Monday, October 25, 2010
It's the end of October, less than a week from Halloween. It's a kids' holiday these days and I don't think many of us stop to think what this day was - All Hallows' E'en - and that it's followed by All Saints' Day. Here is what the World English Dictionary gives as definition of hallow:
1. to consecrate or set apart as being holy
2. to venerate as being holy
[Old English hālgian, from hālig holy ]
Not much seems very holy about Jack-o-Lanterns, fake skeletons, cute costumed kids and bucket-fulls of candy. And there is nothing wrong with that - things change, sometimes they lose meaning and sometimes they acquire new one. But I have been grappling with this concept of holyness, especially as it pertains to this holiday, often perceived as dark, scary, a peek into the "other" more unholy regions. All in good fun and smeared with chocolate, but still - it's supposed to be at least a bit frightening and to put one on edge and the dressing up had started out as a way to keep the spirits at bay and our homes and hearths protected. And, once the night ends and the ghouls retreat, we are to wake up to All Saints' Day. I find that interesting. There seem to be two different kinds of holy at play here - equal and important. This brings me to another, much larger notion knocking about in my head lately and presenting a mighty obstacle to my attempts at preforming the tasks of my daily life.
Lately, and this is something that happens to me from time to time, I have been repeatedly brought face to face with death, in big ways and small ways, in memory and in the present moment, in physical passage of people and animals, as well as in more obscure, perhaps smaller, deaths in my life. It's coming to a year since my sweet mother-in-law left us, slipping out of life and leaving a huge, silent space in the middle of our lives. One of my colleagues lost a spouse today to a vicious and painful disease. A man, a stranger to me, has lost his life the other day in a horrific car accident just two blocks from my home - the long, endless sirens are still echoing in my mind and I can't stop thinking of his little daughter who survived the accident, but will be without her dad for the rest of her life. A friend and her family are mourning the loss of their beloved dog, as she said "their first child." Not trying to put these things in the same plane - each is a separate, significant change and loss to those who are touched by it. There are many small, often hardly noticeable, allegorical deaths around me, too - starting with the somewhat trite autumn transition, but I am less interested in those right now.
I have never felt that death is bad, or scary, or negative. I can't really say why that is - it has simply always been that way. Perhaps, it's the way I grew up and that in our observances we spend a lot of time "with" the dead. All who came before us are still with us and the "passages" between us are fairly open at all times. People in my family constantly refer to those no longer with us and it often seems as if they are not gone at all, but just out of the room at the moment. We visit their graves regularly, at times bringing food and drink to the grave sites to "share". Maybe that had made death less different to me as a child and the feeling persisted. I don't know. That said, while not personally afraid of my own death, I still acutely miss those I love who have died. I can't remember now who said it, and I am paraphrasing liberally, but I do believe that many of us would pay any price to have a two-day's conference with the dead. It might have been Milton or William Blake, or someone like that...
I think it is a great accomplishment to be able to die "well." It is something we, in the normal course of events, have little to no control over and something we have to do without any previous experience or chance to learn (unlike other things we do in life that we mostly get to practice, at least a little bit) - and we have to do it alone. We leave those around us, if we are fortunate enough to die surrounded by family and friends, and go alone where they cannot follow at the moment. I cannot imagine what happens to a person after they die, or even if anything happens at all, other than that they return to the universe both physically and spiritually, but I do know that the person is no longer "there", in that space and breath they had occupied moments before. They do depart, are released- and leave the living behind them. I feel like the tasks of the living are much more demanding than those of the dying - they have to go on and build a new life after the one they had lived has been changed around them. I have heard it said before that death is not fair - I would posit instead that death is eminently fair. It's the most "democratic" of all institutions. It strips away wealth, privilege, good fortune, possessions of all kinds, attachments, but it also takes away all pain, suffering, hunger, bad luck, poor choices. What it does not take away, I believe, is the legacy of the person and the loves of that person since those are not housed in the person, but in others who interacted with them and as long as they are - so will that legacy and love be present. That is what I believe.
Dying is a task we do alone in the end. In that, death bears a remarkable similarity to another task in our lives - our birth. I have now borne three children. I have been blessed with three lovely children. Each one of them had to do the work of birth, with some assistance from me, as an act of becoming separate from me, of leaving and leaving behind. I cannot remember and cannot imagine what it feels like to be born - there has to be a moment at least of extreme loss and loneliness on the journey between the womb and the outside world. Yes, there are welcoming arms to take the newborn and hold it close and lips to whisper love to their unfurling little ears, but the trip there would be taken alone, near blind and helpless and exposed. Talk about stepping off the cliff edge into the unknown... By comparison, dying seems like an easier task.
