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The Third Day of Summer

It is the third day of summer.

On the first day of summer, this past Friday, I sat awkwardly on the edge of a seat in our car, slathering bread with hummus. Thunderous, blustery waves of rain rushed against the fogged-up windows. My husband munched on chips. The dog sat on the back seat, singing out questions in melodies I suspect are unique to beagle-mixes. Around us, the branches of so many trees whipped and swirled, their leaves flipping front to back, fluorescent green to grey.

Summer.

For the past many years, summer has been my least favorite season. There are a number of things I like about summer, of course- cantaloupe, my birthday, bird songs, humid mornings- small and sort of selfish pleasures. Yet summer always feels very liminal to me; I don’t see it as some magnificent culmination of sand and barbeques, festivals and family get-togethers. If anything, the days stretch on too long, and the nights are sticky and loud. I long for cooler weather, for the silent changeover when everyone else goes inside and my spirit is quieted in the windy, sweet-smelling shadows of autumn. I think this has a lot to do with living in an urban environment, which I can do but- as my patient husband will attest- not without some sorrow and frustration.

While it’s only the third day in, and I’m hesitant to make any grand claims, this summer has so far treated me well. I think it’s because it started wrong.  Everything was wrong when we reached Kettle Moraine North on Friday for the year’s first camping trip. There was thunder and lightning, for one. The dog was antsy; we didn’t pack any rain gear; our campsite was flooded and the next-best spot, #617, was across from a group site that signalled “loud” and “chaotic” by ten or so tilting pink and green child-sized lawn chairs haphazardly ringing the campfire. When the rain slowed enough for us to hike, prehistoric-size mosquitoes swarmed our elbows and ankles. It was so bad I bitterly sprayed on bug spray, silencing my thoughts of Sandra Steingraber’s incredible, heart-breaking work on chemical contamination, which I’ve been reading a lot of lately. (Find her here.) There was mud at the trailhead and Walden got into rabbit poop and my shoes filled up with water before we were even a mile in. It was muggy and somehow still cold, hilly but flooded. And so we ran. I imagine you can see where I’m going with this: It was all wrong, and yet- as one might expect from someone who knows running to be inherently redemptive- it quickly became the most perfect start to summer. We ran breathlessly up short ridges, pausing to take in the dripping, verdant views and then splashing on, the dog careening and crashing alongside, yipping and bounding with joy. I wore shorts and a nice top, and a raincoat with pockets full of maps, a phone, keys, dog biscuits. No socks. My husband’s jeans were soaked past his knees. We didn’t plan to run, but to hike. Put differently, it was a surprise to be running, and still we spun down the moraines and through the tall grass; we charged and raced, slowing to examine a tree or a silent pause of woods, then clambering over logs and speeding around puddles.

It was a perfect start to summer. And in the spirit of surprises, there were many more: the clean breeze we stepped out into after much-appreciated lukewarm campground showers, the raucous laughter and shrieks of so many little bodies in little pink and green lawn chairs, the pale glow of colored lights strung across an old RV, the trees silhouetted in the piercing light of what would soon be the largest and fullest full moon of the year. It was a perfect and an auspicious start. We climbed into the tent and Walden tucked himself in at our feet, curling his hind legs up towards his chin and sighing so heavily his lips flapped. The children quieted and slept, then the birds, then me.

Running in the Dark

A small reflection:

It’s been a full and vibrant spring. But strangely, the one sort of hum-drum constant has been my running route.

