Monday, December 19, 2011

Family Psych 2

In graduate school, I liked almost everything I read, with one notable exception: Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. The course was a survey of the American novel; we read 17 major American novels in 15 weeks. On the week we discussed Hawthorne, I sputtered and raged about the pathetic narrator and his pathetic excuses, his self-absorption and self-importance. It was such a shrill outburst that, fifteen years later when I ran into one of my classmates at an academic conference, she mentioned that she vividly remembered it.

Normally, I like pathetic narrators, since I believe we are all pathetic from time to time, by which I mean that we all deserve sympathy. Who hasn't abandoned the veneer of social correctness at least once, publicly begging for attention, or pity, or love? Who hasn't unreasonably complained about a friend or spouse or lover, playing the righteous victim? Who hasn't voiced suspicions that "someone" has it in for us, which shows mainly our own fragility and paranoia, not a deep, hidden plot against us? Emotions are complex--or at least what prompts our noticing and processing them is complex; often we despise what we most fear in ourselves. Flaws, in general, make us human, and human nature is such that we ought to give each other a break.

I have always struggled with giving myself a break, though I try to be generous in understanding others' needs for a break. With chronic illness in a family, it becomes difficult, since so many breaks must be given to the ill person whose needs dominate the dynamic. There don't seem to be any leftover breaks to give away. No one asked me or my older sister, Terri, to be hard on ourselves. No one insisted that we didn't cut ourselves any slack; we did it to ourselves--rather, it was our reaction to growing up in a household with an ill sibling. We compensated; our younger sister was truly sick and required attention, medication, rest, treatments. We knew she was forced to tolerate pain and discomfort, the loss of her hair and control over her weight. Could we ever have any illness or difficulty or problem to compare to hers? It didn't seem so.

Of course, it was not a competition; we weren't asked to compare ourselves to her. But that's the way developing reasoning works; we watched her, helpless, lose her normal life to a swirl of hospital stays and radiation treatments. We watched our mother thin with worry, work three jobs to keep up with the bills. We watched our father, a planet in orbit around us, keep his distance and refrain from helping in any practical way. He brought teddy bears and balloons to the hospital, but he never paid child support or took extra time with Terri and me. Therefore, we could not make the situation worse by having anything really wrong with us. We could not really need anything significant. There simply wasn't enough of anything to go around.

The word compensation seems apt for our response, because it suggests making up for something, making reparations, making amends. We didn't do anything, yet we felt guilty: for our sister's pain, for our mother's anxiety, for our sister's helplessness. For ours. We couldn't do anything to help except not need any help. Any physical illness was out of the question.

This mentality pervaded our family, a silent and insidious presence. The strength of it presented itself to me specifically, since I had a small "something" to deal with: sometimes I passed out. The first time, I had been to the dentist getting several teeth pulled to make room in my crowded mouth. It was raining, and my mother left me under the dentist's awning while she drove the car up. The last thing I remember was watching her fade in the slant of rain as she ran in the parking lot. Then, I was on the ground, a stranger kneeling beside me, and my mother appeared and the stranger said I had fainted.

There were many of these episodes: when I scraped my toe on the pavement riding my bike barefoot; when I was sick with the flu and literally fell into the bathroom while waiting for my mother to come out; when my sister cut her leg wide open on a nail; when I had to watch a First Aid movie in Health class. I was always hot, flushed, and disoriented when I regained consciousness. And guilty. I had lost control. Again. I was weak when I should have been able to be strong.

My sisters reinforced my guilt by resenting me; they thought I was doing it on purpose to get out of school or to get attention. They often said so. They said I could help it if I wanted to. They said I focused on my own pain so much that I would finally keel over. They said I focused on myself so that I would keel over. They may perhaps even still think so.

What they didn't say but what was implied, hidden in the silences between their words, was that my fainting didn't deserve much attention. It wasn't serious. It wasn't serious enough, anyway. It couldn't compare to the seriousness of my sister's ongoing battles, nor garner the kind of sympathy we held in reserve for her and spent lavishly.

She still deserves our sympathy, since her illnesses continue. Every holiday gathering, every family birthday party is shot through with concern for her, albeit often unvoiced.

My older sister Terri once told me that my morning sickness during pregnancy would go away if I just got out of bed and exercised. She said if I didn't, I had let the sickness win. In truth, she is at least as hard on herself as she was on me, for my fainting spells. We are ruthless in our downplaying of our own limitations; we try not to accept any limitations.

So mighty was the power of our mode of compensation that I waited until I was an adult to mention my fainting to a doctor. When I asked, I was nonchalant: Sometimes I just faint; it's no big deal, but it's kind of irritating. I found out the cause; it has a name, it is a real thing: vasovagal syncope. Under periods of extreme stress, such as that caused by the sight of blood or pain, blood pressure and heart rate drop, which reduces blood flow to the brain. I could accept this diagnosis without guilt, except for the fact that the condition is described like this: "when your body overreacts to triggers such as . . ." And there it is, my family's weird dysfunction over sympathy verified by a medical text. It is my doing, my fault, which is what the word overreacts suggests.

No wonder I get so irritable when I come down with the flu, thinking to myself every time, What is wrong with me?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Family Psych, Part I

1972 was THE year for my family. I turned nine years old, my parents announced their divorce, my 3-year old brother died, and my sister became ill, the beginning of a life-long battle with several ongoing illnesses.

The fashion boom of flowing garments--bell bottoms and caftans--and skin-bearing midriff tops and halters perfectly reflected my position: I was both exposed and hidden. Where did the children of divorce end up in that era? I didn't know, but I wasn't going to talk to my friends about it; they all had two parents who mostly ignored my situation--a great stroke of grace--by including me as if I were a child of a normal home. And the children of grief? Of that I wasn't sure, either, but we did not end up in a therapist's office or even the school counselor's office. To my knowledge, no one at the school ever talked with me about my brother. There I was, there we were: in plain sight, hiding pain that changed our family for good.

When I recall this half-year of calamity, I tend to rank the losses: the hardest was certainly my brother's death, especially since I wasn't present when he took the fall that knocked him unconscious. I never saw his still, but still living, body, as my sisters did, nor the crowd of neighbors and relatives that gathered as if drawn by a magnet. When I arrived home, summoned by a neighbor, I entered a scene that was already set. All had their grief, already, welling up, a formidable wall. They were in process, I was outside it all. Everything I heard was secondhand, broken. An explanation, not an experience. I cried, too, when I learned what had happened, but I never shared in that original numbness that the sight of a small boy, immobile, invites. I only had images conjured from their descriptions. That has been my greatest grief and shame. And resentment. I wasn't there; I failed. It can't be made up, an absence of that magnitude. Unable to say goodbye to him, consciously or not, I hold him still in memory and seek peace that will not come.

