Skip to content

At Home, or Dear Professor Cronon

There is a professor at the University of Wisconsin whose work I like very much. I am  not alone in this: William Cronon is esteemed and beloved in a wide range of scholarly circles, and if you doubt this, just listen to how he is introduced here. On his website, and in that introduction, Dr. Cronon appears a perfectly balanced, compassionate, and committed scholar. But what interests me most about his work, and also perplexes me somewhat, is his own interest in my hometown.

FullSizeRender (3)

Of Portage, Wisconsin, he writes:

But three figures clearly stand out as the most influential representatives of this Wisconsin story… Curiously, all three found their environmental compass, their most intimate sense of place, in a small area within fifteen miles of Portage, in the sandy, low-lying country near where the headwaters of the Fox River converge with the Wisconsin River. Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage in 1861 and spent the first eighteen years of his life there. John Muir migrated at the age of eleven to a small homestead less than a dozen miles northeast of Portage in 1849. And Aldo Leopold’s Shack, the abandoned farm he immortalized in A Sand County Almanac, was located six miles upstream from Portage on the south bank of the Wisconsin River. Rarely has so unlikely a landscape evoked such passionate responses from figures of such intellectual importance. Together, these men represent three different strands of Wisconsin’s environmental tradition, and say much about the American sense of place in general. (1991)

Dr. Cronon is currently working on a history of Portage, one that spans the end of the last Ice Age to the present. In his words, “It explores how people’s sense of place is shaped by the stories they tell about their homes, their lives, and the landscapes they inhabit.”

I love this.

I also feel a great deal of skepticism that Dr. Cronon’s going to nail the “present” part of his Portage history.

FullSizeRender (1)

I was in Portage last week, en route to Duluth. I love Portage. I have to think carefully about this love, and I do often. Is it the privileged love of someone who has left and who likely will not–or does not have to–return? Is it entirely nostalgic? Is it because I’ve known remarkable love here, and because so many family and friends are of this place? Each of these things is true. Lately, though, I think I love Portage because its familiar streets slip quietly into the space in me that seems to yawn open; it satisfies an otherwise acute absence of feeling at home.

I am in therapy these days, and I also see a couple’s counselor with my husband.* The thing that has been hardest for me to talk to my therapist about is how I do not feel at home here. I try cheap shots: “I am not kidding, Kathy, not a day goes by when I don’t almost get mowed down by a woman on her cell phone in a Land Rover.” This is true and very stressful, but it is also neither kind-spirited nor brave. I get practical: “When I’m having a hard time, all I want to do is just get in the woods and go for a run, and I can’t do that. I have to drive at least 40 minutes, and then the trail is manicured.” This is also true, and I have no way to frame that more positively. There are a whole host of other, more honest and legitimate reasons why I (and we) don’t want to stay, but then I go home to Portage, like I did this past week, and I get it.

I don’t know that Dr. Cronon can get it.

These days, Portage is not a very good looking town. There are about three semi-okay restaurants, the best of which is located in an old boxcar. There aren’t many places to shop besides Wal-Mart. There are two liquor stores, but Wal-Mart recently received a liquor license and everyone is pretty sure the liquor stores are going to go out of business. There are a lot of churches and a lot of bars and it is hard to spend very much time in either of those places without recognizing at least a few people. This is what is called a “high density of acquaintanceship” (Freudenberg 1986), and I generally feel ambivalent about it. It means that a person may not report domestic abuse because her or his partner is friends with a local cop. It also means that if there has been some sort of terrible family emergency, a person is assured casseroles and Hallmark cards for a significant duration of time.

What I do feel certain about, however, are Portage’s landmarks. By landmarks, I do not mean Fort Winnebago or so many failed signs about Zona Gale. I mean this: If you take HWY U off of HWY 33 and turn left on Diehl Road and run as far as you can (sometimes it’s flooded) you are guaranteed really spectacular summer smells. I think that is worth landmark status. It is muggy and the road is covered with dense, dusty, clattering leaves and the frogs on either side of you croak low and long. Depending on where you are, you will smell mud and corn and honeysuckle and fir trees and the wind. In the winter, you will see a million tracks in the snow and, if you’re lucky–or not, depending on how you feel about turkeys–just as many young turkeys.

FullSizeRender (4)

There is also a stretch of sidewalk by the river that I used to roller skate on, one that has been slowly and rigidly slammed upward by strong roots. I would skate up and down the block, humming something really terrific like Mariah Carey, and each time I approached the tiles I would nervously yank my heavy foot ahead of my body. Lurching forward, I would slam that skate down and yank up the other just in time. And then exhale.

It’s about the same when I run there now, though I don’t feel nervous. I just feel full, almost breathlessly so.

The sidewalk has been patched up but not sufficiently. I ran on it last Tuesday night and thought about how my parents always said the people who lived here drank too much. I wonder now what “drank too much” meant to them, though there was always a box full of empty bottles on the curb. The people also had a dog named Rosemary. On summer nights, as lake flies and dragonflies flew loud, lazy circles over the dark river below, we would hear a woman calling, “Rosemary!” down the block. We would laugh and laugh: Rosemary.

