Fitness, Things I Can

34. Things I Can Cross: The Finish Line

Keep running.

Keep a walking pace if you have to. Just keep running.

I’ve never signed up for a 5K before. My Mister hasn’t either. We pay the money, pin on our numbers, and show up early enough to beat the port-a-potty line. The fundraiser is for my kiddo’s school, so all that really matters is making an appearance.

For us, though, what really matters is finishing.

We’ve been battling head colds and threats of ear infections. We sleep deeply (for once) the night before and wake up rested (more or less) well past sunrise.

At the end of the 1-miler preceding our race, we watch as one kid after another powers around the corner and surges past the clock. Little machines, every one. We stretch and psych ourselves up. We make snide comments under our breath. Of course it’s easy for them. They aren’t lugging around 40 years of bad choices.

All we need to do is this:

Finish.

By the second mile, I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Head is swimming, belly is churning. I am a regular runner, but in all honestly my regular run is a plod. This is what happens when you jog several times a week for over two decades without ever checking a timer. My pace is a stroll. It works to keep my heart strong. What more do I need?

What I need now is one thing only.

Keep running.

As the ground under my feet roils, I calmly repeat the mantra. Keep running. Slow and steady. Keep running.

I ease down to a manageable pace. Two dudes I passed at the last hill are now passing me. It doesn’t matter. I’m running.

So I keep running.

The rattling noisemakers and whooping cheers are just ahead. Maybe I can make it. I sort of want to be sick. I really want to go sit on that bench.

The noisemaking, cheering ladies hold up a sign that says, “Almost there! Half mile to go!” They whoop and holler. The one who offers me water is a friend. Our boys are buddies. Right now I could punch her face.

I thought her clanging rattler was the end.

Half mile is 5/6th of the race done, I tell myself.

Half mile is a whole 1/6th of the race to go, I argue back.

Half empty. Keep running.

Half full. Keep running.

I halve the half and hear the next round of clangs and claps from ahead.

Then it is the corner.

Then it is the last pounding surge of thigh and calf and breath that shouldn’t be able to sprint, but does anyway.

Then it is finish line.

I plow into a crowd whose eyes are already done with me. I wobble to the sidewalk. Keep my head above my heart. Try not to throw up.

My legs return to me. Gravity becomes an ally again. The voice I almost forgot I had hollers out at my Mister as he pounds through the arch.

Then I am standing tall on a stump in the grass with an apple and water, and the principal is calling out names. I half listen. The sun presses into my neck and shoulders. My hands are sore from clapping. The lithe and grinning runners — real runners — collect ribbons and hugs, then pose and snap photos with their cameras.

The principal comes to my age category. Third place, second place, names I don’t recognize of women I don’t know. Then first place.

A name I recognize.

A woman I am meeting for the first time.

I wobble a bit then step up for my ribbon, my hug.

My mister lets me pose and snaps a photo with my camera. Blue ribbon on the damp, pink field of my tank top.

Sun bright.

Smile bright.

For the simple effort of maintaining a single aim, this small award.

This big reward.

Home, Mindfulness

Patch Work

This should be a crisis. It would have been on any given night in any given year before now. Crouched by the HVAC closet, frozen air blowing right into my house from the snowy night, I sop up the quarter inch of filthy water pooled on the concrete floor.
 
I had not planned to be anywhere near here. My workout clothes are on, water bottle filled, iPod charged up. Almost out the door 30 minutes earlier, I’d forced myself to do a U-turn. Those presents aren’t going to wrap themselves, Chiquita.
 
In the hours after my son’s snow-day ended with his dad picking him up, I had moved with steadfast determination towards the sweet promise of three miles on the elliptical. Legos were tossed into bins, vacuum run, dishwasher emptied. I stopped myself halfway out the door to tackle a final task that I’d been skillfully avoiding for days. Just one set, Lady. Then you can go sweat. My workout, my precious reward, could wait 15 more minutes.
 