For the past couple of months, I’ve run the same loop. I leave home in the dark, pulling on my gloves and trudging slowly toward the lake. I pick up speed on the gravel path along Lake Michigan, mostly because that’s where I can see the sun is beginning to rise- and I’m convinced that I only run well in the dark. This is not really a psychological or vampire-ish thing; the more I think about it, I’m sure it has everything to do with hills. Part of the reason that hills are so fantastic to run is because they’re deceptive: when you’re mid-way up a steep incline, you’re not sure how much farther you have to go and you don’t care. All you’re concerned with is finding something to focus on besides the hill, your burning calves, or your labored, emphysemic-sounding breathing. If these chaotic mind games work, and they usually do, you’ll climb up and coast down great distances without realizing it. You can also use hills to pre-plan a run the way I did in Seattle. This usually played out something like, “I’ll start with the hill by Baskin Robbins, then do the hill with the yellow house,  Michael Jackson hill, Wedgewood Alehouse hill, and then down the hill with the big St. Bernard.” To check off the hills one-by-one was satisfying. And to reach the top of these hills and stare out at the sun rising over the Cascades was very nice. Obviously.

As far as I’m concerned, then, a really long hill is far less daunting than a long, straight sidewalk that probably ends somewhere near Kenosha. And so if I have to run that long, straight sidewalk, I’d like to do it when it’s so dark I can only see a block or two in front of me. Snow storms have the same effect, as do scratchy contact lenses.

After the lakefront path ends, I run north on Sheridan below the white-lightning glow of Northwestern’s street lamps. Then I run past the light house, past the Baha’i temple, west on Lake Avenue and south west-ish on Green Bay Road. Some of the stretches are prettier than others, and none of them have hills. It’s okay. What’s more than okay, and what I wanted to write about anyway, is that I now have two pseudo-friends on my route. The first is an older gentleman who cleans up the Walgreens parking lot very early every morning. Given that I pass him on  the last leg of my long run and, accordingly, at the moment when my hair is frizziest and my jacket most covered in sweat, it is a real and bewildering perk that this man seems happy to see me. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to his greeting. I am also friendly with the man who delivers the Chicago Tribune on Asbury at about 5:30 am. He has a kind smile and speaks with a thick Spanish accent, and- this is pathetic- for three mornings in a row, no matter that the same thing happened the day prior, as we neared each other I heard him say, “I’m sorry,” and I smiled and called out, “No problem! Hi!” and ran on. And for three mornings in a row, after I passed him and the sleepy fog in my mind began to clear, I thought, “Oh my gosh. He said, ‘Good morning.'” Can you imagine? What would you think if the someone greeted you with, “No problem! Hi!” every morning? You would think she is crazy. And that would be very fair.

All this to say that I wonder if my friendly acquaintances are starting to be a little like hills. In the best way.

March 9, 2013: Will You be My (Running) Friend?

I have run exactly ten times with another runner.

1.)

When I lived in China, a lovely South African woman was one of my neighbors. She and I passed each other every so often in the cold, shadowy stairwell of our big concrete building, and once we met as each of us was returning from a run, our clothes equally wrinkled, our faces streaked with sweat and soot. “I didn’t know you were a runner!” she called out, appreciatively. She invited me to run together the following week. “I go so slowly,” she said, her accent melodic and, as I would decide later, deceptively relaxed. “And I only go about five or six kilometers.”  It would be my first time running with someone.

So we met up on a Saturday evening. And we ran. We ran across busy intersections. We ran through the smoke of temple incense. We ran past hundreds of tiny open storefronts where women and men stood eating noodles, or visiting, or bouncing babies in the air, or, in the spirit of a hot Saturday night, drinking beer and smoking. My fellow runner kept a quick, confident pace, high-stepping over the tilting, broken sidewalk tiles and bolting in between taxis. I rushed awkwardly behind her, thinking not so much about running as about hiding my panic (“What the —-? How much farther?”) and maintaining a mature vigilance that completely baffled my characteristic heedlessness (“What if she gets hit by a car? I don’t even know her last name! What if I get hit by a car?”).

I was used to running in the quiet, dark mornings, all alone.

After nearly an hour and a half, we looped back and arrived at the heavy black gate of our apartment building. The tiny, wrinkled gate man stood slowly, set his bowl of noodles on his chair, and opened the latch. He smiled at me and shook his head. I shook my head, too, but I didn’t smile.