As the man said, "dying is easy, it's living that's hard."
My dear ones, where ever you are, I love you and I think of you and talk to you all the time. I remember your stories and your advice and I see you in myself and sometimes in my children, too. We are one.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
The first true fall storm has hit us late yesterday evening and continues to blow through today. This is the time year when it becomes clear beyond any shred of doubt that we do in fact live on the coast and are subject to coastal weather. Yesterday morning, one of my running fairies and I enjoyed a beautiful run on a trail running along the water, starting at the beach looking out to the Puget Sound. All along there was a tapestry of fall color and the chill air carried the mixed scent of rain and wood smoke and salt water. Rain started to fall about the same time we began our run and kept us company during the following hour - soft, light, steady rain. There was a sort of rhythm to it - the patter of the drops and the sound of our footfall. It was early enough in the morning for there to be little other sound to distract. Coming back, we ran along the beach trail. Gulls were lolling up and down on gentle waves and all around them and as far as the eye could see, rain drops were joining the sea in lacy, overlapping, concentric circles. Peaceful and almost hypnotic... Fairly damp, but happy, I headed home, feeling pretty "set up" for the rest of the day.
This morning, we woke up to a sea of gray, sky and earth formed but a single layer - all of it absolutely wet. The neighborhood immediately up the hill from us was totally invisible in the mist and fog and rain. It's the kind of weather where you navigate by memory rather then visual cues - gotta keep your internal GPS on... Wind was pelting the windows with rain and whistling through the hedge in our back yard. It is still amazing to me how quickly storm clouds travel across the sky here - the winds round them up out at sea and chase them toward the land and then into the mountains in quick succession. Squalls come through, unload buckets of water, and then leave for parts north and east, leaving dripping quiet behind them and even a few sun breaks, which seem all the more brilliant and precious for the deluge mere minutes before. So, mid-afternoon, when the sun broke out for a little while and the littlest child went down for a nap, I took my chance and went out for a walk. I walked up the longish hill and went along the ridge which offers some nice views both east toward the mountains and west toward the sound. The sun was strong and warm, which was a good thing because the breeze was chilly and at times pretty stiff. About 20 minutes into the walk, I turned down the hill and headed west. Sun had started to falter already and now I could see the next squall sailing in, heavy with moisture. I had a choice to head home by more direct route or stick with my planned one and try to beat the rain home. I did not want to wear my rain jacket and left the house in a sweater and a hat. Not the best of rain gear, but I was having such a good time, I did not wan to cut it short - a race it will be. Not for the first and not for the last time...
To live here, you have to make peace with the rain and learn to love living with the weather - or else, be unhappy most of the year and never go outside, which would be a shame. It also means you learn the finer points of polar fleece, GoreTex and wool blends, as well as own at least one article of clothing by North Face and/or Marmot. (What can I say, it keeps REI in business...) Don't mistake me, this is not my natural habitat - I am much more of a Mediterranean child, sun, warm water, lavender, fresh figs, olives and tomatoes. But, I have lived here now for a fair number of years and my darling husband is the sort who stops functioning when the temperatures go over 75 F. I could move, but I would have to look for another mate and that just seems like way too much of a hassle : ). So, I adapted. I run year round and I actually like to live by the weather and take it as it comes - it makes me feel more in touch with my environment and I think it makes me healthier over all. I have a lot less trouble with allergies than I did in the past and my asthma has been inactive for several years now without any treatment or medication.
So, I kept my eye on the sky as I walked on west along my route. It was getting darker and darker and the birds were flying fast and low getting those few errands done before the rain came back. In the neighborhood you could tell the season had irrevocably changed. Yards have been cleared for the winter, Halloween decorations are out in full force, leaves have been blown everywhere by the wind, lawns look unbelievably green again after the summer 'browning". From the sidewalks, I could smell various wood fires burning, as well as some yummy stews or soups simmering. (Also, this being Seattle, pot, and not the simmering kind, was in evidence. Now, if I can smell it all the way on the sidewalk, is that really being discreet? I ask you...) Cats, huddled on their doorsteps and waiting to be let back inside, gave me odd looks - but, then, they always do... Saw the cutest little German shepherd puppy, all fuzzies and giant feet. The wind started to really pick up and I felt a few drops hit my face - just three more blocks... Walked past the neighborhood French bakery (the baker is our next-door neighbor), filled with folks drinking their coffees and enjoying the buttery goodies. And the pizzeria, just firing up the big wood hearth. More rain drops. The sky looks leaden. Entering the final stretch of our block - will she escape a drenching? Half a block to go... a quarter left... and stepping onto the front steps as the rain starts to pelt down - safe! Until the next time, that is.