I cannot think of this stretch of sidewalk without also recalling clouds of swallows; the glow of snow in street lights; a tennis court smothered in weeds; snails caught in a nearby pond; the river’s strong undertow. It is a landmark, to me.

And there’s the rub, right?

“Curiously,” writes Cronon, “all three found their environmental compass, their most intimate sense of place, in a small area within fifteen miles of Portage.”

I don’t think it’s curious at all. Ever the ethnographer, and obviously partisan, I am admittedly more curious about the many other people who still live in this small town–most whose lives will never receive the scholarly consideration of Cronon’s estimable triumvirate, and many to whom the history of Portage is a bit of an indulgence (like a blog)–and their intimate sense of place. After all, I don’t think I am alone in having a grid of memories overlay each street, so many fields, this train track, that church, that parking lot, the football field, the rock at that intersection… Nor do I think I am alone in knowing this place so expertly. The culmination of so many tangible, breathed knowings won’t result in a shared land ethic or a communal “glorious!” like Muir’s or even an agreement as to what the compass divines, but it is worth knowing. I would love to know those stories. I hope Dr. Cronon would, too.




*I mentioned this fact to a colleague a few weeks ago, and she contorted her face awkwardly–Was it sympathy? Embarrassment?–and said, “I’m really sorry to hear that.” I was taken aback and have since struggled to articulate how terrific I feel about being in therapy. The closest thing I can liken it to, both the individual and couple’s counseling, is the box of old, glass Christmas ornaments that I inherited from my grandmother. They’re incredibly fragile and probably contain lead paint, but  they’re also pink and yellow and striped and look almost brazenly cheerful when I wipe them off each year. This is how I feel about counseling. Isn’t it terrific that we’re getting polished up like this? I think. We are going to glow by the time we’re done.





A Greening Season

It has been exactly two years and fifty one days since I last wrote.

The past two years and fifty one days have been exceptionally rich, and heartbreaking, and vibrant and confusing and exhausting and life-giving and, really, exactly what you would expect in any two years and fifty one days, I suppose. I am far more interested in meditations than progress reports, though, and leave it at that.

I have stepped away from the semester and even academic life for a time, and I know so little. It is cause for a sort of delighted astonishment, this wide swath of everything I do not know. I do now know anything about furniture repair, but I’m learning. I did not know there’s such a thing as horticultural therapy, but wow! Stop reading this for a moment, and just think about it. It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? And good? I really do not know how to potty train, but here we are, potty training a small someone who woke at five a.m. yesterday, sat up in her tiny bed, and very simply and clearly said, “YES.” Success! A tiny, dry bed.

It turns out that when your discipline involves a great deal of deconstruction, you must work especially hard to not likewise deconstruct yourself. This is something I am learning. Present participle. Steadily, continuously.

So two thoughts: one about running, which I still do, and one about the color green. I think these two thoughts might be related, but I’m still working it out.


I’m reading Parker Palmer these days, and in this book he writes, “As an academic, I’ve been trained not simply to think, a capacity I value, but to live largely in my head, the part of the body farthest from the ground.”

A line like this can be interpreted in a variety of ways–the importance of thinking also with your heart, perhaps. Or maybe it is a call to be “more grounded.” Since I’m not particularly clear on or committed to being “grounded” as I am to, say, equanimity, I read it very literally. What is closest to the ground? My feet.

I would like to live in my feet for a while.

There’s an obviousness to this: As the parent of a toddler, I am on my feet a lot. And these days, I am often on my feet doing laundry, because I am very glamorous.

Really, though, I think this is where the green comes in.

Green, writes Mary Webb, is “the fresh emblem of well-founded hopes.” I like the “well-founded” part of this, and not because I am an anthropologist of law and teach the well-founded fear standard, or because well-founded is sometimes synonymous with “grounded,” and isn’t that a clever connection? No. I like well-founded because here it is gentle. These hopes are understandable. As in, of course you would hope for this thing, this place, this moment.

For the past couple of years I have spent a great deal of energy pursuing a certain kind of job–and a certain kind of publication record, the right funding opportunities, a dynamic classroom… on and on. Key fact: A person doesn’t hope for these things, she works for them. So I cranked up my Midwestern work ethic and dug in my heels and worked and worked and worked. I don’t feel particularly compelled to share the details of what this work accomplished, as I suspect you already know. Along with a perfectly fine CV, I accomplished an acute absence of hope.

So two years and fifty one days later, it is the end of spring, the time when we walk sleepily into summer’s hot, humid glare. The leaves are thick and the sidewalks laden with damp bending tulips and the extravagant smell of lilacs. I can’t help but think: If I continue to run here–and it’s so green–then surely this is my future. Surely these are my well-founded hopes, if only just leaves and tulips and the final heady exhale of spring blossoms.

And surely this is what it means to live in my feet.