It was very satisfying to run so far and so fast, to run with the clanging sounds and smoke and steamy food smells that make nightfall in China.  But it was not fun.

2.)

In Seattle, I ran a number of times with a dear friend -and a similarly stressed-out, jittery grad student- through the Washington Park Arboretum, one of the dreamier places I’ve known. We always met very early, and as our feet moved us steadily through the darkness and up the long hills, we talked animatedly about the places we’d lived, our families, Giorgio Agamben, and human rights. (Again: grad students). Our time together was made even sweeter by breezes rich with witch hazel, flowering cherry and magnolias, blossoms that lined the arboretum paths and were somehow extra vibrant in the deep, dark morning. Those were some of my favorite runs.

 

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3.)

In Seattle, I also ran in the arboretum, and sometimes through our neighborhood, with my husband. This did not always go well, most generally because marriage, I think, makes for a strange and sometimes uneasy mix of friendship, tenderness, mismatched goals, and high- perhaps unreasonably high- expectations. All of these things become very real when you run with your spouse. I’ve been running since I was thirteen; he started a few years ago. He is tall and slender, with a natural runner’s gait and a careful, steady pace. I am shorter than he is and not nearly as graceful. According to my sister, “Statz women are not meant to run. We’re meant to carry things, like mules.”  When I run, I charge full-steam for as long as possible (which is usually a pretty long time). He only runs as far as it is safe for his body to run. I like to run in places that are not necessarily easy, and where there may be snow and ice, or damp, suffocating humidity, or mountain paths riddled with jagged rocks, or bees. This is exciting to me; to him, it is not fun.

I think this means we’re actually a very good match in life. But it also makes for some trepidation in regards to running, especially after our earliest runs consisted of my motivational lies (“Just one more mile!”), not-very-tender encouragement (“Come ON”), and the complete lack of a runner’s high when it was over. He was left feeling exhausted and stressed; I, disappointed and ashamed.

4.)

My husband and I have since had a few very good runs together, but in Evanston I usually run alone or, sometimes, like today, with the dog. I’m trying very hard to muster up the courage to join a runner’s group, but not without some reluctance. Is the point of a running group to socialize, to have so much fun that you don’t even realize you’re running? Because truthfully, I want to know I’m running, to know I’m pushing hard and sweating and clearing my mind and strengthening my heart. But then, given the relative lack of comaraderie in my current little corner of life (namely, the lonely grad student/over-extended college instructor corner), some socialization would be welcome.

5.)

Stay tuned.

February 23, 2013: Faith, and Bronchitis

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.

January 26, 2013: Ice

On the first day of 2013, I fell into Lake Michigan.

The thing about the lake, and about winter, and about global warming, is that all of these things add up to something very deceptive. The waves splash over the sand, a thin sheet of ice forms (it would be thicker if this were a true Chicago winter), the wind blows great gusty swirls of sand over the ice… and on and on and on. All of these layers add up, and they often stretch out, too- to the point where the cold, gritty mass reaches far into and over the not-so-solid lake water. I think I knew this, but with all of the awe and anxiety and sleepiness typical of a new year’s day, I walked out onto the ice and fell in.

Before it happened, I stood very quietly, and for quite a while, watching the morning sun etch pink and grey mirrors into the flashing, bobbing little waves and along the paned windows of the old brick homes behind me. Our dog danced and tip-toed and sprinted sideways along the cold sand. Gulls flew overhead.

