I’m tired tonight. I’m a fair weather runner. I wait for the sunshine and sixty degrees to beckon before slipping on my running shoes.
Today tipped the meter. Unfortunately the winter has had its tattoo and my legs died on me after the fourth mile. But I was doing an out and back so there was no choice but to finish. I had already turned around and still had a mile left. I took thirty seconds to clear my headspace, switched my playlist, cranked the volume, and finished stunningly. Well not really… walking totally ruined my last split but I at least felt like I landed the last stride at a semi-respectable pace. The result of my reckless abandon? I’m tired tonight.
One summer several years back I watched this movie called McFarland. It followed the pretty typical feel-good plot line of depressed white guy who inspires a minority group of teenagers and finds hope and meaning in the process. It was about a cross-country team. Since I watched it in the summer, I was in my peak running shape. And I was inspired. I would run around the city park. My legs would be moving and I’d picture those actors. I don’t remember my exact times, but I got into relatively high mileage at relatively low digits. My sister is dedicated to working out and staying in shape. Much more so than I am. She has this app she actually pays for with daily challenges that get progressively harder. I’m competitive enough that I won’t do them with her. I know she’ll cream me. But I can convince her to go running with me. She’s a good sport about it too because it kills her knees. Unless I am about to get my period, I consistently outrun her. I can kick it in at the end. I feel my mind moving from my brain. It sort of just melts out and all its potential energy becomes purely kinetic. I have no mind, only muscle. I become the pulse of my arms, the tightness of my abdomen, the force of my legs. Every thought overcrowding becomes a simple single rhythm—stride, stride, stride, stride.
I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about things. Thoughts are so frustratingly present and invasive. Sometimes when I’m driving, my mind will be driving it’s own road. I’ll come to some conclusion about how I should pull the chicken out of the freezer when I get home or start studying for an exam by a certain time. Then it will meander to my turn signal or my grip on the steering wheel or the commercial on the radio. Pretty soon my mind has cycled right across the exact path it took previously and I am thinking about thawing the chicken and studying for that test. A cycle, turning through possibilities and strategizing the most sensible course of action—endless.
I fell in love with the book East of Eden a few months ago. I picked up my copy at a second hand store because it was the self-proclaimed favorite book of both my dad and a boy I used to like. That book and my older sister were my sole company during a week long vacation to my aunt and uncle’s beach rental. So nested in a Florida retirement community with nothing before me but sunlit sand, I read it in three days. I felt like my life had changed but wasn’t sure why. A few weeks later I picked up Grapes of Wrath from the same second hand store. Three months went by before I turned the last page. Its words were uglier than East of Eden, but it claimed a different sort of beauty. This book was rich and sad. I was magnetized by one character – the mother of the ragged family, all spine yet somehow pure heart. In chapter thirteen her coarse words cut into a simple truth, “Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all of ‘em, it’s too much. You got to live ahead ‘cause you’re so young, but—it’s jus’ the road goin’ by for me.”
I read the words and read them again.
The road going by.
Oh the time I spend in my mind. Oh the energy spent. Internal eyes trying to foresee a future that hasn’t happened yet.
Our world full of bodies, our world full of minds. Our bodies, our minds. Our minds inside our bodies. Our lives composed of body and mind. Our bodies our means of presence. Our minds our means of navigation.
But where are we even going?
Every few weeks my phone will light up with a text from a persistent friend. We get dinner at one of those restaurants that isn’t fast food but doesn’t require waiting to be seated or tipping. We sit and talk across from each other with baskets empty of food in between us. She is good at asking questions most people don’t ask. It has become the status quo of our interactions. She probes, I’ll sit on the question and then give her a string of meandering sentences that I hope make sense. She’ll probe again. Our conversation turns in this circle. I can feel from her that she wants me to come to a conclusion. She wants me to land somewhere. To get somewhere. I look across at her eyes and know I can’t give her what she wants.
I’m not sure where I’m going. Maybe it’s just the road going by.