Second on the list of difficulties: my sister's illness. Complications from her ongoing illness rock our family to this day. Though at the time it seemed more bearable than the loss of our brother, now it seems more central to who we are, who we've become. Chronic illness is an illness in itself, infecting the family; we all take on symptoms of disconnection, of role playing, of trying to ignore what asserts itself in every conversation we have. Many scenes come to mind:

Five years old, she sits on my father's lap in the bathroom, her eyes rolling back in her head, her head lolling back on my father's shoulder. Her body is jerking, her mouth open. My father seems caught between trying to comfort her and trying to stop the weird jerking. I am standing in the doorway, but even though I'm just seven, I know she can't see me. Later we learn what this was called: convulsions. From a high fever. The beginning of it all?

In the fall of 1972, she was thirsty all the time. She woke at night, her lips parched, she thirsted all day at school. Her lips swelled, her body swelled from fluids, she couldn't get permission to go to the bathroom from suspicious teachers. Many trips to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis: diabetes insipidus. Not regular diabetes, but something else. The treatment was daily shots to be administered by my mother.

My mother practiced on an orange she held in one hand, jabbing a needle into it viciously with the other. Our neighbor, Mrs. Sayler, a nurse, oversaw this paltry training. Sometimes Mrs. Sayler gave the shots, which were always administered in our kitchen, with my sister sitting on a chair, her pants pulled down to her knees, one of her smock tops hanging down, hiding her underpants. My mother took over and started the mother-daughter ritual that would define them: she held the needle, swabbed my sister's thigh with alcohol, then poised the needle above the leg. My sister screamed every time, tensed up, sometimes so much the needle couldn't penetrate her skin far enough to dispense the medication. Her screams, my mother's shaking hands, the blood-spiked cotton balls that collected on top of the kitchen garbage: symbols, reminders of a pain that wasn't going to go away.

Hospitals. The antiseptic smell, the plastic trays of food, containers of juice with peel-off tops. Cafeterias where we sometimes got to go through the line or buy cans of soup from vending machines. Flowers, teddy bears, cards everywhere. My sister propped up, laced around with IVs and tubes, the backs of her hands swollen and bruised with needle marks. Our stilted conversation. How are you feeling? When will you come home? The mystery was deeply embedded: no one knew what was wrong with her. We didn't know what to say or do. Our visits were important to our sister, we were told.

At home: evenings of quiet when my mother was at the hospital. She'd call on the phone to make sure we had done our homework, a dime each time. For a while, our grandmother lived with us; then we got homemade dinner, complete with a glass of milk, a few TV shows, a normal bedtime. When my mother got home early enough, we got good night hugs, very few explanations. We didn't know what questions to ask. Our mother's obvious exhaustion prevented our asking anything.

Answers, finally. A rare blood disease, histiocytosis. A cancer-type illness that attacks healthy tissue, causing tumors, growths, pain. Now we prep for round 2: surgeries, radiation, prednisone that made our sister swell before our eyes. She was home more, often sitting on our mother's lap while we older girls--too old to need attention like this, we thought--stood apart, observing.

High school is a blur of surgeries and failed attempts. My sister tries violin, she tries sports. Nothing works. My mother continues to insist on swimming classes, long past the time Trish needs to learn to swim. She can't be like us. She has few friends. When Terri and I break away from our mother's rigid control to drink and get high, Trish watches us, wary. She doesn't tattle; the distance between us grows, takes on a life of its own. Once, caught with our pot, my mother hauls Terri and me to a drug counselor. We sit, enraged, refusing to speak. Trish is asked, sometimes, to try a pain management class. She says she doesn't need it. Our mother goes on church retreats, comes home crying, hugging us, telling us how she is learning to let her anger out.

How many surgeries? Too many to count. How much radiation? Enough to make her hair fall out. She is the bride, at her marriage, with just a rug of hair covering her scalp. A ritual begins: surgery day, we all gather in the Family Waiting Room. Children are left at babysitters, our role is clear: to wait for the news. Dr. __________ comes out, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. He couldn't find anything. He thinks he got it all this time. He had to scrape at the mandible, in the sinus cavities, at the mastoid. She will need follow up radiation. She will not need follow up radiation. Some of the pain afterwards will be from nerve damage. She could have surgery to sever those nerves, but she would lose control of half her face. But her pain, really, is hard to explain. She has more pain, the doctor says, than most people would have--than she should have. Eventually, he refuses to operate on her anymore.

Migraines, regular diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis. The histiocytosis, which is generally a childhood illness, outgrown after puberty. Has my sister gone through puberty? We can't tell. Baby-faced, heavy, stubborn. Once she refused hormone treatment to ensure her full passage through puberty and regular menstrual periods. I've had enough medication, she insists. More illnesses, piling up like train cars leaving the track. One disaster leading to another. Constant pain, especially at night. She sleeps sitting up. She rarely sleeps. Family vacations nearly impossible. She says she doesn't need sleep. Once, she falls while home alone, hitting her rib cage on the side of the tub, her head on the bathroom counter. Rather than call 911--I was going to be fine, she tells me later--she waits 7 hours for her husband to get home from work.

I fall recently, trying to move something too heavy for one person, sprain my thumb. I can't drive, call my son, since my husband is out of town. He drives me to the clinic, where I find there is really nothing wrong with me that rest and ice and ibuprofen won't cure. My sister is so sad for me, when I tell her, that she almost cries, and I hang up the phone, like always, guilty.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Un-runner

When I was a child, a series of commercials for 7-Up, the Un-Cola, ran. The slogan was hyphenated. Even at a young age, I thought that was important. I remember the smooth-voiced, white Panama-hat-wearing pitchman repeating it as a mantra: 7-Up. It's the Un-Cola. I remember a cascade of clear liquid filling a wine glass of ice cubes. I remember the sound, the  fizzle. 7-Up. The Un-Cola.

Un- does not mean non-. A nonmember is in a different class, entirely, than a member. Un- suggests productive difference. Untied means freedom. Uninhibited means the same. Unfettered, unapproachable, unambiguouos, unhouseled (Shakespeare's words filter through my mind constantly, unleashing a string of associations). The Un-Cola was a soda pop unlike all regular ones; it was touted as something so different that it had a purpose. Now I understand that purpose was marketing for profit; then, I was just taken in by the image, the texture of sound, the promise of utter liberation.