My spouse and I have been reminiscing a lot lately about our lives in Seattle. We talk about when the cat was a tiny grey puff who made a great game of climbing into our sofa. We remember delicious Pacific Northwest IPAs, sailing in the San Juans, curling (me), drinking Fireball whiskey while I curled (him), sharing love and meals with friends, roommates, new babies, my church family. I tell him about the night my girlfriends and I accidently set the oven on fire and then, with the callousness and wry humor one develops in grad school, scraped the fire extinguisher chemical powder and the charred top layer off the brownies and dug into the pan with forks and spoons. We talk about hiking up the lush, fern-lined trails of Mount Si, smelling the misty air for damp evergreens and rotting logs, and then returning to the city, parking at Top Pot, and spending long, luxurious minutes savoring old-fashioned donuts dunked in Ovaltine lattes. We don’t mention how invariably one of us, usually me, would always become irrational and irritable on the walk down Mount Si and pick fights with the other- a marital crisis that could have been averted if we had just packed more snacks. We try not to recall the exhaustion and fear wrought by so many tenuous, poorly-paying adjunct instructor positions and skimpy -but coveted- fellowship competitions, and we usually avoid the memories of tense budget talks, growing credit card debt and  the heavy, ever-present pain of not knowing where we would be in a year or how we would afford it. I am a crier, but I really cried in Seattle. I also laughed a lot, and ran a lot, and lived.

I thought about those things while I stood on the ice that morning, and then, since I think the universe may not want us to miss too much because we’re busy missing something else, the ice broke and I crashed into the water. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as expected or as reads here; all told, I was in only about a foot and a half deep. The ice and sand held and then they didn’t, and I felt strangely quiet and calm as I pulled my heavy shoes up and out and clomped to a sturdier space. My legs were white-hot. I leashed up the dog and walked home. Having faced something not nearly as threatening as it could have been, but just as momentous as it needed to be, I felt ready and sure.
photo (36)Now that I’m teaching again, and teaching some 120 students at that, most afternoons the dog and I head to a long, empty shoreline about four miles away. While I walk slowly and think about the day,  he scampers out onto the strange, frozen forms. He trots lightly up the low jagged ridges, pushing his face into the wind, then hops over each crevice with the abandon I imagine of Muir’s beloved Stickeen. Some days the water is so flecked with frozen chunks that it rises and subsides like a breath, a singular grey mass that rolls over the icy, sandy peaks that are now so many feet taller than me. I don’t let myself imagine falling in here. I stay where the ground is sure and walk firmly to the north.

photo (35)

January 20, 2013: Wind and Stars

It’s finally cold.

I set out for my beloved Sunday morning run extra early today, delayed only by sleepiness and the time-consuming layering of socks, tights, pants, shirt, vest, jacket and mittens.

You can’t imagine the place we live. An hour-long run could go be described like this: beautiful old mansion, beautiful old mansion, Lake Michigan, university, beautiful old mansion, lighthouse. Except that this morning it was windy- windy, cold, and full of stars. In this girl’s heart, “windy, cold, and full of stars” is it.

I ran toward Lake Michigan, where I found myself parallel to and nearly in sync with a big golden dog scampering loose ahead of another runner. They traced the gravel outer path and I the inside. As our paths neared a point, the man shouted to his dog, “Get over here!” He was tall and dressed in heavy running pants and a red jacket. His face was covered by a scarf or ski mask, I couldn’t tell. Made breathless by wind and pace, I called out a quiet, “Good morning.”

“Good morning!” he said, his foot-falls clomping heavy and close. “We’re the only two people out here.”

“Yeah,” I replied. And without hesitation, I added, “It’s nice.”

He laughed. At least, I think he laughed: it was hard to tell from below my stocking-cap, and from under his scarf. We ran side by side, then he turned east as I continued north.

As the loud rhythm of his steps faded, my thoughts turned in. Take away the running. If I were to encounter a stranger who said that, and in the near-dark beside Lake Michigan’s icy waves, my eyes would flare, my heart fire, my feet race me away. Yet to rebuild the scene, to add in a lion of a dog, a mess of clashing, wicking, woolly running gear, my quick smile and his frank observation, it’s fine. It’s nice, even. It’s transformed from the frightening echo of warning I imagine myself running from to an unexpected affirmation, a welcome into a brief running partnership based on hardiness and craziness and all-out love of THIS, winter.