Okay, fine. But just the one.
 
After packing goodies and taping up boxes, I opened the closet door to grab a roll of wrapping paper from behind the rumbling air handler. It came up dripping. The bottom end of it was a sponge of wet mush. I took a breath, braced myself, and forced my eyes to the floor. Brown. Rippling. The boxes of tools and bags of charcoal had booked a winter cruise.
 
Now, hunched here in my yoga pants with presents only half wrapped and a workout swiftly receding into the horizon, I toss aside the floating metal door sill which has come loose. A puddle disappears under the floorboards and travels who-knows-where.
 
Out come igloo cooler, portable grill, paint supplies. The rest of the ruined wrapping paper. Stained plywood scraps. All of it lands in a grimy heap by our twinkling Christmas tree. Presents are mushed in the commotion. In the absence of a shopvac (where would a girl store such a monster?), I gather a cache of bath towels. Sop, rinse, first shift clocks out and heads to the laundry. Second shift takes up the mess under the drip pan. Once the bulk is up, I don boots and step in to diagnose the problem. Pouring in the contents of the water bottle I had filled for a purpose I can scarcely recall, I see the leak spilling right out of the new drain pipe I foolishly invited our resident maintenance dude to install.
 
I curse him. Curse myself for trusting him not once but twice, asking him to do this even after he botched a drywall job. As soon as the first mental punch cracks open the door, in slither the familiar hissing thoughts of defeat. I feel suddenly, horribly alone. There is no one help with this. I can’t afford this. I can’t do this.
 
I don’t close the door on them. I just toss the empty bottle aside, shrug, and haul a heap of dripping towels to the bathtub. Then, as quickly as they came, all those thoughts just skitter on away. They hadn’t even hung around for 90 seconds. I can almost hear the slip-rattle of their scaled bellies as they vanish down the corridor and head out in into the night. I smile — actually smile — as I notice how completely fine this whole situation is.
 
New thoughts come knocking. These, I choose. These, I invite in to keep me company as I work.
 
How cool is it that I found this problem before the downstairs neighbors did? Isn’t it neat that I decided to stay and wrap the presents so I could stumble upon this?
 
And
 
Well, I guess it takes me two times to learn not to trust that guy with anything inside my house.

 
And
 
Making good choices about home repair takes practice, just like mastering anything: speaking a new language, getting around in an unfamiliar city, making sourdough tortillas, managing a first-grader’s schedule.
 
And
 
It’s just a problem to solve. I’ll clean up now and cobble together the tools I need to keep it from getting worse. Then, once I’ve caught my breath, I’ll tackle the next step.
 
And
 
I’m so glad I already worked with that other handyman my realtor recommended. Now I have someone I can call!
 
(Which I pause to do). And
 
Wow, what a great opportunity to clean the crud off of some of these things piled up in the HVAC closet.
 
And
 
Dad’s right. Homeownership does suck. Hey, I’m a homeowner! And I get to figure all this stuff out!
 
Straddling a chair and prattling on, these thoughts keep me buoyed up at the surface of the evening. Where is the self-pity? The sagging sense of defeat? The inward longing for someone to come and figure this out for me? The door is still open but those worries and aches haven’t returned.
 
They slinked off down the block a while ago. Maybe it’s too bright in here for them now.
 
Over three years have passed since the separation. This month marks the second anniversary of the divorce. Getting through the day and facing both the routines and the surprises do not grind at me as they did when this all began in 2010.
 
I have experienced crisis. This is not one. Not by any stretch. The yardstick for catastrophe has changed shape entirely. This? This is just a leaky heater. It’s not even a bad thing. It’s just another event in a day. Unplanned, like so many, yet totally manageable.
 
As I toss towels in the dryer, I hear something scrape against the bottom of the washer tub. I reach in and pull out a tiny, marred gold object about the size of my pinkie-nail. It is a pendant in the shape of a clam shell. It must have washed out from a flooded corner. From the foundation. From the ocean floor. I drop it in my pocket and root around for a moment to see what else is in there. I pull up a handful of currency I don’t remember stashing there, but when I see it shining in my palm, I recognize it instantly.
 
