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July 14: What Could be There

July 15, 2013

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.”

Huh.

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.

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