April 11, 2014: Guide My Feet

In what feels like a very long time ago, I wrote a post about running with a little side-kick in Seattle. It was August, 2013, and I felt a slow sense of wonder that I might someday tell this tiny thing-who would then be an actual person-that she was with me in the wind as I looked down on the cargo ships inching across the Sound and the sailboats bobbing in Shilshole Bay. I would tell her that we attended a conference at Harvard, that we bundled up and trudged through the heavy, glittering snow with the dog on countless dark mornings in Evanston, that we listened to my husband play so many sweet songs to us on his guitar, and so many loud songs when his band backed Derrick Herriott one rainy night in autumn. We bought groceries and celebrated Christmas and birthdays and Norooz and had long conversations with beloved friends visiting from Berlin, Milwaukee, Chengdu, Seattle, New York.

I don’t know that I believed she would actually be a person, that I would get to tell her these things. There is a lot of suspense and anxiety in pregnancy, and I tended to find peace in more straightforward and absorbing activities, like working on a dissertation. Eating dark chocolate. Making lists. As the pregnancy progressed, so did one particular activity, namely “Appointments with the Midwife.” What most people did not know is that we double-dated midwife practices up until 37 weeks. That’s a long time. We saw a group of midwives affiliated with a nearby hospital, and we also saw a homebirth midwife. Homebirths are not nearly as common or respected (let alone comfortably accepted) in Illinois as they are in other places, and I’m just too tired to explain the incredible care and research that went into our decision to pursue one. Suffice it to say, I remain forever grateful that as first-time parents we had a guaranteed hour every week with our homebirth midwife to be checked out and discuss nutrition, emotional well-being, exercise, infant care, birthing techniques, on and on. Though very well-respected (and with good reason), we often had to wait an hour to be seen by the other practice, and the appointments were careful but fast, sometimes breezy. I imagine it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I hadn’t felt so clueless or adrift.

Still, we continued seeing both groups, due diligence for a person with placenta previa. (If the placenta didn’t move the requisite 2 cm to be considered low-risk enough for a homebirth, we would have the baby in the hospital.) We took a hospital tour. I packed a hospital bag. I ordered a homebirth kit. It was tiring.

At the 37 week ultrasound, we received the professional-and even supportive, for which I feel deeply thankful-go-ahead from the hospital practice to do a homebirth. And at 40 weeks and five days, labor began. While countless gifts of care and light accompanied those 40 weeks and five days, the best came that morning: my very loving, very careful husband agreed to drive us and the dog to the beach, in the dark, at 5 am. It was cold and windy and cloudy and the dog sped off and Bijan had to chase him and I don’t think we saw any stars, but we walked slowly from one end to the other and back, talking and laughing quietly. I’ll never forget it. I have a photo of his silhouette and the dog’s, black and still against the lightening morning sky. It’s impossible to describe how I treasure the image.

And of the dreamy, incredibly painful stretch of time that was labor, our walk together was the one slow thing. I’m confused and even a little ashamed to admit this, but every class session on childbirth positions, every meditation on breathing, every reflection on pain, and how the pain of childbirth is more profound and revealing and even exultant than other types of bodily pain, completely disappeared. I lost it all. I lost myself, my sense of time, my focus. The contractions were very intense very quickly. I know I was in the bathtub for a while, and later, when the midwife suggested I walk around the house, or perhaps just walk down the stairs, I actually felt insulted. Do you see me? I wanted to ask. And then the emotion vanished, lost as lightening struck again and again and again, my thoughts inward and then gone. I was in labor nearly twenty hours, and I pushed for somewhere between three and five. That’s a very long time. I don’t think a hospital would’ve allowed that much pushing; most likely I would have had to have a c-section. They also, in the constant flip-flop of evaluating modern medicine, wouldn’t have allowed me to eat or drink, the very thing that sustained me as I pushed. (This flip-flop, incidentally, will make a person crazy.) But with the steady encouragement of Bijan and the three midwives, and their steady insistence on runner’s energy chews and coconut water, I pushed that long. And when the baby came, she came in a rush. It was wild and intuitive and messy and my hands shook as they handed her to me and Bijan’s voice broke and for a minute or forever we lay on our bed and held the person I only imagined. I was no longer”the love that knew not its beloved,” from a favorite Judith Wright poem. Now, we finally knew her.

Her name is Zona and she has a lot of hair and long hands and feet. She cried while we held her. We cried, too. I’m crying right now.

And then everything that could’ve gone wrong, did. I don’t want to write too much about it here because I think it’s important to be sheltered for a while, to be quiet and fend off the fear and grief that we might encounter when we’re strong enough to talk things through. I wasn’t able to deliver the placenta fast enough and I hemorrhaged. The midwives called the ambulance and I was put on a stretcher and carried down the stairs by a group of EMTs with deep voices who shouted questions at me to keep me awake and I wasn’t able to answer them even though I tried so hard. I was taken to the hospital, and I had blood transfusions and other procedures and I drifted in and out all night–and none of this is as scary to me as is the thought of how scary it must have been for my husband. That, I can’t confront.

