The Unfriending

I’ve been unfriended. Not in an offhand virtual click of a button way, the result of a web-based housecleaning that goes unnoticed for weeks, but in a bloody cut it out with a knife never speak to me again unfriending. Oh, I brought it on, I fully admit that, and I deserved his anger at the moment of that badly misdirected text. Maybe I deserved the Fuck You texted back to me with exclamation points attached, but I’m not convinced of that, even knowing and feeling every bit of my guilt. Those two words, the most concise and undeniable expression of utter rage and cutting dismissal, never came my way from anyone until they came from him. I shared a confidence with other friends, which I so regret, and I apologized, but the demanded and offered apology went unacknowledged. This was a friendship that lived in my heart for three years. Three years of laughter and confiding conversations, of taking his side and hugs, wicked fun and love yous. And in one nauseating evening it was all undone and forgiveness has never come my way and I never got to say goodbye. My friend didn’t see my tears, my remorse, my pain, my anger. And giving that knife a good hard twist, three days later the reason for his rage was moot. Casually nullified when the relationship with his partner, that was on the rocks, was repaired over a shared lunch of crêpes, and they were back together again. Apparently, there is no similar reconciliation for us. And now it has been months.

photo 2I love my friends, and I love my family. And my good friends become my family. My family is big and loud and loving and we’re in each other’s business, and we talk about problems and they go away, and sometimes we ignore problems, and they go away. And if they don’t go away, we learn to live with them. We have a sensible Lutheran approach to life and its complicated relationships. We eschew drama, and we move forward, always forward, with practicality, forgiveness, and laughter. And wine and coffee. And sometimes cake. And Jell-O with Cool Whip. And the natural extension of that love is that I tend to expect my friends to then behave like my family as well. Which probably isn’t fair. When they don’t, it feels like a betrayal of the trust that I’ve invested in them. Trust that we will just go on forever and even though, yes, things change, that “thing” that is our friendship, that nugget of pure truth at the heart of it, will not. And usually that’s right. Until it’s wrong.

I try to be a strong and caring friend. I’m a good listener, and I like to listen. I think I have an open heart. I try to be forgiving. I like people and I like to really know them, the deep inside them, and I like to laugh. Sometimes, when meeting someone, I feel a zing, a physical pull, a need to get to know that person. I trust that gut instinct, and it has served me well. One of my best, deepest, most honest friendships is the result of paying attention to that cosmic pinprick and reaching out, revealing pieces of myself unasked like an offering. The reward, when the reaching out is met halfway or less than halfway with a warm hand or a warmer hug, with a flow of easy or difficult but trusting confidences, laughter, flowing hours or even days of talk, and serendipitous connections noted and collected, ties strengthened – there’s nothing else like it. That’s a deep and precious bond that I protect and won’t easily or willingly discard. I don’t understand how others can throw that away, and do it with such finality.

photo 4I’m a pleaser by nature. A near-pathological avoidance of confrontation has been the hallmark of my life. I’ve swallowed my own wants and needs on a regular basis, overlooking conflict so there are no waves and it makes a smooth way for others. It has taken me 53 years to start to see that while easier in the short run, this isn’t necessarily the best way to navigate through life. I’ve begun to pay more attention to my own voice, and to speak up when I have to, but I don’t yet wear it comfortably or unconsciously, and it takes thought and effort for me to stand firm for myself. Often it’s accomplished with a heart thudding with anxiety. Conflict with a friend doesn’t come easy to me, nor is it easy for me to live with. I lost weeks of sleep over the unfriending. I deleted the texts from my phone so I wouldn’t see them, obsessively reread them, and make myself sick with those hard tight knots of sad regret. And I’m left to wonder if we were real friends after all, because I seem to have been easy to throw away. Was the friendship I treasured really just a casual way to spend some time, to have some laughs, to have someone to drink with? Was I wrong about the depth and timbre of what we shared? And in my new consciousness, this standing firm in myself and valuing my own voice, I have to conclude that yes, I think I was wrong about it. Rarely has that trusting connection been thrown back at me, and never so violently or decisively. I think it was a masquerade of friendship, and while happy to be there for the party of the good stuff – the laughs, the sympathetic shoulder – when the road got rocky, a mistake made, and angry words exchanged, he packed up his bags of fun and left, slamming the door after him. And that part – the slamming? – that’s easy. The hard part is then turning around, knocking on that door, coming back through, and navigating a new repaired path through the minefield of hurt and anger. I mull it over again and again and wonder what I should do, and worry my part in the drama like a dog with a greasy bone, obsessively chewing on my guilt.