Who’s Counting Anymore: A Reflection

Almost exactly one year ago, my husband and I moved from Seattle to Wisconsin. We planned it nearly to the minute: he would pick me up on University Ave, where I would walk after helping proctor a final exam, and we would drive east on 90. That’s it. My emotions were electric as I strolled the stairs in the lecture hall, watching students desperately fill one blue book page after another. I was impatient, introspective, full of anticipation and, if I stilled my thoughts for a moment, very sad. I missed my dear friends, and we hadn’t yet left.

The exam-taking ended early, and I walked slowly to a dim coffee shop, where I (for once) very easily put aside the constant threat of our limited, and most likely diminishing, income and ordered a latte and a croissant. I sat on a stool and waited for our over-packed car to arrive and thought of nothing. The dry, buttery flakes stuck to my wind-burned lips as I watched the rain out the window. The espresso was bitter, and comforting.

We live in Evanston now. It’s easy to say that we moved here from Chicago for my spouse’s job. But like anything,  that’s not entirely true: we also admitted defeat. After much reflection, I now believe there’s something absolutely tremendous about moving on. I didn’t think I was “moving on” when I climbed into our exploding blue car that day in Seattle. I still don’t. But after a white-hot summer in Chicago, a summer of fireworks shot off in our alley at night, of heart-breaking headlines every Monday morning, of toxic neighbors and so much concrete, we left. Now, we live on the second floor of a rambling old house.

It’s beautiful.

In the afternoon, I walk our pup six blocks to the beach. He pulls on the leash as we near it, and if I say, “Ok! Let’s run,” he lunges forward and we careen along the jagged sidewalks and across meticulously-landscaped lawns until we reach the sand. And then he’s off-leash and we zigzag and bolt toward the water and make long slow circles and chase one another and sometimes he yelps in great bursts, he’s so happy. On the day he saw gulls for the first time, he ran full-speed along the water’s edge, a tiny black blur against the pale greens and blues and grays of the horizon. The only other person on the beach, a woman moving slowly and carefully through a yoga sequence, straightened up, hands on hips, and watched him.

The old men I talk with at another dog beach call Walden “fearless.” And one man, when he forgets the dog’s name, shouts in a gruff voice, “Hey, Baby! Get over here, Baby!”

*****

This whole little web-log started with some lines I pasted to my Oprah vision board (yes, I have one) last December. It’s Tennyson:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

It’s just one verse of a really beautiful poem, one that speaks of grief and frustration and gratitude and anxiety- emotions I might draw on to characterize this small year of my life. For despite our colorful flat and close proximity to the beach, some days it is still very hard for me to muster up a positive counter-point to the tedious, unrecognized, and often tenuous realities of my (and I imagine most other PhD students’) present. I still don’t have very many friends. I still haven’t made much progress on my dissertation. I still don’t know how to demand more, or something different, of myself, to not feel insufficient all the time, to not feel emotionally immobile.

*****

One afternoon before the weather changed and the snow came, I walked the dog to the beach. It was a cool day and the sun was low. I was tired and distracted and didn’t want to run, so we watched the slow waves crawl up the sand and slip away. We listened to spare dry leaves flip and crackle in otherwise empty branches. We walked along the dirt trail, then turned west to go home.

And rather than tug on his leash (for Walden never wants to leave the water), I simply picked him up and walked slowly below the massive stone wall of one of the neighborhood’s massive stone homes. And rather than resist, he curled up against my chest and rested his chin on my shoulder. And for about a minute, I was no longer a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt with a puppy and a million anxieties and must-do’s, but a little girl cradling a little dog on a breezy afternoon, safe and free.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

“Ring Out, Wild Bells,” Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1850

Run 59: Roots in the Water

Miles: 6.5

Strange that I’ve never written about running in the town where I was raised.