There’s a spiritual Marian Wright Edelman includes in her book Guide My Feet (1995) of the same name: “Guide my feet while I run this race/ Guide my feet while I run this race/ Guide my feet while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain…” The verses continue: “Search my heart while I run this race…” “Stand by me while I run this race…” “Hold my hand while I run this race…”

I’ve heard labor compared to a marathon, and while I’m loathe to make any big claims in print, I firmly believe this is the worst comparison on earth. Until there is a marathon that begins at a time and on a day that no registrant is told about in advance (and thus is unable to plan for-no special meals, no tapering, etc.), and that marathon is probably be 26.2 miles, but there’s a chance it could actually be an ultra, and the course is billed as rolling but, wait, it turns out it’s actually an obstacle race that’s all uphill… You get the idea. My thoughts are fairly muddy about labor, but everything that comes after it, the race of parenthood and marriage and healing and laughter and a simple walk around the block, that I need guidance for, that might be like a marathon.

I was in the emergency room on Monday, and I found out yesterday that I need to be in the OR for more procedures on Wednesday. And just like that, I began to feel the hot lava of doubt seep up and through me, with no way to find the source or stop it. I’m not so willful as to resist or deny the “new normal” of parenthood-nor would I want to-but facing so many breaches in my health and stamina, I started to wonder yesterday if I was encountering a new, irrevocable “normal” me. I wondered if the self I took such pride in and the many memories I cherished were a sham, if the girl who was so happy running up a long, hilly trail was inevitably lost. Could I do that again? Would I still want to? Had I been careless or lying to myself all along? I felt a little lost. Actually, I felt very lost, and scared. I sat on a picnic table beside the lake with my husband and daughter and cried big tears.

“Stand by me while I run this race…” “Hold my hand while I run this race…” A month ago, I never could have imagined how literal these words would feel to me now. It is a slow race, a lying-down kind of race, and I will take all the hand-holding I can get.

I wonder if I will tell Zona about this someday, the way I tell her about her dad’s music or the cargo ships in the Puget Sound. Or maybe I won’t, and we’ll just go for a walk in the woods together, up a long, hilly trail.


February 3, 2014: Blankets, Onesies, Socks

We drove to Wisconsin on Friday for a baby shower. It was the perfect weekend, full of the hiccups one might expect when it’s still very, very cold and a person’s body doesn’t feel quite right and there’s really nothing to do but laugh, a lot.

For starters, we were booted from the church gathering space my sister had reserved for the shower. A longtime parishioner had passed away, and the family wanted the funeral luncheon to be in a familiar, convenient place. Of course, I thought. That makes sense. But not to my sister, who decreed, “This is bullshit!” and turned into a wild woman in search of a new venue. For one hot minute it sounded like we were going to be at the American Legion Headquarters-the American Legion?!-but no, another church lunchroom was secured. Suffice it to say, Lutheran church lunchrooms aren’t really in short supply in Wisconsin. Crisis averted.

What else? Nearing the end of our drive from Chicago to Wisconsin on Friday night, we found a small dog running up the road by my parents’ house, his face covered in snow. There was nothing to do but grab him and toss him in the car, then laugh with surprise as he and Walden did happy somersaults on my spouse’s lap while I drove down the hill. In all honesty, I was probably the only one laughing. It wasn’t the greeting my parents expected when we walked in the door-“Hi! Good to see you, sorry to delay dinner, we found this dog…”- but my bewildered and good-natured mom nonetheless threw on a long parka and wrapped a scarf around her face. She and I trudged from house to house in the dim, icy light of early evening, looking for the dog’s owners and joking to cover up our impatience and worry: Why was the dog alone, with no collar? Why wasn’t anyone driving around looking for it? Why was it so cold? But after two neighbors pointed toward the house at the top of the hill-it was a familiar dog, apparently-we found the appreciative owners and returned him. Less admirably, it was soon clear that when Bijan and  I scooped up the dog and threw him in our car, we might have actually intercepted him while he was running home. Still: l don’t regret it. It was very cold.

I took a long snowy walk with Walden on Saturday morning, then enjoyed a second breakfast while the party planners rushed to decorate tables in the (apparently requisite) pastel colors of babydom and my spouse and father drove to Madison to get the food. It was very clear to everyone that they would stop by the house on their way back to pick me up and take everything to church. It was very clear to everyone except them, apparently, and I stood in the window in my red dress, waiting like a jilted prom-goer. They pulled in the driveway eventually, my sweet husband sheepishly saying something like, “We only heard murmurs that we were supposed to get you.”

Of course everything worked out, as tends to happen when a mismatched group of family and friends gets together to do something really nice for someone. The space was lovely, the food delicious. And just as new parent friends had warned me, we  didn’t get hardly anything that was on our baby registry. What they didn’t predict was the abundance of even better, homemade baby registry derivatives we received. Instead of the soft, muted (and very expensive) colors of aden + anais muslin burp rags, we were given bright squares of flannel and cotton with scalloped edges, stitched together by my cousin Mary. Instead of the Bowron Sheepskin UnShorn Baby Comforter–truly nothing says “out of touch, hyper-educated hippie” like a $50 Bowron Sheepskin UnShorn Baby Comforter, but still-my sister made us a quilt covered in frogs and bugs and butterflies. It’s perfect. There were hand-knit stocking caps and a onesie that reads “I heart Bayfield,” in honor of my beloved Ashland-to-Bayfield cross-country ski race. There was a gold envelope filled with scraps of green and navy and yellow fabric and tiny twigs and a ball of knotted thread, along with the promise of a mobile. “The tiny scraps are just proof,” said my friend Beth. “I’ll finish it soon.”