For almost 4 months now, I have been an un-runner. This is not the same as a nonrunner, someone automatically excluded from the category. A nonrunner is someone not interested now--perhaps ever--in running. A nonrunner, we can assume, disdains running in any form. Non suggests "against." Suggests "Not me," or "Not in my lifetime." Whereas an un-runner is someone in the same class as runners who is simply different. A runner who has undergone a sea change.

Ah, Melville. We owe so much to the earnest man who gave us Ishmael, Quequeeg, the Great White Whale, the Quest. Monomania.

I have been a runner since 1994, and I have not been on a run since August 17. It is now September 23 (more than a month, in case you're calculating). I can be precise because that's precisely the point: my life has played out, in some ways, on my schedule of runs. On August 17, I guiltily tread along for 2 1/2 miles, in pain most of the time, but triumphant: I could still do it! I had been hobbling along for 3 months, running sporadically, often in significant pain. I intended to establish something.

I did. I established that I am not a doctor, don't act like one, don't have the knowledge of one. The doctor, in his infinite wisdom, assured me that at some point I wouldn't be an un-runner. But that was after the 3 months I pushed myself to run, when I didn't know what was wrong with me, when the rhythmic striking of each foot on the ground translated to a rhythmic demonstration of a drumming technique on my Achilles' tendon. No pain, no gain? I had believed that religiously. But it hurt, and I was getting nowhere.

I didn't understand, entirely, the mechanics of ankles, but I did understand pain. And embraced it.

The doctor was a "specialist." If I ran the world, he would have been the person I would have seen first, since I knew that what was wrong with me had special privilege and status (in my mind) because I qualified as a "serious" runner (think longevity). That meant regular workouts, over a period of--let me count--yes, 17 years. But, I had to wait to see him until my insurance approved; that meant a 15-second visit with a General Practitioner who knew nothing about me or any kind of foot ailment. And then a 6-week wait.

Perhaps I am warped for paying special attention to the specialist's nurse, who effectively told me that 1) running had already done irreparable damage to my body, and 2) that I needed to do whatever the doctor said (and he would likely say that I should STOP, for good). She was cheerful, in a Nurse Ratchet kind of way. When I refused to get on the scale, as I often do in doctors' offices, she sniffed. "OK, but if you have to have surgery, then I will weigh you. Surgery patients need to have anesthetic, and we need to know how much to give."

I stood for a brief second, transfixed. She was so dedicated. But perhaps to the wrong cause. I was nowhere near the sad predicament of a person who needed surgery.

I was not wooed by her sympathetic manner, or by her certainty that the doctor would take a hard line and forbid me the life I once took for granted. He didn't, in fact. But he did tell me to "take it easy" for a month. I knew what that meant. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Home treatment. No running. Ibuprofen every 4 hours and exercises explained to me on sheets of Xeroxed paper.

I am nothing if not faithful. I have complied with this routine for some 4 weeks. I get up in the morning, down my calcium/Vitamin D supplement and 3 Ibuprofen, then lace up my shoes and stretch my tendons and other lower-leg muscles. All day, in intervals, I shake 3 brick-red ibuprofen into my hand and swallow them.

I have not gone for a real run for a month (I want to name the gap in weeks, but it will be too depressing). Instead, against all advice from prosaic nurses, I walk. But it is not the same.

And that is my real lesson from this experience. Sure, people have to admit their physical limitations. I have worn reading glasses for 5 years; at first I resisted, but now I can read menus and books without holding them at arms' length and squinting. But walking? Really?

It is not the same. That is why I have to define it as a transitional form of exercise. My legs stride along, my forehead drips sweat, my arms swing, crooked, in time with my steps. But a real workout?

Not a chance.

Today it was rainy and blustery, so I did my distance on my treadmill. A treadmill--any kind of stationary exercise-- is misleading. One feels as if one is moving along. But obviously, one is not.

I am on a quest to remove the Un- from my identity. I have to succumb to being an un-runner for now; my left heel, my arch, and the ball of that foot ache with a regular, throbbing insistence. I wince along, a gait that belongs to infirm individuals, or those who don't know enough to do right.

I hope for another chance to fly along, feet touching ground lightly then leaving the earth, briefly, only to touch down again. I count myself, still, in the class of runners. I own 3 good pairs of running shoes, and I plan to buy more. So what if I happen to be on hiatus?

I look a little different, forging a way along the route where I still notice runners, unencumbered by injury or limitation, whom I waved to before. Now I merely nod, scrappy, mincing along the path. Why does no one send out a courtesy message as they pass me? On your left, I used to call as I skirted the slow, the awkward, the merely lazy.

We don't notify those whom we cannot see. I remain invisible to most of those I identified with before. The others? They don't know me either. I am unknowable. An un-runner. Unidentifiable. Unreliable. Unused to this hard vision of compromise.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Return of the Crazy Grass

Recently when my husband and I were playing Trivial Pursuit, he was stumped by a question: Which family of plants has the greatest variety? Reading the question, I was pretty sure I knew the answer, or knew what I would say if the question were posed to me: Grasses.

I was right. I couldn't name another single family of plants (well, maybe I could make an educated guess), but my years of gardening have given me a humble and delighted knowledge of how grasses grow, what they need to thrive, what they do to survive.

When I was younger I didn't care about gardening and disliked even mowing the lawn. But I was a kid; what did I know then about life? As I grew up, I began planting vegetables with my children, to our mutual delight; it was nothing short of miraculous, the way the pale, curved, hard bean seeds grew into lush vines that supplied many dinners as well as stocking the freezer for winter. Or the way the pumpkin vines snaked their way over the garden's edge and onto the lawn, anchored there by thread-thin tendrils they spun out, wound around grass blades.

In those days, I only thought about what I could see above ground, not about what was happening underneath, not about the seeds' softening to open, or the heft of their roots, or the quality of the soil in which those roots nestled and burrowed. Even so, my lawn was an afterthought; I mowed with an old reel-type push mower, noting but not considering the way crabgrass slowly choked out the regular grass.

Now, grass takes up as much of my attention as my gardens. Or, more accurately, the care of grass, which is different. I care about the conditions, the unseen, not just the look of  it. About ten years ago, I began to learn an organic way to take care of the lawn--to literally tend its condition, nurture its health, all without the chemical soak that would pollute the ground water and force me to keep my children off of it.

