much sooner. We sorted through possessions and loaded a truck with things to save for her, and put some things on the curb and some other things to donate and we, silent and sad, locked the door behind us, and felt so empty and drained on that starry fall night. We said quiet goodbyes to each other, friends who get together often, but it had the feeling of forever in it. The way we were was done, and we were as hollow and bereft as the house we’d just emptied.

I couldn’t go home to my own home that night. It felt too greedy and self-satisfied; that to take refuge there in that place where I always find my peace would be mocking the searing tragedy I’d just left. I walked a long way in the dark, trying to forget. And trying to remember so I wouldn’t ever forget. I looked in the windows of the houses as I walked, and wondered about homes and houses and what defines the difference.

I pass the “green” house of an ardently eco-conscious young family. The florescent bottles 2ceiling lights give off a cold blue light, as if they’re living in the butcher shop my grandmother and I walked to in the dark on Saturday nights to pick up the Sunday roast. There are no curtains or blinds on the windows. They hold dust and tempt allergies to set up lodging in this pure house. This sterile house. I see the children working on a project at the table by the window. Brown cardboard. White glue. Cotton string. There are no markers, glitter, paint. There is no art on any of the white walls to inspire them. This is not a house where I’d want to live. The serious mother reads in a chair under yet another cold blue light. Her eyes will be saved. The photographs in her book will appear as intended in the correct lighting. Would she know what to do with warmth if it should appear and bathe her and her children in a golden glow? Are they missing it? Do they know they don’t have it? She’s saving the earth, but for what?

There’s a spectacular house on this street with candles in every window. It is filled with antique furniture and has big brick chimneys that puff out smoke from multiple fireplaces that spread delicious warmth on the cold nights of winter. It is beautifully landscaped. It is a showplace. It is perfect. It is all hollow show. Inside there are petty fights and slammed doors. There are tears and angry phone calls. There are ultimatums and threats and little deceptions and mistrust and long silences. It is a house that masquerades as a home.

Whole HouseI pass a house where inside I know a grandfather is dying. His children won’t make him take those last steps alone and they sit by his bed and hold his hands and he smiles as he comes and goes, and comes and goes. After it is done, they rest awhile with him and with each other, sharing memories, shedding tears, and yes, laughing, before making the call that sets that express train of EMTs, ambulances, and funeral directors in motion and he no longer belongs to them. They wash him. They pray. They tend to him for the last time as he did for his parents; as the love and duty in their family assumes. This is a home.

I stand in the dark on the sidewalk across the street from that sad loving home. The smoke from my cigar, cedar-scented and peppery on my tongue, like this beautiful woman now gone from my life, rises past my eyes and up into the black sky, and tears roll down my cheeks. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to finally really help her. And help myself.

Her house was a home. Always scrubbed clean, it was warm and fragrant with candles and cooking. Laughter filled it up and spilled out the door and down the steps. Her quiet patience permeated every corner. There was discipline for her children that framed their world and contained it; that gave them something to count on. When I got that call and saw her house, still filled with things, filled with her, I felt my heart gripped and twisted. I felt her desperation, her fear, her urgency. And even though her new job is good, her new home is nice, and her children are happy in their new town, I finally sensed what she never betrayed as she struggled to stay strong for those in her life who counted on her for everything. I finally understood the depth of her despair, and her terror as that misguided power forced its way into her home, held her prisoner, and wouldn’t leave no matter what she did until she was wounded and worn out with the struggle.

We three friends sorted and carried things to the curb. We recycled and boxed and bagged and saved and discarded and shed tears and sweat. An exorcism of anger and worry and finally, finally a physical manifestation of our love for her to wear us out and dispel some of our grief. Here finally was the help we’d been longing to give. Here finally was something we could do for her. The people who loved her boxed up the pain and the fear, swept the desperation into a dusty pile on the floor and threw it out once and for all. We tidied up the tattered debris of years of anger and confusion and betrayal for her, and finally cleaned that slate. We keep her things for her, tending them, until she comes back to reclaim them. Until she comes back to reclaim us. To see us, to laugh with us, to hold us in hugs that we never want to end.