My sweetheart, pup, and I drove north for my birthday weekend, and I realized soon in that what I really wanted for my birthday, what I wanted even more than coffee flown in from Seattle (thank you, dear husband), more than great, laughing conversations with my family, more than a dreamy afternoon nap under the trees, was a quiet morning run by the river.

So I set out for said run on Saturday morning, and despite a rather inauspicious start (specifically the 6 am collision of puppy wiggles, spouse sleepiness and my frustratingly unbending Type A-ness), I fell into the car and drove to town and parked at the river and breathed very, very deep. I am a freshwater girl. I grew  up sliding the thick ice of the Baraboo River with my dad and playing on Wisconsin River sandbars with my sister, swimming under the Lake Superior stars and in the green-blue-grey waters of Devil’s Lake. While I did come to love the icy salt of my Pacific Ocean home, the vastness of wind and water left me a little too awake, too bare and exposed. With the waters I know, on the other hand, I am my best self. I am calm, assured, eyes open. I am very, very good at crossing rivers on rocks or fallen trees. And when I run by water, water I know, I can fun forever. I’m not scared of anything.

The Wisconsin was like a mirror on Saturday, its surface a blade of silver. Mist and sky hung above it, an indistinguishable blend of magenta and amber, and two herons stood in the sand. And the smell was the smell of river- of cold earth and damp reeds and fish and death and  tree roots and blossoms and refuse and swallows and willows. I ran forward to Edgewater Street, a street where for years I have made a great secret sport of silently naming who lives in the houses I pass. I know almost every one- the local pharmacist and his grouchy wife, my 9th grade chemistry teacher (whose spouse read War and Peace in a single weekend after they made a bet about whether she could or not), my favorite librarian, the mother of the boy who took me to Homecoming long ago, a local judge, on and on. This makes me either pathetic or the product of a small town. The houses are pretty and old, flanked by big trees and flower pots and American-made vehicles.

I ran on, up the hill by the old hospital, down along the silent boat landing (really just a road into the water), and to the dark side of River Street, where a deep, marshy woods is still and shadowy to the left and the steep hill of a cemetery reaches to the right. I always raced through this stretch when I was younger, my heart beating so hard I was sure everyone could hear it. But what’s worse, there’s actually never anyone in this corner, just the hot pulsing of bugs and water and the clattering swish of trees. I didn’t race on Saturday. I ran steadily, to the bend in the road where the road sign (which indicates there’s a bend in the road) is covered in green vines, and up the hill. I passed the house of an old boyfriend’s grandparents, the old boyfriend whose brother died this summer. My breath caught in my throat. So much change, I thought, as my feet slapped against the road, the road I’ve run a million times, the hill I’ve run a million times, the things that are still there, that I’ve always known.

I passed more cemeteries and the highway department and a gas station and the airport (“airport”) and Silver Lake and enormous old brick houses by the empty train station and the police station and the downtown (“downtown”) and St. Mary’s church, where three beautiful white flags fly vertically, like the white and yellow flags that flapped so loudly in Tibet.

I ran back to the river, now a choppy mix of purple and sweet-smelling breezes, still there for me at age 29.

Run 57: With (a lot of) Help from My Friends

Miles: 8

Other runners: 0

Here’s how most of my web-log posts have started this summer: “shenme shenme shenme… It’s hot, and I cry a lot.”

This one is going to start like that. Except, it won’t really be about the heat or crying or running, and it will end with death and love, like a good story should.

***

It was hot on Friday and I cried ALL DAY. I’m perpetually concerned that I have skin cancer, and so the only break in crying was a visit to a dermatologist who I will never, ever, ever see again. How any doctor can distinguish what may or may not be potentially cancerous while examining someone in the dimmest of dimly-lit rooms is a question that shouldn’t have to be asked. It was like being in a cave, a cave where everyone speaks Spanish or Polish.