I don’t know how to explain to her what I am feeling. That I’m not sure I feel the need to arrive somewhere. Not like I used to. It is enough to be here. Unwrapping layers of the day surrounding me. Sitting below a sleepy sun sky watching the blues disappear. Running four miles to find purple leafed trees. Listening to poetry that I don’t understand but love anyway.
I haven’t been going to church lately. And by lately that means the larger part of two years. I have made up for it in listening to podcasts though. An old friend told me about one called “On Being.” What a wonderful title. What a wonderful concept. Let’s think about being. All of us human beings. Our function residing in our very name. Of course the irony our title offers us is that we are so terrible at it. Fret, stress, worry – these we don’t have to listen to a podcast to learn how to do. But we must learn to be.
Even now I am getting lost in my thoughts. I’ll have to go for a run again soon when my legs aren’t so tired.
A few mornings ago I woke up to a sleeping house. I opened my bedroom door into a lonely hallway and crossed it to another closed door. I pushed it open and saw her, my mother awake but still curled under warm morning sheets. My only intention had been to steal a couple naproxen from her medicine cabinet to ward off the day’s menstrual cramps. But the comforter still crisp in that empty place next to her seemed to have eyes, looking at me. Or maybe a voice, calling to me. I crawled underneath. She was lying on her back with eyes open to the ceiling, her arm crooked at the elbow and tucked behind her neck. It is a familiar position on her. I curled to my side with knees tucked to my chest. A familiar position on me. We were both tired from attending my friend’s wedding the day before, pleasantly sleeping past church. I said something. She said something. Words passing between us through the honeyed light.
Happy things now come to us holding hands with sad things. We have to accept them both. Our celebration tied to this cousin of grief.
My mom doesn’t cry very often. I remember her sitting on a bench at the end of a long hospital hallway. The memory feels yellow. Maybe the color of the cushion on the bench? We, her daughters, circle around her. Our father, her husband, is down the hallway bandaged and asleep. We, her daughters are crying oceans. She, our mother, is like a tall tree.
But in this moment her eyes are tightly shut, wrinkled close. Gravity pulls the tears from corners and they don’t have far to travel before soaking into sheets. She tells me about fear. She tells me about the fear he felt. She tells me how he was afraid to die. How he never wanted to talk about it. And that they never really did talk about it. How even with her, his soul-mate-confidante-lover-pride-and-joy-best friend, he did not want to talk about it. So they didn’t. None of those after-I’m-gone-letters tucked away in a sock drawer. He didn’t want to think about the future that would be. And that he wouldn’t be in.
Of course it’s not the scene from the movie we want to watch. Or the ending paragraph in the book we want to read. But it’s what we had. The life we shared unfolding before us.
The road going by?
Then, with eyes still closed but somehow seeing – as if they were seeing something sparkling in the distance – she said something I knew I would write down later. That yes we are full of fear – but we cannot let it keep us from living in the present. We cannot let fear keep us. We must live. We must live in what is our lives. Not what should be or could be, but what is.
I on my side and she on her back – I reached my hand to hold her soft tissue paper hands. This moment.
The fear that keeps us from living in the present. The present… what a stupid word. It’s too nice. Too shallow. It makes light of what has been trauma and tragedy. It is a failure of a word. Failing to capture the depth of experience and the veracity of the colors that painted it.
I think of Ma from The Grapes of Wrath. I look at my mother. I close my eyes in hopes of strengthening my grasp of what this flighty word present is holding.
My oldest sister, Lauren, is getting married this summer. Our kitchen table is the evidence. It is hidden by this layer of gold sharpies and the nice kind of envelopes with the shiny inside and papers with lists of tasks that are slowly being crossed off. I am probably a little too vocal about my feelings on wedding planning. Saying them is definitely not helping anyone. Especially not a bride who has had to plan the majority of her wedding from overseas. I haven’t helped with any of the plans. I did e-mail my supervisor to let her know about the two days I will need to take off work. And I found someone to do the alterations on my bridesmaids dress. Yes I know – so much heavy lifting.