My initiation was slow; for years I had done nothing, not even watered. First I tried homemade fertilizers (beer, epsom salts, soap), but they seemed to do nothing. In truth, my lawn was a wreck: dry, patchy, flattened, weed-infested. It had no life. It looked beyond hope. That's the way my personal and emotional life felt, too, but that is another story. Or, perhaps it is the central metaphor of this one. I was recently free from a smothering, torching relationship. It was time to learn to thrive again. Though I didn't actually determine to save the lawn (or myself), I did begin to consider how to enliven it.

So I learned about root systems and nutrients, the needs of plants, the lifecycles of weeds. Along the way I found kindred philosophers: the ideal wasn't a perfect lawn, but a healthy lawn. A little crabgrass, a few mushrooms, were not signs of the end of civilization. It is no exaggeration to say that I am amazed by what I learned:

o that grass is a perennial that does best when the soil is healthy, so that its root system can spread out

o that thick, healthy grass chokes out weeds

o that leaving the grass longer (3 inches) instead of cropping it short creates shade so that weeds have a harder time sprouting

o that crab grass has a short root system and new growth is easily inhibited

o that newly sprouted crabgrass, besides being a luminous shade of bright green, has almost no roots and is easy to destroy by simply pulling

o that vinegar kills weeds but not grass

I found a fairly simple routine that slowly turned my lawn greener, less weedy, and beautiful to my eyes: corn gluten meal in spring (a natural weed and feed--deters the sprouting of crab grass); organic fertilizer in summer, and soybean meal in the fall (a natural winterizer, like Scott's, only safe). In the process, I found a local, family-run farm-and-garden operation where I can buy these products, since they are really crop byproducts. I bought my raspberry bushes there, too, and a Weigala bush, and recently took their recommendation for a stinky spray that deters rabbits from munching flowers. And yes, it's also organic.

But mostly I found a joy that has sustained me in the way a deep faith does. My lawn's percentage of crab grass has decreased gradually; each year there is less, and in the process I have learned patience and perseverance. Weeding gives me a sense of purpose equal to writing or teaching a class or hosting guests. Yes, it is work, but those hours I spend happily crawling around the yard, gently parting grass to find the stems of stubborn creeping Charlie are hours I use to reflect on my children's lives, the love in my life, the sanctity of the daily. My work literally produces results, but the intangibles are powerful too: a gentler attitude toward myself and my family, a rapt attention to the details of life, a sympathy for the rough-edged and tough-looking.

I continue to be a student of grasses because there are so many--the cultured and the weed, the sun and the shade, the wild ones from the old prairie. Each variety has a different stalk, leaf shape, color, texture, life cycle. Each has a different feel, a different grace. A summer paying attention to the lawn demonstrates subtlety, the colorwheel of green the grass embodies in its progress from April to September. Its own ecosystem, its own routine, its own stubborn ways.

For instance, every mid-July, when temperatures rise and precipitation begins to wane, new varieties of grasses appear in the lawn. I don't know their names, only their distinctions: shapes, colors, thickness of stem. One, a tough-stemmed, small-leafed variety that resembles clover, grows in patches. But on closer inspection, a patch turns out to be a small cluster of grass, for each stem splits an inch from the ground, sends out new stems with leaves, a bouquet of weeds. Another, the light-green, lettuce-looking grass, seems to have no roots at all for the way it releases the ground when I grasp the stem with my fingers.

And then there is what I call the crazy grass. It is the color of swamp grass, variegated as it grows taller with a green so light it is almost white. Each stalk seems individual--it does not branch--but each sends out two or three leaves (or should I call them stems?), smooth, firm as the leaves of lilies, arched and graceful. Small fleur de lis. I first notice it near the clothesline pole as I mow, and I kill the engine and sink to the earth to pull each stalk out, one by one. They are easy to distinguish from grass and crabgrass, and they are easy to pull; one firm upward tug, and I can gather a handful in a few minutes' time. The stalks at the bottom are thick before they diverge into leaves. The thickness is soft, like the flesh of a ripe pear. Each time I mow, there are more stalks to pull, but fewer each time. When do they seed themselves, I wonder? From where do they arrive in my yard? Are they misplaced flowers, lilies flown in from the woods or nearby yards? Or are they perennial, lying dormant in the soil until that moment in July when their seed pods quiver and hum and stalks push upward with the quiet persistence of prayer?

I do not know. I do not really need to know, though I have considered planting several stalks in a pot to see if they would bloom. This year, I found another gathering of them under an elm tree in the front yard. It's the crazy grass, I yelled to my husband, cleaning in the garage. He came to look, but he's unconverted; they looked like weeds to him, nestled among the other weeds in that patch of bare earth beneath the tree, that used to be a garden.

To me, they are the image of grasses' complexity. How to understand their mystery? They grow up on schedule, their internal mechanisms as true as clock guts. They mingle with the plain and the ugly, assert their place briefly in the scheme of things. They persist for their time, then disappear, only to make their entrance again, on cue. I believe that even if I didn't pull them, they would die out before September, part of their identity this fleeting presence.

My pleasure is never keener than when I am in my yard, admiring, the most reverential attitude I can imagine. I have come to understand many things about the ways of grasses. That knowledge has enabled me to treat my lawn with its infinite variety like the organism it is, caring for it, assisting it, trying not to inhibit it. But like any family, at the center of things lies an enigma, a mystery. I'd rather not crack that mystery. The return of the crazy grass brings me closer to the earth from which we all come, it causes me to bend down, to kneel down, to take my time, to observe. Sometimes, I swear I can feel a pulse there, in the earth, and when I touch it, I join in the praise that arises from this mystery, not from any certainty.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tough, Part 3

What sinews enwrap the mind? What muscular disciplines foster mental persistence in the face of life's regular resistances? If I had to pick one, I'd say my mind was tougher than my body. Countless times, watching or playing sports, I have said out loud, "It's a mental game." Over the decades, I have faced deep loss without losing my capacity to continue a daily beat. I have never broken down. I would like to swear that I never will.

And yet, I don't think of myself as tough, physically or mentally. Or, to be accurate: I don't think of myself as tough as; by comparison, I lose the battle, every time. It's not a competition, I suppose, but I grew up trailing an older sister who set the standard for toughness. Nearing 50, I concede that in every way, she is tougher than I am.