So I cried afterwards, and then my mother-in-law called and gave me what may have been the best pep-talk of my life (which I can’t accurately summarize here, as some of it was in Farsi) and then my husband left and I was all alone. So I did what anyone who needs a little bit of gentleness does: I made myself a bowl of gnocchi with lots of Parmesan cheese, had some salad, and read a magazine.

And then I went for a run. It was dusk when I set out, and I was startled by how much time had passed since my last time running this long-run route. Flowery blooms now covered wire fences, obscuring my view of the gravel and concrete that lay beyond. Homes that once stood tall and severe now looked unkempt, colorful toys strewn in the yard, flowers dancing and trampled along the sidewalk. Kids roared by on Big Wheels when I crossed the concrete path circling the baseball field, the gravelly grumble of their plastic tires echoing below the bright lights.  There was a soccer game being played in the dark at a church lot, and everyone- no matter how old, young, athletic, not- wore shiny, brightly-colored jerseys. People shouted in Spanish and drank Gatorade and ran and talked and goofed and hugged, and two men greeted me cheerfully when I passed. I’m always the first one to say hello, but not this time. What a welcome, enormous shift. I felt good, really good, when I got home.

The next day took me to northwest Wisconsin. It was one of those really wonderful days, with the most beautiful friends, the sweet smells of summer, wine and cheese (probably too much cheese), and the sorts of laughter and honesty you can only share with people you’ve known a very long time. In the middle of one round of wine and cheese (and gin and tonics and chocolate martinis and cider, if I’m to be really honest), one of my wisest and most dear friends looked at me squarely and said, “Michele, you’ve got to get out of Chicago.” She said she had been reading this, my web-log.

I protested: “But I’ve been trying hard to be more positive! Doesn’t it sound more positive?”

“It sounds like you feel really guilty.”

The sky was so dark and the moon so bright through the window, I couldn’t sleep. Sure, I feel guilty! I was 50% of the decision to move to Chicago. Chicago is my husband’s hometown. It’s a city that some of my favorite people love, the place where they’ve made their lives. Who am I to complain about a place I agreed to move to? What sort of elitism or smug “progressive” privilege do I carry when I bemoan the heat and high crime rate and enormous SUVs and lack of recycling pick-up and good coffee (and mountains and oceans and tall pines)… Am I too focused on “getting out” or “getting by” to notice the struggles and fears of my neighbors who are perhaps too busy to be concerned with beauty and peace? Or perhaps they’re more easily and richly content, perhaps they’ve found those things here?

I had a long talk with my husband later, and we both promised to never utter the words “make the best of it” again. We’re still in Chicago, obviously, but I am closer to the point where I can honestly, and unapologetically write that I do not like living in Chicago. It doesn’t mean I don’t like Chicago, or that I don’t fiercely love the family or friends who live here. It just means that it is not the place where I find beauty and peace. That’s a step.

I started this web-log to be accountable. About a month after we moved here, I realized that I was no longer eager to go out for a run, that I still hadn’t found anything particularly interesting that would motivate me, no space I could reach to and enjoy and visit again and again. There were no wild gardens, no steep climbs, no wide expanses of sky or clean rushes of air.  So I started a web-log: I would just have to find funny or profound or starkly beautiful things on my runs, and then I would write about them. And I certainly have found those things, sometimes. Not always.

Wednesday marked what would have been the 102 birthday of my Granny Statz. She died last year. She was the most beautiful woman, and she was very proud. She always put on lipstick, even when she was old and not feeling well, and she wore pumps and nice earrings and gracefully waved the long-fingers of her right hand in quick twists along with whatever music she was listening to. I catch myself doing that sometimes, and it makes me feel proud as well, like I’ve inherited a little magic, a little strength. She loved her life. That, I think, is what made people love her most. She loved her life, and then she died. I think about her every day.