It seems sort of unbearable to me though. I don’t know how she is doing it. I went with my mom to pick out a mother-of-the-bride-dress. We found a floor-length silver gown on clearance. My mom has a way maximizing all her resources. I always feel bad for the salespeople she encounters. Von Maur was furnishing a middle-aged woman sporting a trendy suit that deemed her suitable to help in this selection process. My mother stressed the importance of the situation, explained the uniqueness of the situation. That this was not just a mother-of-the-bride-dress. This dress would actually be walking down the aisle next to the white dress. In a sense it was also the-father-of-the-bride-dress. So my mom wanted to know – would this dress be up for the job? The saleswoman didn’t hesitate, but I caught a shift in her pupils – this slight widening as she realized the meaning behind my mother’s question. My mom bought the dress. She looks stunning in it. Later I helped her pick out sandals with a moderate heel, a classy height that wouldn’t tire out her calves.
There are five women in my family. The five of us were all at the dinner table. The layer of wedding invitation proofs and laptops with Adobe Photoshop and Excel Spreadsheets open on the screens temporarily cleared away.
I have had this sort of vision of the five of us on my mind for the past few months. We are all holding hands. Each of us is touching at least one other and we are all connected. But the pattern is constantly changing, rotating and moving. Right as I let go of a hand a different one will seize mine. The shifting is precarious yet trustworthy. It is this taking turns of holding on. We can’t all do it all the time. But we all need at least one grip securing us. And we are somehow above the ground. We are suspended in the air because whatever bond anchoring us to the ground was cut. Tonight we hover in a circle, each body in a chair as we finish eating dinner. My mom’s voice giving space and permission for each of our own voices. Different words are spoken. All saying the same thing. Tears running down cheeks, we are all saying that this isn’t what we wanted. But this is what we have.
We are women. We are daughters. We were once little girls. We went to lots of weddings wearing matching dresses, one wedding with matching hats. We danced at the receptions. We’d spin in circles holding hands. And the slow songs – we’d take turns dancing with our daddy. Watching the beautiful bride walking down the aisle with her daddy at her side and then later watching him take her in his arms to dance – we’d dream of the day it would be us. Our dad – the lucky man with four daughters.
Lauren proves to be the bravest sister time and again. She is the oldest. She does things first. The rest of us watch her and learn. This is no different. We will watch her and learn.
I have this recording of my voice. Cat had this idea for all of us sisters to join her in a project her creative mind had dreamed up. We committed to documenting our first thoughts of the day in some form within an hour of waking for one month. We found out our dad was dying a little over a week into the project. It certainly colored the results in an unexpected way. So in one of my morning recordings I hear my sleepy voice say –
“Last night I had a conversation with my older sister and we were just talking about the reality of our lives. And how we are seeing the reality of the lives of other people around us and kind of wishing it could be us. Um… yeah but we’re just kind of acknowledging that what we’re living right now isn’t what we would have choosed to live and there’s a lot of other things that we wish would happen… There’s kind of a lot of parts of our day and parts of our life right now that are really hard.”
I listen back and shudder at the fact that I said something as idiotic as “choosed” instead of chosen. Absolute proof that I am not in any form a morning person.
But this is something I have heard in various phrases repeated from various voices. This is what I hear among the women joined in a sacred circle. We sorely notice every piece of his absence. We did not want the empty chair. But it is there.
Fear may fill our minds about the all things that could be. We fight a longing for all the things that should be but are not. And we are left with our present. The road going by.
So my brave sister chooses to keep planning her wedding. She asks my mother and brother to walk her down the aisle.
I sit next to her at the table feeling the dark wood of the chair supporting my back. I look at the faces in my circle. I let the emotions pouring off them collect in me too. We will share them. In this moment and in the ones coming.
In this moment we are deciding. Deciding to feel. Deciding to be. Fear will not keep us.