I stub my cigar out in the grass at my feet. I wipe the tears off my face. I walk home.

Last Pic

The Run

I think I’m a runner. It still feels like I’m pretending when I say that about myself. Over the years I’ve run in spurts. Fits and starts. Then stops. The stops lasting much longer than the starts. But a couple of years ago I started again with a new resolve for a new reason. With the exception of one long break, recovering from a stress fracture in my right femur, and the occasional vacation, I haven’t stopped since. Running is many things to me: a release, a chore, empowerment, drudgery, a meditation, an obligation, and, very occasionally, and what really impels me to continue, a beautiful transcendence.

The need to run was born as my life careened around a blind curve, coinciding with “mid-life” ick, and the accompanying shifting reflections and reevaluations of myself. Who I wish I was. Who I want to be. Who I’m afraid I am. I run from the image of the women of my age in this part of central Pennsylvania who say they’re too old to exercise, too old to start something new, too old to venture outside their own self-imposed limitations. Their knees hurt, their hips hurt, they have bad feet, they smoke like chimneys. Happy to use age as the reason and the justification to sit and think about their blossoming list of symptoms, they wear their infirmities as a badge of honor, and great conversation is comparing menopause horror stories. I want no part of being the woman for whom the emerging gray hair means you can perm it up, put on a house dress and never take it off, and stop feeling bad about riding a Jazzy around the grocery store. At the same time, I have a self-conscious fear of being a cartoon – dressing too young for my age, having a body image that is perhaps just a little too positive. There’s got to be a middle ground but the fence around it is overgrown and I’m having trouble finding the gate.

Until we win the Powerball, and perhaps the best first step there is to actually buy a ticket now and then, it looks like I have to work at a job for a good long time to come. I like what I do now, administrating and teaching in a preschool, a field that became an accidental career that’s lasted 30 years for me, and it gives me deep satisfaction when I feel like I’m doing it well. I worry that I wouldn’t be able to support myself with this job, but looking back, my life has never been about a blazing drive for a career. It’s been about making a family and raising my children, and I would do the same all over again.  I love the smart, witty, complex people my children have become, prouder of them than I ever thought possible.  But I am also a lot less necessary for day-to-day parenting, and the way forward is a bit obscured. Now that they are almost all grown, at 26, 24, and 20 years old, I’m gradually being cut loose and, honestly and appropriately, cutting myself loose, and so now I’m casting around, wondering what my new role will be.  While generally I trust my children to make good decisions, and with each good decision that becomes easier, it has taken me a couple of years to learn how to really let go and let them make those decisions.  I’ve had to learn to relinquish my sense of responsibility for their actions, and my fears for the horrific consequences I imagine in the middle of the night.

Anyone who really knows me or has read any of my writing knows that I am, and always have been, an anxious person, issuing from generations of similarly anxious people.  In the early days of struggling to figure all this out (still a work in progress, as my children will surely remind me), I stopped sleeping. Almost completely, and for weeks. There were some situations at hand and problems that I clearly shouldn’t and couldn’t “fix,” but that didn’t stop me from expecting it of myself. I obsessed over them, rolling them around and around and around in my mind, usually between the hours of 1 and 4 AM, falling asleep about 4:30. My eyes flying open again two hours later at 6:30, my first thought was “Now, what was I worrying about?”, and I’d pick up that backpack stuffed with emotional bricks and slide it onto my stooped shoulders, my neck already aching, my jaw tight from clenching my teeth, and carry it for another day. I hid it well. It was a surprise to friends that I was wound like a watch all the time. That was when my migraines really began.