This:
 
A small but growing community. A few neighbors whose names I know. Parents down the road. A companion who comes not to rescue me but to believe in me. A young but expanding career, a cushion in the bank, time off when I need it. A child a few blocks away in the good care of his loving dad. A half-full toolbox, two able hands, one agile mind.
 
Workout gear. NPR on the iPod. Thirty minutes to spare.
 
Now, the towels are dry and a fresh set pads the drainspout. The grill and cooler and plywood are all wiped clean and stacked neatly near the twinkling tree. I refill my water bottle and step outside.
 
Mist cradles the evening. The forecast calls for more snow. I’m ready for it.
 
I’m ready for anything.
 

Change

Small Act

In the office next door, a co-worker is hammering at the walls. New art is going up. She strolls along the hallway glancing into our offices, gathering ideas. “I just want to do something about this big space,” she says. “It isn’t inviting.”
 
Another co-worker tells me that she left a plate in the sink last night. Unlike me (or just about anyone I know), her challenge is to become more messy instead of less. She has a tendency to put things like sleep further down the list than, say, dusting her bookcase. “And you know what else?” She smiles. “My husband took his shoes off in the hallway, and I just left them there.”
 
It is the last day of January. The New Year is well behind us along with most of the resolutions. Tomorrow morning, treadmills around the world will stand in blinking perplexity at their sudden abandonment. Thousands of just-started screenplays will languish on bedside tables. We return to our familiar selves.
 
Despite this tendency to regress, just about everyone around here is making improvements. Arriving on time, looking up bios of therapists, sending thank-you notes. Marathon training may have fallen off, but one friend actually does bring her own re-usable grocery bags now every day.
 
Sweeping transformations rarely take. Folks create a little more rightness in their lives one simple step at a time. It is the small act, trained into practice, that becomes the way we are.
 
I had fun doing a little research on habit formation recently. The piece I wrote on the topic is up on my department’s website here:
 
Habits in Training: Six Tips for a New Year
 
Hang a picture, hug a friend. The official start of 2013 is behind us. The real New begins right here.
 

Fitness, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 22

Inside the gray morning, a storm churns. No one looking down from a weather balloon would ever know. Calm skies lay a low blanket of mist over this patch of concrete. Upstairs, my boy dreams on. He will wake on his own and climb into my arms so I can carry him down to our waking day. For this singular pleasure, I continue to press my weight against the porch step. I jump skyward straight up from a squat 20 times over, roaring past my own screaming heart then begin again once the stars dim.
 
Inside the neighbors’ homes, small thunderclaps fall on deaf ears. Who would know? Secrets, stillness, fury, love. White lights twine around poplars and oaks dotting the unfenced green. In the low dawn, other women walk their dogs at a racer’s clip or jog in nylon sheaths. I wonder who these people are. Even the ones whose names I have learned over wine and block-party gossip are exotic, sleek-billed things. They married the ones who became captains and commanders. Very few of wives themselves hold such sway. They feather their nests and pine for more yet seem to possess a knowledge that eludes me. Gloss and curl, breast and fawn. Perhaps just dumb luck? Whatever the code, I have not cracked it yet. I rely on pulse and sweat. I bend and crunch my belly, powering the core which sustains me. It is, after all, the only one I’ve got.
 
Next door, the couple stands bickering over the placement of a red bow on the new porch light. She wears the teal track suit, he the familiar scowl. The stout pillars of their new portico twinkles with lights. Their long-legged girls soar past on in-line skates, hair swaying. The silent distance of proximity has me hungering and recoiling. What quiet thunder brews there? Any? None? They have lived here since the girls were toddlers. I have never seen the inside of their home, yet I long to inhabit it, whether it be the shelter or the storm.
 