Academically, perhaps, I have the advantage. At least that is what I meant when I wrote earlier that she had every advantage except one. I was book-smarter, or I thrived more in that environment, insofar as grades are concerned. I graduated with Honors, went to college, then to grad school. Twice. She graduated high school with middling grades, then enrolled in a veterinary technician program which she never finished.

The challenges that academics provide me, however, are ones I know I can meet. I work hard and study, write well, complete assignments on time, thrive in the soup of immersion and inquiry, analysis and argument; there is no real question of whether I can do it. I know I can do it; I chose the discipline of English precisely because I knew I would not be immobilized, as I was by Trigonometry, which baffled me so much I never took Physics. But I am not anyone's star student. No one has ever mistaken what I do for brilliance; I make no claims for genius, since I'm really more a plodder, a work horse, a good but not great brain.

My sister, on the other hand, showed more persistence in her high school years than I have shown, ever. Trig also tripped her up but she took Physics, meeting the challenge by going in early to tutor with the teacher, until finally he told her that she had tried as hard as she could. It would not make her pass the course. She should not feel bad--on the contrary, she had done everything she could, against the odds. She could withdraw confident that she had done her best.

There's the advantage, the mental toughness, the head-down pursuit of what seems impossible. What I lacked--still lack. If I thought teaching, writing, all the classes I took to get there were impossible, I would have done something else.

And so it is with physical toughness as well. Both my sister and I stay in shape by walking, running, biking, playing sports--whatever we can do to keep fit. Even though she is inches shorter than me, and has asthma and allergies that affect her breathing, I think she's a better athlete. She remains in better shape because she's simply tougher and more persistent than me. Nothing postpones her workouts, which begin most days around 4:00 am. When her children were in high school, she got up and lifted weights in the unheated garage and then rode an exercise bike. On weekends, she walks with her husband or runs by herself. She works full time and takes care of a cabin, landscaping, painting, sandblasting. Focused effort.

As I age, my workouts are postponed by weather, injuries, tiredness, scheduling. I allow them to be postponed, I should say. My schedule of alternating days has remained more or less intact, but often now I let two days lapse between workouts. This summer, I have been plagued by a foot injury; it has literally hobbled me. But don't I allow myself to be hobbled? I have not searched very hard for an alternative. I have not sought out a place to swim or biked more than twice a week. I have not dusted off the weight machine nor consistently performed the ritual of ice, ibuprofen, incline.

Though I am sidetracked this summer, in truth this has been coming for some time. Since 2006 I have been trying to get back in shape. It has become my mantra. My journey has been uphill, toward an imagined summit where equilibrium, a schedule, a routine, gets reinserted as the centerpiece of my life.

The reason I have not been successful, the reason I am still trying to get in shape, is a combination of physical and mental. Yes, my muscle tone has deteriorated somewhat; middle age plays a role, too, as weight settles on me and keeps me anchored, close to the earth, difficult to move. But the real truth is that my mental toughness has deteriorated. It was never equal to my sister's, or anyone's who trains for a marathon, for instance, or works out every day. Now, because I worry that I can't do it, I let myself off the hook with excuses like lack of sleep or a hectic day or the belief that I'm in pretty good shape for someone my age or the belief that I can't work out in the morning. My physical toughness rarely gets tested or challenged these days. My brain prevents it. Real fear deters me--real doubt about my physical abilities, which are harnessed to a mental engine that begins to sputter and stall.

If it were only as easy as a mental tune up. If only the spark plugs of confidence and persistence and daring could be replaced. If only I could return to my childhood, when I followed my sister's lead everywhere, heedless of my own fears, anxious only to be there behind her, to trail the wake of her great strength and courage, fueled by endless reserves of devotion.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Off Balance

We are in the middle of a strange, unsettling summer: only mid-June, and except for two 100-degree days, the temperatures have remained cool. For the past week, the highs have been in the 60s. The tomatoes and pepper plants show slow progress. Mornings, we put on sweatshirts and pants, rather than the usual shorts and T-shirts. One or two days, it was so chilly I decided not to go out and weed; I have been baking bread and cookies, making oven dinners. The warmth comforts as much as the food I put on the table. Almost suspicious, we move slowly, on our guard, unsure what will come next.


There are two other reasons this summer's getting to me. In my late 40s, I remain active, running, biking, gardening, hiking. But for the past few weeks, a mysterious pain has hobbled me. It feels like my Achilles' tendon, but my heel is also tender; I limp around during the day, take my ibuprofen, ice it, and grit my teeth when I go out for a run. It usually hurts only in spurts, and what I read suggests it IS a tendon injury, but I hesitate to go to the doctor. I'd rather treat it on my own, doing what I know a doctor would suggest anyway. My hips ache at night, too, so I sleep restlessly, wake up stiff, and feel older than I like to admit. My body threatens to force a new identity on me--someone with injuries and conditions too persistent to work out. I resist that threat as much as anything; I don't want to change the way I've kept myself in shape for the past 17 years.

This summer, I am also reading a lot, something that should energize me, prepare me for a full load of classes in the Fall. It is, in a way. I have sent out a lot of work lately, and my mind spins with ideas for new poems. But I put off writing those poems for now. My study this summer is Sylvia Plath. Years ago, I read two biographies in the same summer, both of which sympathized with her and vilified Ted Hughes for his treatment of her. This time, I am exploring the other perspective, reading Anne Stevenson's sanctioned biography, a book by Janet Malcolm that assesses the other books about Plath, and the Ariel poems themselves. I also have Stevenson's poems on my list, as well as Hughes', and a few other leads I've taken from the reading.

To say I find this study oppressive may be overstating it. Plath's work has never moved me, except for its impressive technical control--sounds, rhythms, syllables. She gets everything to work for her to make a strange music I often admire without really enjoying, as in these lines from the opening of "Fever 103 ◦":

The tongues of hell

Are dull, dull as the triple


Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus

Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable

Of licking clean


The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.

The tinder cries.

The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!

But her life--well, that unnerves me. That's why I keep returning to versions of it. I am in general interested in the way perspective works: the person speaking reveals only one side of things; first-person narrators are enticing because they sound so truthful, when in fact they all (as we all do) leave out others' perspectives, favoring--unconsciously?--their own. So it is reading versions of Plath's life. Stevenson makes on the surface an airtight case against Sylvia and completely excuses Hughes, whose affair with Assia Wevill was the putative catalyst to her suicide. On the other hand, Paul Alexander paints a picture of Sylvia as victim and Hughes as menacing partner, even suggesting that since he hypnotized his wife to help her writing, he may have placed the idea of suicide in her head.