I decided to give myself a goal that had nothing to do with my obsessions about my children, or my ambivalence about my career, and signed up for the November 2010 Richmond Marathon, my 3rd marathon. In the past, I had noticed that when I was training for my races, I was the calmest I ever was, was in great shape, and slept like a contented baby. I wanted that back. I trained through the spring to walk/run the race, and by the summer, decided I was done with fast walking. I really needed to challenge myself, and I began to train to run it. Slowly at first, interspersed with walking, soon the balance shifted, and I remember vividly the day I ran all the way to the top of the hill on Beagle Club Road for the first time without stopping. I was exhausted, half-dead, and almost threw up at the top, but so happy. Strong and empowered. Deeply calm. And sleeping again. Since then, thanks to force of will, therapy, chemical help, and the running, I am finally making progress in my battle to retain a sane perspective.  My resolve no longer to be a hand-wringer is coming along pretty well, and I welcome knowing that there is at least one certainty that I hold warm and glowing in my heart, honed and polished during those long training runs:  What I will not do is bind my children to me with wishes that they stay right here near me for the rest of their lives. My most fervent, most heartfelt wish is for them to launch themselves into life, grabbing opportunity and holding it tight. Going wherever that opportunity takes them, whether it’s across the state, the country, the world.  I drive, I negotiate airports, American or foreign, I have a passport, and I will visit them.  And I believe they know that home is always here and it’s a place where they will always find a welcome, a hug, a bed and a dinner.  That one certainty is so welcome, and it gives me hope that more certainties may follow.  Running drains off the adrenaline that my body seems to pump out by the gallon. I have had hardly any cold-sweating-panic-My-God-I-have-to-sit-down moments since I started running. I laugh more. I make better, more measured decisions. I still worry, yes, but I return to my center more quickly and more permanently than before and maintain a reasonably optimistic perspective. I’ve lived the dark nauseating panic. I like this better.

Running mile after mile, my music in my ears, is my meditation. One of my struggles in this transitioning life of mine is a faltering faith. I’ve been an unquestioning believer in God and in my Lutheran church my whole life. In the past 5 or 6 years, I’m experiencing a long slow fall out of faith. Or at least out of certainty of faith. Most certainly out of acceptance of any particular church’s strictures on what is right and what is wrong. In the hands of The Church, with a capital C, faith has too little to do with love and growth and outreach, and instead becomes a weapon of judgment and a tool of control. People for whom I care deeply are deemed not acceptable by the church because of who they love. I can’t accept that there is any right in that, and that is where the Church and I part company, and I’m left to try to reframe a belief in God on my own. The unstructured freedom confuses me – so what is true and what isn’t? – and I am suddenly questioning everything I took for granted for 50 years. If there is no God, and for the first time in my life I’m considering that may well be the case, who do I look to for strength and help? Myself?! Well, we’ve seen how that usually works out, and that terrifies me! This isn’t close to finished for me, and I’m nowhere close to answers. I may never be. I accept that it’s a process, and, if there is a God after all, I hope that He or She or that Energy understands my struggles and my questions, and will be patient with me.

And so I run in the morning, in the mist, in the rain or the snow, with the rising sun when the weather’s hot and humid, or after dark when landmarks dissolve in shadow and it feels like I’m flying, invisible in a formless world. I run smelling the grass, the trees, dying fall leaves, the crystalline frozen air, and glimpse deer, rabbits, and wild turkeys, hawks, wrens, and bluebirds. Creation, Nature, all around me and just being with me. One morning I ran, all alone, down a long hill, a flock of starlings flying together above me, turning together, doubling back together and flying on together like a blowing black ribbon. In my ears the rhythm of my breathing and my running feet and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”.  The moment was so perfect, it made me cry. And it was just for me and my doubting troubled mind. And the beauty of it brought me such peace.

I began logging my running miles during my last marathon training, and even after the race was over, I continued to keep a record of how far and how fast I run every day. Today, after my 6 miles, I notice that I’ve run a total 1,294.8 miles, close to halfway across the United States. I’m proud of that. If I miss too many days I feel the itch to get back out on the road again. I pace, I have trouble concentrating, can feel an edge of tension creeping back into my days. And some depression. I need the run to oil my muscles. I need the run to oil my thoughts. I need the run to release my soul to fly as fast as my feet will take me. It’s part of me now that holds on fast.  It taps me on the shoulder and whispers Let’s go…let’s go…let’s go….  And finally I have to listen, and off I go to push through stiffness, sweat, and ache to find peace in that pace that is so right, so comfortable, I could go forever.  Running to the place where I finally know that not having the answers is just life, and that’s fine. And it’s full and messy and beautiful and painful, but in the end, I laugh again and answers come as they come.  If they come.  And I keep running.