We got a puppy on Tuesday- a wriggly, stinky, bright-eyed puppy we named Walden. It’s tiring to raise a puppy, particularly when you really care that the puppy learns manners and doesn’t pee in the house and doesn’t chase the cat (etc., etc.). Little puppy woke us last night and, as it was my turn to take him out, I gathered his squirming warm body from the crate and walked outside. It was pouring! Real rain, with thunder and lightning and wind. I felt terribly alive, particularly with a little warm baby in my arms, shaking and licking my face. He was too distracted to go to the bathroom, so at 3 am on a Friday morning, I found myself sitting comfortably on a chair in the quiet light of our living room, a puppy chewing a toy on the floor and a cat watching, sleepy-eyed, on the couch. I felt very tired and also very content. I wonder these days if maybe we’re made up of a million pieces of love, and maybe if we’re lucky we get to give those little pieces of love away until there just aren’t any left, and that’s it. Puppy, cat, husband, dear friends, family… The idea is comforting to me.

A blanket that was on my grandma’s bed now covers Walden’s crate. If I lean close, I smell her.

The First Day of Autumn is Saturday, September 22nd…

… and I can’t wait.

I’ve been avoiding this little web-log for a while, as I have been the absolute worst version of myself for the past week. (Admittedly, this could be more of a “summer” than a “week” thing.) I’ve felt like an over-tired, hot, sticky-haired seven year old girl, starting each day with enthusiasm and rapidly wilting into despair and frustration with the first unexpected challenge. Said challenges include: road construction outside our bedroom window, jerks who don’t stop for pedestrians (this extends, sadly, to Chicago cops, and it also reflects the incredible extent to which I was spoiled in SeattleThePromisedLandofPedestrians); the general insecurity of our family finances; the flatness of Chicago; and any number of petty, relatively-meaningless glitches that only matter when one is lonely and hot.

So! I’m writing today because this emphasis on petty, relatively-meaningless glitches has become habitual and I want out.

Here is some good news:

  • In exactly 52 days it will be fall. And everyone knows that fall is delicious.
  • My husband and I submitted an application to adopt a shelter puppy, and it was approved! I don’t know when we’ll add a little Pups Mcgee to our home, but I can’t wait. Cat McGee, in the meantime, remains her adorable, festive self. Here she is, begrudgingly helping us send my sister a happy birthday message:
  • The Olympics are taking place. That’s always nice.
  • The Affordable Care Act went into effect yesterday. And while this is a web-log about running, I think it’s worth noting- and celebrating!- how great it is that insurance companies can no longer deny benefits to kids with pre-existing conditions, and they now have to pay for an annual well-woman check up, and increased counseling and support will be available to victims of domestic violence  and new moms (among other things). There’s a lot of bullshit in this nation, and I am happy to support -with my voice, taxes, etc.- a measure that extends a slightly more just and compassionate hand to my neighbors and me.
  •  I played hooky with my husband yesterday and visited Starved Rock State Park. It was beautiful, and after a long hike we sat in the shade and ate cold fried chicken. Try and top that. I can’t.
  • Every Wednesday night, I teach GED Math. It’s a tough gig for someone who’s not really great at math, and also tough because my students hail from Romania, Chicago, Pakistan, Atlanta, Iraq, and also, sometimes, from prison. They have different language and math abilities, and very different levels of self-confidence, and together they form the most supportive, enthusiastic, ready-to-laugh group of people you can imagine. I can’t believe how lucky  I am to spend time with them each week.
  • The park near our house doesn’t suck- in fact, it’s very beautiful- and it also has a free Olympic-sized pool. So a couple days ago I swam slow laps around the overly-cologned eastern European men who drifted slowly from one side of the pool to the other. It wasn’t easy at first: you can smell that cologne under water, and that  makes it really hard to focus, let alone breathe. To rest, I leaned against the side of the pool next to so many tanned, gold-chain-wearing old men and watched the boys jump off the low dive. They were like skinny birds, flying and flailing into the blue water. And in a square sea of strangers, I actually didn’t feel anonymous. I was another kid, enjoying the water and light.