The facts are not clear. They will probably never be clear, since relationships between married people are fraught with emotional mazes it is impossible to navigate. In this case, both parties are dead; Hughes remained stoically silent about the whole series of events, even when Assia, whom he married, killed herself and their child several years after Plath, in the same manner. Surely he suffered; his critics spit venom, his personal life could never be separated from the Plath myth. Might not his willingness to tell his side of the story have made his life easier? Yet, who is capable of telling the absolute truth about his or her own life? Does one even know the absolute truth?

I don't, and that's what unnerves me about all this reading. Besides the fact that Plath killed herself in the year I was born, 1963, I have never worried that we have much in common. My inner life, chaotic as it may be, has never made me want to kill myself. My poems do not resemble hers, except when I read a lot of her work in a single period and strains of her tense, commanding voice seep in. But reading intensely has made me see, or created, some similarities. I am familiar with Plath's sense of an "intense, menacing yet unidentified threat" in life. Like her, I often feel divided, maintaining a clarity and calm on the surface while wrestling with things underneath, a muscular drama that goes on all day and in my dreams at night. Also like her, I often feel out of synch with the world; as Stevenson notes: "what [Plath] seems to want is a remedy for her inability to accept a form of truth most adult human beings have to learn: that they are not unique. . ." I have few women friends; those I've had have walked away from the friendship, leaving me to wonder what I've done. Like Plath, I can often diagnose the cause of emotional distress (as she does in her journals) but remain unable to communicate that insight to anyone else or learn to react differently. That conundrum is one of the reasons I stopped keeping a journal years ago.

I don't want to make too much of these perceived commonalities, but they are making a lot of my inner life. Last night I slept restlessly, seeing vague image after vague image from my night's reading of the Plath biography. I dreamed of the Ariel poems, too, though the images are unclear, and I think I dreamed I was writing in that vein. When I wake up, I feel tired, as if the day's reading (which I consider necessary) were too much. And my initial sense of mission in undertaking this project has waned. My first excitement was over the connection I perceived between one of my poetic projects, a series of Eve persona poems, and Plath's mythical quest/persona. I had a vision of my own poems, what expansion they needed, what other poems placed alongside them could form a collection. My first intuition : Plath was the key that could make my own work better. I wanted to achieve what Stevenson says about the Ariel poems: "the consistency of the imagery is preserved right up until the end, when the merest mention of the resonant symbols of Plath's mythology sets the whole construct ringing like the most finely balanced of bells."

I still want that; I consider those words to be the highest praise a poet could achieve--no mention of bravery or confession or trouble overcome--nothing personal, in other words--but praise for the way the work itself is put together. That's why I write--to make something. To make something that makes a recognizable, humming sound. To make poems that call out responses from readers.

Yet, I don't write. Not yet. My heel and my hips and this sad coolness invade my mind. Right now they are winning the battle. My weakness prepares me for brain work, for study. Perhaps the physical woes are outward signs of my inner turmoil, as I try to gain insight into Plath's life and work while avoiding the torment of perceived similarities. I don't want to assume her life or psyche, but I feel pulled in that direction. Right now, I can't run from it.

How can one not feel pulled? She suffered. In comparison, others have suffered more, but that is not the point. I am not consciously a Plath defender, but last night when my husband innocently asked, "Wasn't she partly to blame for her husband's affair?" I rushed to her defense. "Don't blame the victim," I retorted. We are all victims of each other's difficulties. Trying to understand that dynamic, to learn something to make my own interactions with people honest and productive seems like a good--but lifelong and exhausting--undertaking.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tough, Part 2

My older sister, Theresa--Terri, as we call her--was a tough act to follow. Only fifteen months older than me, she nonetheless had every advantage except one. From the time I could toddle around, I followed her with a strict devotion and an almost overwhelming love and admiration.

However, the stories that flood my memory when I recall my childhood center around her teasing me. There is more than that, but I think now that some of her advantage was won because I was an easy target for jokes. Being sensitive put me at a disadvantage in my family, especially when it came to animals. We all loved our dogs, naturally: Patches, Sammy, Bowser and Shep, my grandma's farm dogs. But we had a series of family pets die--as they all do--and to this day my family laughs at my sadness in spite of themselves.

Perhaps laughing at death seems demented. It wasn't at the death of anything that seemed important to them, though. We had a series of tame hamsters that would run around on the living room floor inside the shape I made by placing my feet up against my sister's feet, our legs straightened into two Vs, attached at their open ends. Sometimes one of them--Tiny, Bubbles, Cookie--ran up the leg of my pajama bottoms, and I held still until it ran out again. As all these creatures do, they died in a matter of a year, sometimes months. It always made me cry, beg to take the barely breathing animal to the vet's. I wanted proper funerals, and no one would participate with me. Once, in a scene I will never forget, one of the hamsters was very sick--I think the one that had broken its leg when the cage door closed on it--and rather than wait for it to die, my father dug a hole in the backyard and killed it with a shovel before filling in the hole with dirt. I watched, horrified, its eyes closing and its tiny feet retracting with every downward thrust. My family didn't laugh at me outright for my sensitivity, but they teased me about caring so much about a HAMSTER. They were all indifferent; these pets were really mine.

Later, we had a fishtank--to me, the most boring of things--and inevitably some of the fish got sick. Maybe we didn't clean it enough, or change the filter. I'm not sure, as I recall it now, how we knew they were sick. But one night after dinner, my mother scooped the infected animals (they had tail rot and something called ick) out of the tank. Naive, curious, I followed her to the bathroom as she mumbled something about "taking care of this." Even though I watched her dump the Cool Whip container of fish into the toilet, I still didn't understand. Until she flushed and I watched them swirl away, their fins whipping in the current. When I cried that time, they all teased me mercilessly. For months, they made flushing gestures to torment me, or brought it up in larger family gatherings so that I would cry in front of our relatives.

