October 20, 2011 § 17 Comments
Sunday morning, I left the house before eight and drove south to Prince William County to do a trail race. I really love these races because they seem more like a party in the woods than a hard-core race. Usually, about 100 or so people show up at some Virginia state park in compression tights or old school cotton socks, in Lululemon running skirts, or in my case, frayed Adidas shorts I bought in 1999.
On Sunday, I positioned myself towards the front of the pack, which I typically don’t do. By the second mile, I was running with another girl and a few men and I was having the best time. It was a spectacular morning with a bright blue sky that hasn’t been visible much this autumn. The ground was covered with gold leaves but the trees were still green and bright. I passed the girl next to me and then she passed me back. The race was everything I loved about running: there was hard work and exertion and a sense of pure joy that everyone who came together in the woods created. It was so much fun that I thought about slowing down a bit, just so I could enjoy it even more.
And then I fell.
My ankle, which I have sprained a zillion times before, turned sideways, and with an oomph of breath, I was flat on my face. The people I was running with stopped and waited while I got back up, but I shook my head. I hobbled a few steps, but I knew I wasn’t finishing the race.
As I walked back the way I came, I felt like crying, as if I were ten years old again and had just been booted out of the game. People streamed by me as I walked the wrong way on the course, and I felt as isolated and alone as I ever have. I kept telling myself that I was fine, that everything was fine, but it’s a funny thing to be alone in the woods. I kept losing my way and it was cold. As I headed up the final hill, my left hand was throbbing in addition to my right foot, and when I looked down, I saw that a piece of skin was missing from my palm. Blood was trickling to each of my fingers, making my hand look like a macabre Halloween decoration.
When I finally made it back to the start, I picked up my sweats and headed to the first aid tent. As usual, there was the requisite cheesy guy waiting for his free massage. “Oh wow,” the trainer – a local chiropractor – said when she saw me. “You really bashed up your knee.” I looked down at my leg. I hadn’t even noticed my knee.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just looking for some ice?”
“Did you turn an ankle?” the trainer asked and I nodded.”Just sign in and I’ll be right with you,” she said and handed me a clipboard. I wasn’t really interested in getting worked on next to the guy with the too-tight shorts. My plan was to get a bag of ice and hit the road, but the trainer grabbed my bloody hand. “Oh my God,” she said, holding my fingers, “What are you, a marine?” This made me laugh as I am as far from a marine as you can get. My idea of camping is staying in a Holiday Inn Express.
“Here,” she said, shoving me down on her table. “Lay down.” She sprayed my hand with an econo-size bottle of Wound Wash and laid a soft piece of gauze in my palm. She held my foot in her hands and told me I sprained the anterior tendon in my foot. “And you jammed your bone too,” she said. “I’m going to adjust your foot.”
By this time, I was too tired to argue. I lay back on the table and let the trainer do her thing. I was trying to figure out where I went wrong, why I fell. I think I may have a belief that if I follow all the rules and do everything right, bad things won’t happen. And if something doesn’t go as planned, it must be something I did, something that I can prevent from happening the next time.
On Monday, the day after the race, the boys and I drove to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where my parents live, for my mother’s birthday. About a month ago, during that endless rain, the town had a horrible flood. The Susquehanna river rose over its banks and across the road, uphill into the town. Water covered pickup trucks to to their roofs, the farm buildings on the fairground were almost completely submerged, and some people had to leave their homes in rafts. A friend of mine told me that one morning, she watched group after group of evacuated people walking through town, wearing their pajamas. FEMA was called in as was the National Guard. I was so grateful that my parents live on top of a big hill, that despite losing power and water for a week, they were very lucky. Some of the worst damage, however, happened almost a mile from the river, when Fishing Creek overflowed its banks and washed several houses right off their foundations.
My mother called me during the flood and told me about some of her friends, whose homes filled up with water. My mom’s friend B’s lovely home had eighteen inches of mud on the first floor and some of her other friends had several feet of water in their basements. My mom also told me stories about all of the people who helped. An eleven-year-old boy was able to collect enough cleaning supplies and canned goods to fill a pick-up truck. The local university wrestling team went door to door, asking people if they needed help carrying their ruined appliances to the curb. My mom said that they came to another friend’s house and carried out his washing machine, his dryer, and his useless freezer. “I wanted to pay them,” my mom’s friend told her, but they wouldn’t let him. “Just come and watch our matches,” they said.