As I held up the little sweaters and duck-covered pajamas (apparently ducks are synonymous with “gender-neutral”) and soft, soft blankets, my sister occasionally wiped her eyes with a Kleenex. I caught an aunt doing the same, and then my grandma. Baby things make some people sentimental-but not me, I realized, wondering if I might be missing some essential mothering quality. The pile of presents slowly diminishing, I reached toward a pink bag behind me. It was very light. It was from my cousin Nick, who reads this blog. And it was a pair of running socks. I peeled away the bright pink tissue paper and held them in my hands, away from anyone’s sight.

And that, dear friends, was the gift that made me cry.

“What is it?” someone called out.

“Running socks.” I said, my voice wavering. “They’re from Nick. He knows I run, and I’ve had this thing called placenta previa and so I can’t run and it’s been a little hard and I just…” my voice trailed and I sniveled loudly. I wiped my snotty nose with the back of my hand and shook my head, giving up. Everyone waited patiently. I grabbed another gift.

It remains utterly impossible for me to imagine Life with Baby, which is probably why I’m so neutral about the sweet tiny hats and soft, soft blankets. I know that the little one will be enchanting, confusing, exhausting, etc., etc., etc. and that I will change a lot as a result. And to be very honest, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that this change will be okay, that I will be able to maintain (or return to) the thing where I sweat and hurt and find silence and strength and fresh air and the best, truest me. I couldn’t explain it at the time, and I imagine sentimentality over a pair of running socks might actually appear pretty self-centered. But truly no gift could have reassured me more.




December 18, 2013: The Glue that Holds Us Together

I haven’t had very much running to write about lately, because exactly seven weeks and three days ago, I was ordered to stop running. “Stop running,” said the midwife. “You need to be on pelvic rest.

Pelvic rest is something a pregnant woman learns about when she has complete placenta previa, as was the case with me. Very simply, placenta previa means that the placenta, a pretty incredible, brand new organ that facilitates nutrient, oxygen and waste transfer, was completely covering my cervix. This was not great. If the placenta doesn’t move as the baby grows, then there is a chance of placental abruptio, severe bleeding, premature birth, and on and on. Women with complete placenta previa at 40 weeks automatically get cesarean sections, with good reason. And as if this wasn’t wildly unexpected enough, here are some potential risk factors for placenta previa:

– You had placenta previa in a previous pregnancy.

– You’ve had c-sections before.

– You’ve had some other uterine surgery.

– You’re pregnant with twins or more.

– You’re a cigarette smoker.

– You use cocaine.

Check, check, check… wait. None of this holds true for me. I don’t even know how to use cocaine.

So we faced a pretty steep and potentially scary learning curve, and I stopped running. I was not upset to stop running, but I admittedly did not have any particularly martyr-ish “whatever’s best for baby!” feelings, either. I just started power walking: arm-swinging (but low-impact!), fast four-mile walks with the dog. At first I walked three times a week. Soon, it was nearly every day. I didn’t do it because I’m stubborn, I did it because I like fresh air. And the dog likes fresh air. And while I refuse to hold my child to unrealistic, unkind standards about her/his education, achievements, future job, etc., I very much hope that she or he likes fresh air, too. So: No time like the present!

Walden and I (and baby) had nearly seven weeks of pretty spectacular, sparkly winter walks, and things were looking up. The placenta was moving with my growing belly; I was feeling strong; my writing was going well; the holidays were coming… It was wonderful news, on all counts.

But then I had to stop walking, too. There’s this thing called Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD), and it seems I have it or something like it.  I don’t really care about the details-somehow placenta previa seems much more interesting-so suffice it to say, this past Sunday, it began to hurt A LOT to walk. It also hurt to sit in a chair, and to lie down in bed. I’m generally okay with physical pain (“I’ve run through a lot worse!” goes my little Pollyanna mantra), but I was not okay with the uneasiness that accompanied this, the ominous questions swirling through my mind again and again. Will this last the entire pregnancy? Could it affect me after the pregnancy? What if I can’t walk normally again? What if I can’t run?

That was all very scary. It also made me acutely aware, if only for a few days, of what it might be like to be handicapped, and to be handicapped in winter when you’re trying to do a little holiday shopping. Here’s what I learned:

Slush is frightening. Drivers don’t always look in their rear-view mirrors when they back up, and what if you can’t scurry out of the way? Store merchandise is often positioned too high, and sometimes too low, to comfortably reach. Shopping bags are heavy. Doors are heavy, too, especially in the wind, and people are impatient with anything-or anyone-holding up their healthy holiday momentum. And it’s really lonely. Like most people, I suppose I’d like to think I knew all of this already, that I was sympathetic, a proud champion of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But of course, as I sit here on my new blue exercise ball, the one my ever-compassionate husband bought and inflated for me last night, in my cozy office, with the number of a physical therapist (covered by insurance) taped to my computer and the promise that this will get better and  only last as long as the pregnancy assuaging my earlier panic, I know my sympathy is conditional. It’s limited. With each steadier step, I forget the slush and the heavy doors.

