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February 23, 2013: Faith, and Bronchitis

February 23, 2013

I have not run in 8 days.

When I was eleven, I came down with pneumonia three days before my much-anticipated sixth grade field trip to Washington, D.C. This wasn’t just any field trip. For one, it served as a reward for all of us poor shmucks who signed up for school safety patrol at the beginning of the year. At the tiny Lutheran school I attended, in a tiny Wisconsin town, this meant standing for what seemed like forever (twenty minutes? A half hour?) at the lonely corner of Cass St. and West Emmett every afternoon, bored and most likely ruining a perfectly good pair of shoes in the damp snow. On a good day, I bet I helped one kid cross the road. Also, there was never any traffic. And do you remember the coarse, yellow shoulder strap crossing guards had to wear? I could never work the clunky metal clasp, and it hung like a stiff, over-sized seat belt across my winter coat. I hated it.

So when spring came, a trip to Washington, D.C. felt hard-earned and well-deserved. As our departure date approached, we giggled and gossiped and flirted with one another and proudly tried on the stop-sign red Wisconsin sweatshirts we were given, the ones that would keep us within sight of our weary parent-chaperones. And then I got sick. I had a fever and chills and night sweats, and I slept all the time. Knowing her youngest daughter’s penchant for fury, my mother, bless her, let me sleep and stayed positive. And then she corralled me and took me to the doctor, where we learned I had pneumonia. I didn’t know much about pneumonia, and upon returning home, I set out to prove everyone wrong. I climbed on my bike and pedaled as hard as I could up the hill near our house and down a quiet road for about five miles. After I turned the clunky bicycle around to ride home, I cried hot, furious tears and my curly hair snarled in the wind. (I am still, admittedly, a little so-so about wearing a bike helmet). I knew I couldn’t go. The truth I hadn’t told any of my classmates is that this would have been my first real trip.

My parents pretty consistently took us on little adventures around the state, of course. We did a lot of free things: we hiked and picnicked and swam, visited obscure state parks, went to the Milwaukee domes, toured the Madison Children’s Museum, the Historical Society, etc., etc.- together, these are exactly what makes my freak flag the Proud Outdoorsy-Nerd type. Once, we went to the Mall of America. It was my first time out of Wisconsin. I’m not ashamed of any of this, but I think I was a little at the time, especially around kids who went to Disney World EVERY YEAR with their families. Today, I would confidently situate Disney-themed anything, along with cruises, in the third circle of Dante’s hellAt the time, it sounded pretty fun.

I didn’t get to go to Washington, D.C. with everyone else.

But in a little bit of strange serendipity (if death or sixth grade can ever be serendipitous), my great-aunt died not long after and left my parents some money. They used it to buy a new septic tank, interestingly, and to rent a mini-van to take the whole family to Washington, D.C. It was perfect. My dad and I geeked out at various Smithsonian museums; my sister and mother shopped. And to show for it, we have the requisite family photo that sums up both family vacations and the 90s: my sister sporting big bangs and a mean scowl, my mom with a near-mullet perm, my dad looking happy and distracted, and me with a fluorescent fanny-pack, thick, plastic-framed glasses, and a big toothy smile. Yes! Perfect.

I have bronchitis. Last Saturday, I noticed a strange, sharp pain on the right side of my chest every time I laughed or coughed. This was a little disconcerting, but easy to ignore given I was having the second annual time of my life at Book Across the Bay. (The first was spectacular, and duly noted.) I returned to Chicago on Sunday night, started feeling crummy on Monday, felt terrible on Tuesday, went to Urgent Care twice, cancelled all my classes and wound up with a stack of library books and three days in the same sweatshirt. Save the incessant coughing, exhaustion, and stuffy nose, it’s actually not been bad.  Waking up wheezing at 2:00 a.m. meant I could spend the better part of two and a half hours reading Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life (after you fall in love with the book, you can find her here), admiring the streaks of chocolate on page 312 where previous library patrons had attempted “The Winning Hearts and Minds Cake,” and jolting when our sweet cat suddenly popped her head over the top of the book, black eyes green in the bright flashlight beam.

While bronchitis means books and soup and some especially lovely conversations with my spouse, it also means that I shouldn’t run, just like someone shouldn’t race a bicycle when she has pneumonia. I bring up sixth grade for a reason, for I think it represents a constant in my life, a slightly unhealthy fear of being unhealthy (the irony)- a fear of becoming breathless, of losing my strong arms and legs and heart, of slowing my momentum, of ironing out the fold of my identity that moves.  To that end, I’ve had some pretty spectacularly bad runs- occasions where I ran even though I was exhausted, or really sad, or in a thunderstorm, or because I just ate a big bowl of ice cream (and, no surprise, consequently threw up in a bush). I imagine most of us run like this, to find something while simultaneously staving off something else, like mushy muscles, or death.

It would be nice, I think, to focus a bit more on the former.

“Faith” has been on my mind a lot this year, how it’s a handy term in certain circles but also profoundly difficult to understand, let alone exercise. In other words, faith is tough, and so are some of faith’s counterparts, like hope and anticipation. Weirdly, bronchitis has given me a place to start. I know better than to run, but I also know that I’ll soon run again, that I’ll again feel proud and strong. As it turns out, faith is easier when it rests on a route you can trace in your memory. When it comes to running, my route is etched with pauses: stress fractures in college, near-smothering pollution and humidity in Chengdu, shin splints in 2006, too much wine and a bad neighborhood in Berkeley, the occasional- but certainly not every- winter storm. But after the pauses, I ran, and when I no longer have coughing spasms every time someone makes me laugh, I’ll run again. Slowly at first, but without panicking or resenting the slowness. I’ve not yet considered how other unwanted or anxiety-filled pauses (and their successful, peaceful, motion-filled counterparts) may evoke feelings of faith, but I imagine opportunities will arise.

For now, I stretch and read and drink tea.


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  1. Wonderfully written (as always). It brings to mind missing our 8th grade class trip for chicken pox. Not the real chicken pox but the lame, only 3-6 red marks but still technically infectious chicken pox.

    I’d send you a card with 2 quarters AND a stick of gum taped inside if you post the DC family picture. Tell Jen I made you do it.

  2. Better get your quarters ready. If you promise to not tell Jenny, I’ll grab the photo the next time I’m in Portage. 🙂
    It’s almost as classic as teenage Nick in his super-short shorts…

    • toasthaiku permalink

      Weighing the shame of my 80’s shorts vs. Jen’s side pony tail gives me pause. But I say go with it because my 80’s legs were most studly whereas nobody’s youthful hair looks good.

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