I watch a nest of baby flickers tended tirelessly by their mother, doing what she knows she has to do. One day, she flies back and forth between the dead dry maple, and the hole in the tree next to it where her babies sleep and grow in the nest she built, waiting for her, demanding food. On this day, however, she doesn’t have anything for them. It’s time for them to come out of the nest, to fly and find their own food. How she knows that this is the day, the right day for this passage is miraculous and beautiful. One by one, the three little fledglings stick their heads out, mouths wide open, but instead of breakfast find fluttering calling encouragement. The boldest puts a foot on the edge of the nest, wobbles a little, retreats, and then suddenly struggles out and Flickrsclumsily flaps and flies to the little tree beside our porch, a struggling mess of feathers and blinking black eyes. The nest gets quiet, and now two heads look out and continue to call while the mother repeats the dance. Half a day later, the second baby flutters out of the nest with the sudden gathered nerve of a child stepping off the high dive at the pool, pinching her nose tightly with her thumb and forefinger and plummeting into the water. There is one baby left. And she doesn’t leave. She stays in the nest, calling, calling, and calling. Mama flies back and forth, agitated and encouraging. Starlings, anxious to move in to investigate get  chased away, but they are becoming persistent and raucous, perhaps sensing a weakness and looking to do harm. They squabble shrilly with each other as the day ends and the little one is still in the nest, calling. And the mother is gone. Tough love for a tough world.

The next morning, I take my coffee and my sleepy eyes to the porch to see how they’re doing. The baby is still there, head looking out, calling to mama. Nothing. The starlings become bolder, trying to get into the nest. I go through my day with the windows open, hearing this shrill persistent baby. At first frequently and loudly, then less and less, but not giving up. She is hoping she’ll be noticed in her distress, and that rescue will come with a nice fat bug, and she’ll be able to go on as before, and this push to grow up will just have been a momentary confusion. It’s so far down to the ground and to fail and fall would be devastating. I watch and send a thought to that dark little hole in the tree, “Leave your nest little one. Risk it. If you don’t, you die.”  And finally, just before evening, she’s out of the nest and in our Japanese Maple, struggling to cling to the smooth bark, sliding and slipping, but doing it, and doing it on her own. Pushed out of the nest to a new life by a force she doesn’t understand, but she knows she must, and now she accepts it. Fly or die. Friendships die too, and one heart calling out over and over does not make a friendship. Watching this determined little bird, I finally make my peace with myself, in its own way miraculous and beautiful, and somehow I know that this is the day to fly, and leave the regret and the guilt behind me. I will fly away, however clumsily, because I must, and leave the dark empty nest to the quarreling starlings.

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.

Ghosts of Spring

Since it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere close to having a crippling blizzard, it might as well get warmer so I can spend more time outside in the evenings.  That thought in mind, I was outside this evening, grilling our chicken for dinner.   It was that time of night when the sun is down, but it’s not yet fully dark.  The sky clear, the air chilly and crisp, but with a new hint of softness.  A promise of good things stirring in the ground.  Any hold winter might still have is tenuous and weakening and I’m regretfully saying goodbye.  Stars were bright, a full or nearly full moon lighting the sky to a gorgeous deep cobalt blue.  I heard what I thought was another flock of Canada Geese calling in the dark.  I’ve been seeing them on my runs.  Huge V-shaped flocks high in the sky, the benefit of living along a river.  The closer they got, and the louder the calling, I realized it wasn’t geese.  Reflecting the fading light, illuminated against that luminous blue sky, hundreds of pure white bodies passed right over my head.  Swans.  Long white necks and broad wings.  Ghostly, powerful, driven by ancient instinct, propelling each other through the night, calling, heralding their way.  And then they were gone.  Fading.  And I felt humbled and privileged in the sacred silence.  Such brief pure beauty when there is so much ugliness in life.