PS. I got home to a simmering pot of vegetable soup with tortellini - courtesy of M. I am eyeing a bunch of pears on the counter and thinking thoughts of crisps and cobblers... mmm.
Monday, October 11, 2010
I have a habit of re-reading certain books over and over. Some of them I re-read seasonally - the Horatio Hornblower novels are a late fall/early winter fare, while E.F. Benson and P.G. Wodehouse are more of a spring/summer cocktail- some I read when I am stressed or so busy in my own life that I seek solace in literature - Jane Austen fits that bill as do Tolkien and Tolstoy - some books I read because they speak to me in a way that nothing else does - pretty much all of William Trevor, E.M Forster, certain Neil Gaiman novels, and some James Joyce. Some of these books I have read literally dozens of times - in fact, I know whole passages by heart. They are my imaginary friends and companions of my life. I will never switch to electronic books - no offense to those who love them - because I just love books too much. I like the smell of them, the feel of the covers and the paper, I notice the font choices and find out who did the cover design. I have in some cases purchased several copies of the same book just because I found the edition I liked especially well. It's a small scale obsession as of now - I live on a tight budget so I can't really go full speed crazy : )
This week, I happened to find a book I had lost for a while - it got hidden among some unrelated volumes on a book shelf and I did not see it there - and it happened to be just the book I needed to read again. A few years ago they made film of it with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, which is truly lovely - a dark chocolate truffle with a port chaser of a movie - Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I cannot express how much I love this book. It's witty, fast-paced, ripping good fun, Cinderella fantasy set in the late 1930s London. It's charming and beautifully written, but it's also thoughtful and kind and humanistic and touching in it's love and care for the heroin, Miss Pettigrew - a middle aged spinster, unsuccessful governess, an insecure, downtrodden, vulnerable woman, who , through a roller coaster of misunderstandings and lucky accidents, gets to "live as the Other Side does" and finds her happy ending (or a beginning, as one chooses to look at it). I can inhale this book in about two hours flat if given the opportunity. It sets me right with the world, it reminds me of all the latent possibility in myself and in each moment, it inspires me to dream beyond the nearest horizon.
I have been starting to feel a bit humdrum this past week. The weather has been changing, the chill has been more noticeable in the morning air, darkness has been coming on earlier. I was not feeling totally well, either, and so the forecast has been "mostly cloudy, rain turning to showers" (that being my favorite Seattle weatherman phrase). Now that I got my Miss Pettigrew fix, I got the tap back into my toes and a new snap to my fingers - who knows, it may even go so far as wearing makeup this week... well, at least lipstick.
Walking on the sunny side of the street - gratefully.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
It has been a long and hard ten days in my world. It was a perfect storm of things I find difficult to do, tasks that I am not inspired to get done and having to take a break from the things I normally find invigorating and vital to my physical and mental well being. Some of it has carried the proverbial "lesson" within it, some of it just gave me the opportunity to observe my own reactions and ways of coping in relation to situations that just "are" - situations outside my control or influence.