So for now, for all of us, a small offering:

A dear friend has been dealing with health issues as well, and last night I sent her a text: “What is happening to us?!”

She wrote back, “Yeah, we’re falling apart! PB’s response [PB stands for Pastor Betty, our beloved faith leader]: ‘Not falling apart, just life. God is the glue!'”

Now, I’m anthropologist enough to respectfully recognize all the ways that last sentence can be understood, interpreted, ignored. But if God is love-which is what I think-then my glue is that blue ball. And it’s umpteen unexpected emails from old friends and friendly acquaintances, and the Serbian building manager who always says, “How are you two doing?” when he sees (pregnant) me. It’s the elderly women who swim silently, steadily past me at the pool, the generous midwife, the ever-present parents, the dog who slows down-just a little-when I reach for his leash. It’s all the neighbors who smile and ask how I’m feeling and pass along sweet hand-me-down baby clothes and their kids’ favorite worn-out story books. It’s the loved ones who are facing their own sorrows and discomforts and still show up, sometimes even to celebrate. It’s the sparkling eyes of our childbirth class instructor and the warm hugs of so many other kind, vulnerable soon-to-be parents. It’s the patience we found in a crowded Target parking lot. It’s me, and maybe you, when we look out for someone who’s moving a little slower than us. There you have it. There’s the glue.

Merry Christmas.


1 November, or Why Geese Matter

Welcome, November.

I apparently missed all of October on this web-log, so an explanation:

– We grew very serious about purchasing a home, then through what must have been a million conversations, many of them in the front seat of a silent car, many more with tears, chose to wait.

– We are currently growing very serious about purchasing a new car. This is a more tender process to me, if only because Little Pig, our Volvo with 210,000 (and counting) miles, has carried us over many, many mountain passes, literal and metaphorical. I’m sad that she is a bit too small, and a bit too precarious, to carry Baby.

– We traveled to Boston, separately, in one week.

– We learned more about the health and sex of little side(or front?)kick, and we finally, finally! found a nurse midwife who dispenses the thoughtful advice and hugs and commitment we’ve so badly wanted.

Taken together, this is probably the steepest learning curve I’ve ever encountered. I’m grateful it comes with naps.


It also comes with the very unexpected, very quiet occasional heartache.

I woke up to the sound of geese flying high above our house this morning. In a city, the presence of geese means the presence of goose poop, of angry beaks that snap at a curious dog, of something to avoid at the beach. In the rest of my life, or my earlier life, geese signal something else. They accompany the sharp, crisp smell of autumn leaves. They fly overhead as I walk across brittle, knobby marsh grasses or run through empty corn fields. Somehow, in some magnificent and almost embarrassing way, the  honking and flapping wings this morning made my memories rush in: an icy nose, hot, homemade doughnuts, stomping boots, beloved, now unfamiliar men in blaze orange, moonlit hikes, tracing the sandy edge of the Baraboo River with my dad.

I lay tucked below a quilt, my husband’s arm around my belly, and listened to the call and response overhead. At times like these, my heart feels such urgency, and such a magnificent and almost embarrassing desire to give Baby other geese, and that fresh air, and those memories.

September 26: Peace this Thursday

Monster dog Walden ran with me and a new friend last night, careening between us for nearly six miles and making mad-dash attempts to greet every runner, bicyclist, skunk and dog we encountered on the lakefront trail. “Will he be able to keep up?” asked the friend when she met us at our house. I laughed. In the end, it was me who couldn’t keep up. As the miles blurred by with conversation (and the intense concentration it took to not trip over the dog), I was vaguely conscious of how foreign our speed felt. Not frightened or intimidated, but aware.

With serious, breathless effort, I mentioned that Walden had already run once with my husband that day. “They go about three miles, but I think the pace is a little slower than this.”

“Slower than this?!” she asked, incredulously.

Oh my gosh. I thought. What has happened to me?

I woke up today remembering how much time I spent wishing for a running partner about a year ago. (And indeed, in the paralysis that I often allow to accompany major life transitions, lots more wishing was done than actually talking to people.) But here we are, a year later, with a kitchen drawer full of the crumpled race bibs my husband and I collected over the summer, and the patchwork-quilt beginnings of a church family, a band family, a family-family.

There have been mornings lately when I feel anything but rested, with so many surreal dreams and uncomfortable sleeping positions keeping me up for hours at a time. I don’t run then, but lay in bed, blearily watching my husband as he puts on his shorts and t-shirt and grabs a handful of kibble-bribes for Walden. As they leave, I feel almost homesick for the long training runs we did together in July. It’s nice to run with him, just like it was nice to move and laugh and talk with my tough running partner last night.