In my parents’ pristine basement, there are two wooden pallets covered with a sheet. “Those are B’s dishes,” my mom told me. My mother had taken them all home from her friend’s mud-filled home and washed them by hand. Next to the clean pots and white plates were a small stack of Pyrex pie plates. “I haven’t gotten to those yet,” my mother told me. “Just look at the mud.” I picked up a pie plate, coated in dried red clay. I scraped at it with my fingernail but the mud didn’t budge. Next to the dirty dishes was a soup pot filled with Log Cabin syrup, A1 steak sauce, rice vinegar, and cooking sherry. “She saved these too,” my mother told me, but I wasn’t going to judge. This is what happens when we fall: we clutch at what we can. B took maple syrup and I grabbed onto a rock.
Standing there in the cold cellar, I felt the damage of that flood in a way that couldn’t be conveyed over the phone. That red dust. The half-empty bottles of ketchup that were saved. And I also saw into the heart of my own mother. I saw that she was the kind of person who wouldn’t say to her friend: Oh honey, just buy another set of Calphalon for god’s sakes. Instead, she stood in front of her own sink and tenderly scrubbed mud from dessert plates and soup bowls because she knew that these weren’t just a collection of dishes but a collection of memories. They weren’t coffee mugs and saute pans as much as they were Thanksgiving dinners and birthday parties and rainy Tuesday evenings.
It’s true that by living in this world, you will learn what loss is. You can work your entire life to pay for a roof over your head and watch your home be washed away by the tiny creek across the street. To be true to yourself, you may have to walk alone. You will spend days feeling cold and lost and injured. But it is also true, that by living in this world, you will learn kindness. Someone may hold your bruised foot in her hands and guide the bones back into place. When you are too weak to lift another thing, a wrestling team may show up at your door. A stranger will wash your wounds and a friend will wash your dishes.
About 10 years ago, my friend Cathy, who first taught me how to meditate, conned me into going on a 3 day meditation retreat with her at the Zen Mountain Center. It was only when we arrived that she explained that the retreat would be done in silence. After the first too-quiet meal of vegetarian chile and cornbread, I stood awkwardly in line, waiting to wash my dishes. When it was my turn, a man in front of me, whose name I would later learn was Tomas, took my bowl and plate from me. I tried to take them back, but he held them close to his chest and shook his head. What I wanted to say was, “Please don’t. Please let me clean up my own mess,” but that was against the rules.
On the final day of the retreat, we all sat in a circle and were allowed to share something we had been wanting to say during the retreat. When it was my turn, I said, “I want to thank Tomas for washing my dishes.” Tomas put his hand over his heart and bowed his head towards me. “Thank you,” he said, “For letting me.”
March 13, 2011 § 4 Comments
With the coming of spring, I expected something of a transformation. We had a few days of really warm weather: soft breezes, sunlight you could feel, flowers beginning to break through the soil. This is it, I thought. Spring. The end of winter. (Now ask me how that went. Four days later, we had snow.)
In a way, I have always believed transformation was like this: a sudden and dramatic shift happening from the outside in. Before a new job, I buy new clothes, as if confidence comes in a shopping bag. I believe that if enough people like me, I will be able to like myself. I have been trying to ramp up my freelance writing, so I thought I would buy a new theme for my blog and get a real website. (That was something of a disaster as apparently you need to know code, which I don’t.) At 38, you would think that I know that transformation is not something that can be purchased at Barney’s. It isn’t full of warm and gentle breezes. It doesn’t have a homepage.
Last Sunday I woke up to cold driving rain. Hard rain, coming down in sheets. “You don’t have to go Sweetie,” Scott told me as I pushed back the covers and looked out the window. “It’s paid for whether or not you actually run.” I had signed up for a trail race series months ago, thinking that by the time the first race started I would have lost 15 pounds and gotten in shape for it. The first 10-mile race was that morning at Hemlock State Park in Clifton Virginia. Needless to say, I was not in racing shape. I still weighed 120 pounds. (OK, 125.) At 5’2″, it’s not like that weight makes me a candidate for a heart attack or anything. But it’s still too much. It’s an extra 15 pounds of chocolate eaten when what I really wanted was love. It’s the bread and butter I ate when what I really needed was comfort. It’s the extra glass of wine and piece of cheese eaten when no one was looking. It’s not as though I mow through a bag of double stuffs or anything like that. But what I do is probably more damaging, more insiduous. I eat standing up: a handful of animal crackers after Oliver has had a meltdown that ended in him trying to kick me. I eat chocolate when I wash up the dishes at night or a teeny sliver of cake because what I really want (more time to write, greater ease with my first born, a friend who lives in my area code, compassion for myself) isn’t available at that moment.
Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God as well as a number of other beautiful books on women and food would say I am eating behind my own back. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Except that it is. Because Roth would also say that how I do anything is how I do everything. Behind my own back. As if I had to hide from myself.