That was all 40 years ago. It may sound ridiculous, but I still cringe when I think of it. I realize I was a middle child, often claiming to be left out, claiming that life was unfair. I made more of my position than I need to have made. But the sensitivity was not made up, and I carried it into adulthood, passed some of it onto my children. When the boys and I got our first hamster, Ed, we played with him, as I had played with our pets as a child, and when he died we all mourned. We even saved his body in the freezer for several months so that we could bury him properly in spring, when the ground thawed. Two of my sons had their own hamsters later, Tark and Rocky; when Tark died, my son Nate stumbled outside at ten at night, shoulders shaking from his weeping, and insisted on burying Tark himself, on a slight rise next to the irises. He was thirteen years old. I still think of Tark and Nate every time I mow over that spot. When Rocky died, Elias was so sad that he wouldn't allow me to remove the cage from his bedroom. For months afterwards, I would find him crying quietly in his bed. Neither boy could bear trying again with another one--the grief when their favorites died was too much.

About six years ago, my niece gave me a hamster, hearty and healthy, because she was tired of cleaning its cage. We kept it happily for about a month, then one morning I found Tickles' twisted body under her exercise wheel, one foot trapped between the wires. I didn't want to call my sister; when I did, she laughed, as I knew she would, and predictably it came up at family gatherings: Tickles the Hamster and her "unfortunate death." Snickers. A few guffaws. My exit to the back yard or bathroom to regain my composure.

I have to remind myself that when they laugh at me, they are not laughing at death per se, only at my reaction; they don't think it appropriate to shed tears for insignificant events. Given our history of deaths among relatives, it makes a certain sense to distinguish between a pet and a brother, for instance. I suppose one could reason that if one cried every time a living creature died, one would be a full-time mourner. There is that old idea that life is so sad that if we once start crying, we will never stop.

And yet. I mourned pets to whom I'd become attached. After Ed died, we immediately got another hamster that lived a matter of days. Since we had had no time to get to know him, to see his personality in his habits (Ed used to climb up the side of the cage and make his way across the top, upside down, an acrobat, a performer), we were not really sad, only concerned that he had been sick, invisibly suffering.

I like to think they were not laughing directly at me, only at something they did not understand. Isn't it a human trait, to make fun of that which is strange, different from us?

In sixth grade, I read every book I could find about Helen Keller, then with my friends wrote a play about her life. We each took roles, rehearsed, then performed the play at school, presenting it in different classrooms. Most of the time I played the role of Helen, but as we got comfortable with the script and with each other, we changed roles. Sometimes I was Annie, sometimes Helen's father, the Captain. We were proud of our work, teachers praised us, students enjoyed our performances: me, Nan, Anne, Kim.

Around that time, a series of Helen Keller jokes made the rounds. It was not a new idea; just a variation of blonde jokes or Iowa jokes or any ethnic jokes. Such humor seems base to me, repetitive, not very inventive, aimed at the lowest common denominator. And cruel. How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read the waffle iron.

My sisters tormented me--there is no other word for it--by telling these jokes until I cried. I begged them to stop, tried to explain why Helen was admirable, reminded them how much work I had put into the play. My protests fueled their efforts. I wonder now why my mother didn't put a stop to it.

Perhaps it seemed that I was always crying, reminding them that there was a lot of loss in life, something they should have known, but wished they didn't. Perhaps I was strange to them. Perhaps I broke some code that maintained animals were not "family," that only human death was to be grieved. Perhaps they hated the way tears reminded us of the funerals we had attended. Perhaps they hated me. Perhaps they were just having fun.

Even now, no explanation seems sufficient. I was not as tough as them, so they broke me to prove it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tough, Part I

Christmas, 1972. I was nine years old. We were seated on the worn davenports and chairs in my grandmother’s living room, on her farm in Dassel, Minnesota. My two sisters and I, my mother, my grandmother—no men in our midst.

Each of us sisters had a small stack of gifts, a surprise better than the Santa we no longer believed in, since we knew our mother had no extra money. She had prepared us ahead of time—it would be a lean holiday. Dinner had been served, roast beef and creamy mashed potatoes, gravy, bread spread with butter from the Creamery in town, rutabagas steaming in their chipped serving dish. Now we were resting, holding at bay our excitement, tempered by all that had come before.

We opened our gifts in turn, each sister receiving similar presents: practical gloves for winter, an album by a favorite group (I got the Partridge Family), and one extravagance, white vinyl go-go boots. More than thrilled, we thanked our grandmother from whom the presents came, avoiding our mother’s glance. We didn’t want her to feel bad. It had been a record difficult year for our family; we all tottered on the edge of a grief that threatened to swallow us.

Then, my mother left the room and returned with a few presents. We girls held our breaths and our excitement. Though we had few emotional reserves ourselves, we spent them to protect our mother whenever we could. Resisting glee, holding back happiness, we didn’t want her to think we cared about what she could buy for us. Out of the wrapping appeared a pair of ping pong paddles, a box of three balls, a net. Stunned, we looked toward our mother; these were implements, but how would we play the game? Was this a joke? Where was the table? We knew families with ping pong tables, and they also had big, well-furnished houses, finished basements, air conditioning, two cars. Two parents.

Truth was, the table was in our basement at home. Such extravagance was, to us, overwhelming. For several minutes, we shouted and clapped and jumped up and down and hugged our mother. We had not allowed ourselves to be so free with our feelings for many months; it was easier to keep them to ourselves, bottled up. In that way we had learned to carry on.

But one emotion often triggers another. Laughter often follows tears and the other way around. We decided to set up the ping pong net across the Formica kitchen table and start practicing, but the net was too long, the table too short; the net leaned to one side or the other, in spite of our attempts to secure it, and the ball flew past the end of the table. I kept the game going, desperate for it, but soon they were all giving up, murmuring, It’s not going to work, Guess we’ll have to wait until we get home, drifting back into the living room to watch TV, talk about winter and the next morning’s drive. I stood in the kitchen, petulant and demanding. We can do it, I yelled. There was no response. I want to play, I nearly shouted, stomping one foot in frustration. Near tears, I went to them to plead, for what exactly I didn’t know. Even though I stopped shouting, my presence was loud, insistent. They ignored me.

My mother headed toward my grandma’s adjoining bedroom and beckoned me to follow her. Still grasping my paddle in one tight fist, I closed the door behind me and faced her, indignant. What did she want with me? My Christmas had just started looking pleasant, and now it was falling apart. My shoulders were hunched in defense even before she spoke.

I miss him too, you know.

It was almost an accusation. She wanted me to admit that I was pitching a fit because my brother was not with us. She wanted me to know that the grief was not all mine to have, nor to display in awkward and indirect ways, nor to use to get attention. She wanted me to say it and to go to her and comfort her: Yes, I miss him, I’m sorry.