The first and by far the most difficult thing that happened this past week was the departure of my parents after a six month visit during which they lived in our home and were part of our day to day lives. I left my home and family when I was less than 18 and came to the States, really not thinking that I would stay here beyond the year originally planned. Many strange, fearful , wonderful and crazy things happened in the ensuing 21 years - and here I am, still here, now with a family of my own and a life I could not have foreseen back then. I have now lived here 3.5 years longer than I had lived at home, more than half my life has been spent as an émigré (such an elegant word for something often extremely inelegant). I like to refer to being an immigrant as a "chronic condition; sometimes better, sometimes worse, depending on the phase of the moon..." In a very real way, I feel stateless - not meaning it in the way that stamps I have seen on documents held by many refugees I have had the honor to work with read "Stateless" - homeless and chased away from their hearths by war, famine, prejudice, bigotry, ideology gone mad... That was not my case- I was "lucky". But I still lost a country and lost the breadcrumb tether to the geography of my birth to the birds of war, time and distance. I have found that to be true which many had found before me - you can never really go home; that place, while still alive and vibrant in one's memory, is part of the past and fell victim to change the moment one left it. Or maybe we are the ones who change... Anyway, all that said, none of it applies to my family - my parents and all my extended family. Their place and importance in my life and my world do not diminish. Parting with my parents and seeing them go back to that place that used to be my home as well, is a heartbreak that never gets easier, never hurts less, never feels less acute. It does not matter how many times we go through it. When we part, we never know when we will see each other again - in a year, two, five, ten ? This last time, it was four years. The older they get, these gaps of time get more and more significant. There is a lesson in this for me, as well as a simple observation of one of those basic facts. The lesson is that I cannot fix their life and the issues they face, no matter how much I may want to, but I can live strong and be happy in my life and so bring joy to them because they will know I am well. The fact is really simple - there are things we cannot control and things we cannot fix, we can just adjust and do the best we can and hope that will be enough to see us all through.
Another thing that marked this week was that I had a lot of work to get done and that I had to work a lot to get it done. I was not feeling my best and was sad about the folks' departure, all of it resulting in my being less than inspired to get into the thick of it and do my part. I found myself procrastinating, finding excuses to do something else, dreading those days when I knew there would be no choice and that I would have to put all of my energy into getting stuff done for my team. This went on for a few days. Even I was getting annoyed with myself... But then, I managed to pull through - just kept on slogging through the mental molasses until the sheer effort began to clear the fog and things started to get done. By the time Sunday came and all our work paid off in a beautiful event enjoyed by all of our guests, I felt pretty darn good about it. Not that I would not have preferred sleeping in that weekend and spending time away from the office, but that feeling of competence and confidence and trust in the role I play within my team had returned. And I felt better than I had felt for days. Another (repeat) lesson here - doing something, even if small and tedious, is better than just sitting there, bemoaning one's "outcast state." It's really a bit like racing - you may not come in first, but even coming in last is better than not finishing and even an honest DNF is better than not starting at all.
The last in this, apparently long, list of things was that for the first time in a year, I took a week off away from running. This was hard - really hard. But an important lesson in control and listening to the body happened. I had not rested properly since my last race on Labor Day. I was busy, feeling pretty good, ran with my daughters in their race, kept my regular running schedule - all until a week ago Saturday. I met my group for a long run in the morning. Not even a very long run. I was fine for the first few miles, but then I just bonked. Food didn't help, sports drink didn't help. Legs just would not move at times. So I walked stretches and ran stretches and then hitched a ride home with one of my running friends. I got home and sat down to track this ridiculous run when it really hit me. I was convinced that I had run/walked about 7.5 miles, but when I actually mapped my run - it was 9.5 miles. I could not believe I could be that far off judging distance. On one hand the news was good - I had actually run faster than I thought by a decent margin, but on the other hand, the news was mildly disturbing. I was tired and my legs were tired and twitchy at night and I have been ignoring it. But I still did not really admit to the need to take time off. It wasn't until middle of the week, when I backed out of a run with a friend, that I finally came to it and faced it. I was waking up every morning feeling like I needed to sleep for another hour, no matter how much actual sleep I got during the night. I was ready to go to sleep by 8:30 each evening. The battery was seriously empty. So, even I could read the writing on that wall - I did not run all last week. I walked, I did my hills, I schlepped more chairs and tables that I care to remember, but I have not run. I missed it terribly - it's a physical and mental ache. But I knew I was not ready. I think I will be ready to run again this Wednesday. I want it to be a good run - I want to really enjoy it. Running is my space and my time - I want to keep it pure and fun and joyous so that it can sustain me for a long time to come. That is something precious to me in a way that is different from other parts of my life that are dearest to me.
Let go, believe, listen, find joy. It's quite a to-do list...
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
I have two daughters, the taller one who just started third grade and a shorter one who entered first grade. They are very different from each other and in many ways different from the way I am. Hazel, the eight and a half year old, is tall and slim, all lean muscle and long limbs - just like her father and her late Nana. She has dark hair and eyes like I do. Violet, who is six, is built like me - a solid little person, though she too is tall for her age. She has lovely dark blond hair, now streaked by the summer sun, and amazing hazel green eyes. Their personalities are also very different. Hazel is thoughtful, empathetic and quite methodical in all things practical, while Violet is impulsive, sensitive and extraordinarily determined. They keep us busy - and that is not counting in their little brother... Often, I wonder what they think of us, of me, how do they really see what we do and the choices we make. I really believe that children are their own people from moment one and that we get to know them quite well in many ways, but that there are always depths left unplumbed... I may know them better than other people in their lives, but I would never claim to know them through and through.