Of course, in the slow miles I’ve been putting in on the dark mornings alone, and now sometimes in the pool, I imagine in my heart that this is actually the closest, and the quietest, time I will share with someone else in my life. While I remain profoundly, pathetically envious of my spouse’s ability to drink beer, sleep through the night, avoid succumbing to tears over things like dishes in the sink, and on and on, I also feel a twinge of remorse to know he is forever external to the intimacy of these (however slow) stretches of movement. I also- very selfishly- worry about whether we’ll be able to find time in the future to run again, just the two of us.

So here’s to the mysteries of the day, and here’s to winter, which is always nice to anticipate:

September 18th: The Weight of Commitment (and My Pregnant Body)

Today marks our third anniversary, as well as the third time I’ve now been weighed in front of my husband. The first celebration, that of three years together, is an active one. We work hard for these milestones, putting our best energy- even at our emptiest- into so many serious conversations and well-worn routines and surprising decisions and careful plans. The second commemoration is entirely passive. “Step on the scale,” says the nurse at the midwife’s office, and I shuffle over. She slides the weights to the right, then a little more, and a little more. My husband cranes his neck so he can see. I wrinkle up my nose at him, thinking, “What are you doing?” but he’s focused entirely on the numbers, not me. It should be noted that while I’ve never been particularly bothered about my weight, I also spent my early years on a farm and am not unfamiliar with the preparation of livestock for market. The “Ok! Great!” I receive from everyone at the new, higher number is unnerving. I’m proud to be healthy, but I also feel like a prized pet.

As the scale numbers go up, my running slows down. This is not surprising, of course, and I contemplate these changes with curiosity. Even wonder.

Example: This Monday was a perfect fall day, and at 5 am, my mental running checklist indicated an equally perfect run: crisp wind, the sweet, damp scent of turning leaves, quiet streets, good energy, teeth brushed. Check, check, check. I ran for more than an hour, and then, because I was running so slowly- but with such exertion!- I walked. The wonder enters in here because I didn’t feel defeated at all. I also didn’t tell myself, “The next run will be better,” because really: Will it? I don’t know what “better” even means these days, nor do I, admittedly a little on the severe side when it comes to running, care. [I’m typing this with an eyebrow raised, I’m so surprised.] I will probably keep getting slower. And then, because my body is intricately, mysteriously linked to this tiny thing I know I will love very much, I will probably stop running in the winter, my most treasured time to be outdoors. What if it’s icy? What if I lose my balance? So in-tune with my body, I try to imagine not trusting it. The thought is foreign today, but will be less so, perhaps, in a few months.

I started this blog long ago by keeping track of the miles I logged and the number of other runners (and sometimes dogs) I spotted. These days, I measure things differently- in pounds, weeks, trimesters. Perhaps a year from now, on our fourth anniversary, long after I can be bothered about whether or not my teeth are brushed before a run, I will mark time from the arrival of a very small someone. For the time being, though, I observe my growing body, proud of the miles it’s covering. And I celebrate fifteen years of friendship- and three years of marriage- with curiosity and wonder.


August 31, 2013: My friends, the mountains

I’m back in Seattle for a whole week, visiting beloved friends, touching base with my university home, breathing very, very deeply.

This trip, I’m staying at a favorite professor’s home in Ballard. The walls of my bedroom are painted a pale olive green and lined with colorful prints of hummingbirds, seascapes, an Elizabethan promenade, a market, a baby. There are old etched vessels on the window sills, overlapping patterned rugs on the floor, and shelves boasting of book after book on France and French cuisine. Why leave this room? I wonder.

But I did this morning, early.

Before I left for this trip, I sat with my husband as we ate dinner and made a list of everyone I couldn’t wait! to see in Seattle. It was a long list, seemingly longer than ever as more old friends have relocated – or re-relocated- to the Pacific Northwest. And at the bottom of the list: the Cascades. The Olympics. The Sound. How to explain a a friendship with things absolutely impervious to you, and so unswayed by your admiration?

I was out the door by 5:30 today, running up, up, up a long, straight hill north. I craned my head toward the space of sky where the colors had begun easing from clear blue to violet, from violet to grey rose, then to tangerine and gold, gold, gold. There were trees, though, and roof lines, and no matter how long I looked to the east, I just saw more color and more of the silhouetted neighborhood skyline. But then when I was high enough, and north enough, I crossed a road and stood very still: There you are, I thought, my heart tender.

I don’t run alone these days and haven’t for nearly 3 months; I now have a little sidekick who is due to be born in March. I can’t wait to tell this person that she or he was in the smallest of ways with me when I stayed there, in the middle of the street, staring out at the blue ridges of the Cascades on a Saturday morning.

I chastised myself for a long time after we moved to Chicago: What was my problem? Why was I so unhappy? Why couldn’t I adjust? But today, when I finally left that street and turned west and ran on a ridge overlooking the Puget Sound, so many tiny sailboats and cruise ships and tug boats below, the jagged edges of Mt. Constance and Warrior Peak far across the water, I wanted to laugh. To really laugh, to shed nearly two years of guilt and sorrow and say with gentleness: Are you kidding? Do you see this? Of course it was hard! And while I don’t want to move back to this magic, contradictory, absurd, wonderful -and often devastatingly rainy- place, I know for certain that it wasn’t crazy to love it so deeply and forgivingly.  And it wasn’t crazy to infuse my future in Chicago with a longing for the past; it may have made me feel crazy, but it was also natural. It was the sort of response that anyone who inhabits the profoundly insecure and surprising space of Life might cling to, but then slowly, it fades away and we stand quietly and blessedly in the present.