Last week I had to go to the dentist. The office was in Roslyn, a veritable mecca of office building and Department of Defense Headquarters. Outside my dentist’s building, a well-dressed woman was huddled into her long coat smoking a cigarette, reading a romance novel, and drinking a Dr. Pepper. Her work badge was still hanging around her neck, but she was most definitely not at work. I felt her defiance as I walked by, as sort of If I’m gonna be stuck in a cubicle at 1500 Wilson Boulevard, you can be damn sure I’m getting my smoke break. She may as well have been holding up her middle finger. She reminded me of myself except that I don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk when I eat chocolate. I hide, just as I hide from my own messy and marvelous life.
That’s why I got out of bed last Sunday and put on my running shorts. Socks that I knew would be soggy in about 5 minutes. Sometimes I feel so powerless over my own situation. I have fallen into doing what is easy rather than choosing my heart’s desire. The race was a promise I could keep. If integrity means doing what you say you are going to do, then I needed to begin again. I needed to run the race I said I would run.
To quote Lynn Jennings, the course at Hemlock State park was pretty much a boondoggle. A donnybrook. It was hilly and it was wet. It rained the entire time. We ran along a creek and had to jump from boulder to boulder. It was so muddy by the end that I slid down an entire hill on my feet. I went down another on my butt. The course was so washed out for the last two miles that I held onto trees at points to avoid sliding down a ravine. It took more than an hour and a half to run ten miles. After about an hour, it began to feel like childbirth: fatigue with a sense of panic thrown in. How long was this going to last? Was I going to finish? There was just the work in front of me and the great unknown of when it would end paired with the knowledge that even if I knew when it would be over, it wouldn’t matter. I thought of the book my son Oliver loved so much: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one. It’s a beautiful day. We’re not scared.
And yet. And yet I felt more myself than I have in ages. Running in the woods has always grounded me to the planet, tethered me to my own soul. When I was 16 and a senior in high school, I lay in bed one September morning and told myself that I would break the school record on every cross-country course I ran that year. Two months later I accomplished it. Three years later, I was the top US finisher at the Junior World Cross Country Championships in Boston. For a while, I had an insane sort of integrity about running. I did exactly what I said I was going to do.
Last Sunday, in the rain, I remembered that old self. She inhabited me again as my toes scrambled for purchase on tree roots. Only now instead of trying to win, I was trying not to finish last. I was running in the back with the former football players. I was trying to beat a girl with pink socks. Oh how the mighty have fallen, I thought as a photographer nabbed a shot of me as I slipped and fell. What happened to me, I wondered even as I already knew. It’s so easy for tapas, or zeal, to become obsession. My own integrity and commitment to running spiraled into a mania that ended with a broken pelvis and a stress fracture in my hip. My integrity had led me to pain and loss and grief. Somehow, I had let myself believe that dreams were too risky, too elusive.
Then, I heard a small voice in my head tell me that it’s never too late to be who you might have been. I have no desire to run competitively again. For one, I don’t have the pain tolerance. For another, there are other things I want to do. I want to be a better wife and friend. I want to write more. I want to meditate daily and have more faith. I want to believe in myself again. I want to surrender more and resist less. I want to help. I want to leave behind more light than darkness. I want to transform myself from someone who hides in her kitchen eating chocolate into someone who lives gracefully, who keenly feels the pain and joy and boredom and love of the present moment and then releases it so that the next can come. Transformation. Why was it taking so long?
I just finished a really good book called Ravenous, by Dayna Macy, in which she chronicles her own relationship with food from an olive grove to a slaughter house to her own hometown. When she is trying to change her own habits of overeating, she talks to her yoga teacher who tells her: “When you develop new samskaras and replace fantasies with clear vision, you’re leaving an old order behind. That order may not have been healthy but it was familiar and comfortable. When you leave it behind you enter a kind of transition state, a bardo in Tibetan terms. Being present in this state requires faith, because you’re not sure where you’ll land and fearlessness, because it’s so unformed.”
I was living a bardo as I ran in the rain and through the mud. I had no idea where my feet would land. I only knew where to go because I was following the runner ahead of me. Towards the end of the race, I could only focus on what was in front of my feet. Mud, leaves, roots, rocks. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We have to go through it. The course was in the middle of the woods along a stream. The sky was grey and the ground was brown. At one point, when I was disoriented and cold, I thought it was cross country season again. October. Halloween. My favorite time of year. No. I shook my head quickly. It was March, not October. It struck me then, that in the woods, spring and fall look exactly alike. That sometimes, dying and being born are kind of the same thing.