I lunge 50 times on my patch of damp concrete. I get to 51 and keep going. Past 75, past 100. These thighs will never fail me. I will climb the stairs. I will scale these walls. I will leap over rooftops, up past the front that taunts us with its constant pressure and threats of deluge. Up into clear skies this surging heart will carry my boy and me, winging us into the place we are meant to be.
 

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 92

Eleven and a half hours. That is how long he sleeps without stirring once. I wake at dawn and head out into the damp dark to run with only the glow of the waning moon to show the way. I return, stretch in the dew, walk the dog, pack lunch, shower, and bring the water to boil for oatmeal. He sleeps on and on.
 
This is what happens the night after the day the kid rides his bike to the school and back all by himself. Not all by himself, actually — training wheels notwithstanding, he is still skittish about hills. When we come to the top of a slope, he slows to a crawl and asks, “Mommy, can you hold on, please?” I touch the handlebars the way I remember learning to hold the barre in ballet. This lightest of grips is poised and at the ready. When he hears a car, he tenses and turns back three or four times to look. He veers in a wide arc away from the curb. I tell him the story about hitting the telephone pole when I was learning to ride a bike even though I was staring right at it. “You tend to go wherever you are looking, so keep looking at the place you want to go, not the thing you are trying to avoid.”
 
“I am going to run over that black spot,” he says. He peers with great intensity at a tar patch on the street ahead and steers his front tire over it. “Now, I am going to go over that one.” The cars pass on by.
 
At the playground behind the school, we run and run and run and run. It is dusk and the storm clouds are rolling in. I chase him up the slide and down the ladder, up the fire pole and down the parallel bars. We do not speak. This game demands no negotiation of rules. He bends and peers at me from between poles across the yard, eyes flashing and skin on fire. He breathes hard and braces himself. I charge and he shrieks, mulch flying. He tears off over the jungle gym and under the bridge, ducking, faking left then right. His wild laughter echoes off the school’s brick walls. We run until he notices the sky.
 
“Those clouds are very low,” he says.
 
“Yes. They are.”
 
“We should go home.”
 
He is back on the bike and I drop my fingers onto the handlebar. He nudges my hand away. “No, Mommy, you don’t need to hold me.” He weaves in and out and around the pillars at the front of the school building, tires churning up the chalk murals of peace signs and rainbows. On the way home, we meet the slope going the other way. He lifts his hands from the bars and gazes at the red, puffy spots on his palm.
 
“We can put ice on your hands when we get home,” I tell him.
 
He makes a fist, releases it, then pushes on.
 
“They make special gloves for biking,” I say. “They have padding and no fingers. We can get you some.”
 
“I’ve seen them,” he says.
 
And now he is climbing. Up in the seat, he stands as he pedals up the hill, grinding against gravity. I grin and tell him he’s got it. He climbs all the way to the top hill and then drops into the seat, pauses, and looks at his hands again. The red spots are angry now.
 
“We’ll use that soft ice pack,” I say.
 
“Okay.”
 
He turns right at the stop sign and continues all the way home. He never asks for my help, never complains. He makes it to the driveway and then lets me maneuver the bike into the garage. Inside, we root around in the fridge for the ice pack. He presses his hands to the blue pockets of relief.
 
When I put him to bed an hour earlier than usual, he does not protest. We read our three books and sing our three songs, cuddle and nuzzle and have butterfly kisses.
 
It is no surprise he sleeps on and on this October morning. When he wakes and comes padding into my room, he tucks himself under the already made folds of my comforter, grinning with sleepy bliss.
 
“Can you come cuddle me, Mommy?”
 
“I can cuddle you for exactly one minute. We have to get ready for school.”
 
I lay down next to him and put my face against his. He turns and presses his nose into my cheek.
 
“How about exactly two minutes?” He puts his hand on my arm. The red blister has faded to a pink whisper.
 
“Okay,” I say. “Exactly two minutes.”
 
He hums into my neck, closes his eyes, and pulls my arm across his belly.