I breathe and run on.

July 14: What Could be There

It occurs to me now that much of the struggle of writing and running and living is deciding between 1) what is missing and 2) what could be there. They’re two different things, even though it might not seem like it right away.

Since moving back to the Midwest, I’ve tended to work very hard to identify everything I have missed about Seattle and, correspondingly, everything about Chicago that has made me feel sad, angry, disappointed, small. As dismal as it sounds, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad exercise- so long as it finds an end in Something Different. “What is missing” helps one identify “What could be there.”

When I was very small, I would sometimes stay overnight at my grandparents’ home. It was a beautiful house, with cedar shingles and big windows and wooden toys my grandfather made and a wood stove and, in the winter, hot chocolate with marshmallow fluff. It was still more beautiful on the outside. Set high on a bluff, the hilly yard stretched down to an enormous vegetable garden and to an orchard of strong, gnarled trees. There were trees one would never imagine in Wisconsin but which my grandfather might have started from the pit of a peach he ate for lunch- things like that. There were roses and peonies and a trellis heavy with grapes, and then where the lawn ended there was woods- hundreds of acres of shadows and sweet smelling beech nuts and worn paths and wild apples and cows. It’s the cows that signal the “what could be there,” but I’m not to that part yet.

Yesterday, my husband and I ran the “Dances with Dirt” half marathon in Baraboo, a race not too far from my grandparents’ house. It was his first half and my third, if I count a 14-miler on Cougar Mountain. A few weeks ago, I slid into my bossy ways and insisted on a long hill run: “The race is going to be hilly. We’re not training on hills. This is going to kick your ass.” But after eleven miles on hilly roads in Wisconsin, our asses were only slightly kicked. I was pleased; my spouse was pleased. We mapped our run and learned it had a total climb of 700 feet. The race course elevation was 900 feet, only an additional 200. Very do-able. We gave one another high fives.

The next day, he emailed me from work. The subject line read, “I’ve made a huge mistake,” and in the body of the message, there was a link to the race information page. When I clicked on it I saw: “Course elevation: 1900 feet.”


I could write for days about the race. I could write a book about the race. It was one of the happiest, most grueling, most wonderful times of our shared life together. The trails were narrow, absurdly steep, muddy in some spots, dry and rocky in others. We ran under a humid web of forest and out in breezy, open fields, along rock climbing posts at Devil’s Lake and on stretches of trail I’ve run a hundred times, but always alone. I’m not sure how many other runners there were, but there we were, jostling and vying for the lead on some of the toughest climbs, only to fall back for a sip of water, a sprained ankle, a photo op. Our paths crossed with runners doing the full marathon, the 50 k, the 50 miler, the 10 k- and again and again, my heart swelled with so many shouts of encouragement sung out between muddy, sweat-covered people of all ages. I was in love, and often in a great deal of pain. I fell once, my stinging palms and bloody knee instantly awakening memories of grade school recess. I fell again on the final descent, a wild trip that sent my hand, then hip, then head slamming into a tree trunk. I couldn’t breathe very well after that, but so much anticipation and adrenaline strengthened my arms, and my feet flew.

And somewhere in the middle of the race, I thought: This is me. This is me at my very best and happiest. This is the “what could be there” in my future, and what is there now.

Earlier in the course, pain shot constantly through my feet, my knees, my belly. And then it stopped. I ran on.

Earlier, it was very quiet, and our words with one another were sharp:

Him (breathing heavily): These rocks are really hurting my feet.

Me (breathing heavily, possibly crying a little): It’ll get better soon.

Him (voice raising): Well, you’re wearing shoes with thick soles.

Me (voice raised): And those are the shoes I chose to wear, just like you CHOSE to wear minimalist shoes.

But then the path plateaued, if only for a couple of minutes, and our laughter resumed.

Earlier, my mind raced with the list of general life stresses, and then it dissipated. We listened to the bird songs and ran through a blur of green. I was free.

When I stayed overnight at my grandparents’ house, I slept in a corner bedroom that had pale green walls. In my memory of this, it is always summer. The windows are open but they are too high above the bed; I can’t see out of them. Though just awake, I am keenly awake, watching the slow twist of the lace curtains and smelling the fresh breezes of dew and cool leaves. I hear the swish of trees and the tiger lillies brushing against the side of the house and the cows bellowing deep in the woods. What I’m recalling here smacks of nostalgia, of course, and yet it is also persistently real. It is me. So just as the “what is missing” informs the “what could be there,” so too does the “what was there” tend to explain everything I so often miss.

But I found it this weekend- and in joy and grace and thanksgiving the person I love the most shared it with me, along with so many others I came to love that morning.