Last weekend, I had a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse into how these two girls view what I do and some of the choices I have made in how I spend my time. Last year, I did my first 10K race at the Seattle Iron Girl event and Hazel walked the 5K with some of our friends. She got a medal for that walk and, ever since, both girls wanted to do it the next time around. It also became clear that Hazel really wanted to run the 5K this time and, little sisters being who they are, Violet would not be outdone. We had a few talks about this - I really wanted them to understand what running a 5K would involve and how they would have to prepare, and how it would be different from their PE classes where they do a lot of running, but not as much distance. Both girls were adamant that they would run the race. So, I got them registered. One of my best friends, a very new runner herself, was also running her first 5K at the same time, so it seemed like a good idea to pair one of the girls with her, while I would be the "jogging chaperon" for whichever one was either too fast or too slow to keep up with her.
So, last Sunday, we all got there bright and early and got into the spirit of this event. By the way, I highly recommend doing an Iron Girl event, especially if you are new to fitness. Iron Girl is all about supporting and celebrating women's health and fitness and it's a very fun and uplifting environment that embraces women of all ages and all sizes. The girls loved the carnival feel of it and the music. We all started together, way in the back of the pack : ), but it soon became clear that Hazel was going to leave the others behind. I took off with her and my friend stayed with Violet. Hazel and I had a great time together - we talked, I gave her some coaching on pace and breathing, she was totally focused on her running and listening to her body cues. It was really kind of amazing to watch this little child of mine take on the process and deal with each part of it and figure it out. I was impressed. She let me know when she needed some distraction as she was getting tired, and I gave her tips on how to get through those tough spots. She was a natural - way more so than I ever was. We ran together until we entered the final stretch before the finish, when she actually sprinted for the line and we heard her name and age announced over the loud speaker. She got her medal and I walked her to get some water and to hand her off to my mom, so I could double back and go find Violet and our friend in the crowd still making their way to the finish. I left her happy and excited and tired with her grandma fussing over her. Come to think of it - everyone should have a grandma fussing over them after a race...
I ran back, against the tide or runners and walkers, looking for Violet. I kept going and could feel anxiety building up - what if Violet decided she couldn't do it, what if my friend had to drop out of her very first race because of it, what if one of them got hurt, what if... It seemed like my stress was increasing with every yard I covered not finding them. But, about quarter of a mile back, I did run into them - both running, smiling hugely and waving at me. I join them and we ran together for the finish. Violet was clearly tired, a bit red faced and huffing. I told her that at this point all she needed to do was breathe, deeply and completely, the rest would happen on its own. She listened and managed to catch her breath again, she did not want to give up. I offered her my hand and said I would be her tow truck. So we ran together, holding hands - by then we could clearly hear the loudspeaker and the music and the cheers of the crowd. As we rounded the turn into the finish straight, Violet let go of my hand and ran as fast as she could for a strong finish. She too had her name and age announced as she crossed the line. She was one of the youngest racers that day. Once we joined the rest of the family, the girls huddled together - they were obviously pretty drained by the effort, but also a bit awed by what they managed to do. They didn't even start the usual bickering until a whole hour later...
Later that day, we talked about their impressions and feelings - they were proud of themselves and also really glad they did it. They both said that they enjoyed the race and the crowd. They also said that they wanted to do the Iron Girl race every year. I think it's the medals and the shirts... Now, they are planning to take part in the Seattle Kids' Marathon this fall - kids run the first 25 miles of it in increments over a few weeks and then get together before the adult Seattle Marathon, the weekend after Thanksgiving, to run the last 1.2 miles and celebrate their accomplishment. It's a wonderful event with lots of fun activities and great "loot".
To say that I am proud of them, or that I am glad, or happy, or touched would be a gross understatement. To see them make a choice to be active, to strive for a goal, to be in touch with their bodies and their health - that is a gift I am truly grateful for in the present. To see them look ahead and plan on doing more and being interested in making this part of their lives - that is a gift for the future, both theirs and mine.
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