In June, my brother, who was not yet four, had died. He had fallen down the uncarpeted stairs that led to our basement while my mother was at work, trying to cobble together a living after my father left us in March, and while our babysitter Debbie was probably washing dishes at the kitchen sink when she heard the rhythmic bumping of his body on each of the wooden stairs and paused, perplexed, trying to place the sound. I was not home at the time. I heard the story secondhand, how Debbie saw him, still and bent, at the bottom of the stairs, called my mother and an ambulance. How the neighbors began to gather—to keep my sisters away? To wring their hands at this, our second misfortune? To administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? To meet my mother at the door when she sped home and attempt to give her hope?—and how someone carried him upstairs and laid him on my mother’s bed.

The scene was never very clear in my mind—what happened to Debbie? Where did she stand? Did she stay with my sisters when my mother left in the ambulance? Did she cry? Did she scream? Did she apologize?

It was an accident, and I was not a witness. Nor, properly, were we all survivors. We spent the rest of the numb summer visiting the farm on weekends, peeling apples from our trees, playing outside as usual, keeping up the studied front that would allow us to keep moving, placing one foot or thought ahead of the next. Fourth grade approached and I dreaded the return to school and the questions I feared. I would not invite questions. I would look like someone who didn’t need help, comfort, attention.

For six months I had been practicing my stoic act; it didn’t feel like an act anymore. When my mother faced me in my grandma’s bedroom and held out her arms to me, I went to her, but I set my chin to stop it from quivering and blinked hard to keep my tears from spilling.

Resistance had been the one sure thing in the chaotic world we now inhabited, our mother gone long hours at work, my sister wearing a key on a chain around her neck to let us in the house after school, our cupboards nearly empty, our conversations governed by what would not make us break down and weep. We rarely spoke his name.

No, no. No. I would not admit anything. I would not, now, after months of keeping it at bay, allow grief to expose me. And thus even while my arms wrapped around my mother’s waist I clung to the toughness I had adopted and nurtured, the child of my grief and parent of all that was to come.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

THE DREAM RUN

I dream about running.

Think of how many ways that sentence can be read.

Think about why I just wrote in the passive voice.

All those thoughts are related.

When one “dreams about” something, it often means “aspires to” or “wishes to do” or simply “wants.” For my mother, an unspoken but fervent version of that sentence was “I dream about getting away from the farm.” To her, that represented a life that had more ease, less harshness, fewer insults and slanted critiques, less cruelty from her difficult mother, her taunting—and favored—brothers. For me, it was “I dream about making a difference in the world.” That statement verified my own powerful sense that if I believed in God—which I wanted to, tried to, struggled to—then that belief should influence how I lived, should give me a satisfying sense of mission.

When one “dreams about” something, it also suggests a return, a sharp sense of longing for something that has passed or is impossible. I confess I often dream about having another child, getting lost in reveries and daydreams. But it won’t happen. For all I know, it can’t; nearing 48, I know that conception after 35 becomes difficult, after 40 almost miraculous. At my age, it probably is impossible. At least, that was the conclusion of a discussion my husband and I had. We’ve both been married before, both produced children who are now grown up. Our having a child together would lend a sense of completeness to our fulfilling union, but his hesitations are understandable: our children would resist the idea; they might even balk at it and withdraw; we love each other, but by the time any child of ours grew up and graduated high school, we would be quite old; it would be hard to find the energy to raise a child, harder to enjoy our retirement with one in tow.

And yet. The other day I read a story about a woman who had her last baby at age 49. Wistful, I sighed. No use weeping. Longing is at its core toughness.

When one “dreams about” something in the traditional sense, while sleeping, it’s largely unconscious, as desires often are, expressive of things that aren’t easy to say in the day light. In our dreams, we are more or less passive; our strict consciousnesses, that determine the speakable, become passive, inactive. The dream subjects arise as if unbidden, sleeping giants, powerful statements about our deepest impulses. Only in a dream could I confront my father, tell him to fuck off. But then, only in a dream could he kick my pregnant belly, trying to destroy my child. In real life, I never saw him when I was pregnant, and if I had I wouldn’t have let him get close enough to do any harm. Only in a dream could I conflate the identities of my younger sister and my youngest child, a two-in-one being at whom I scream, unable to stop because I am unable to help him/her, since they won’t help themselves.

The late Donald Murray, writing teacher, poet, essayist, a hero of mine, wrote that if he was working on a poem and couldn't finish it, he took a nap because he knew that the “answer” to the riddle of the poem’s ending would come to him in his sleep, if he invited it.

It doesn’t work like that for me, but I dream about running, and in my dreams I am a miracle of motion, energetic, graceful, running long distances—forever—without stopping or tiring. I don’t feel anything in these dreams: no discomfort or muscle strain, no heat of sun or splash of water upwards as I step in the stream trickling toward the storm sewer, no slow relaxation of stiff ankles. I just run. I run with no anxiety or compulsion to get anywhere. I run with no pride or worry about competition. I run without confidence, really, because running is just what I am doing, who I am, but also without any lack. In those dreams I AM, I exist, and my existence boils down to effortless motion.

In a similar dream, I experience flexibility to rival the Russian contortionists I saw once on a cruise ship. I can do the splits, I can stretch one leg straight in the air while standing on the other, I can bend without hindrance or pain. Nothing tenses me, prohibits me.

The ease with which I move in dreams is exhilarating. I wake to a life of effort and deliberate, forced motion. All day, I fight against the tides of my teaching schedule, students I can’t reach or who don’t care, my own questioning doubts about whether I’m any good at it. I slog through self-consciousness and criticism, through exhaustion and hopelessness. My active resistance of these forces defines my life; I AM through impediments to fluidity, opposition to smooth progress.

Even if it means being passive, a condition that horrifies me while awake, I give in to passivity in my dreams, when all the weights that clothe me in consciousness fall away and I see what rises, now unfettered, from my daytime desires: grace, freedom, a voice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

C/OLDER

Winter and I have never been fast friends. When I was a kid, I spent hours outside building elaborate snow forts and sledding down our front hill, in thrall not to fun and adventure but to my older sister. My devotion was deep, complete: though I begged to go indoors, one fierce look from her would shut me up. I also frequently put on her shoes and tied them for her because she pretended to cry when I refused. What habits grow out of the confused loyalties of childhood.


Though I still don’t enjoy the cold weather, I have been a runner for most of my adult life. Twice I have braved extreme cold to head out and get in a workout, due in part to the adopted philosophy of my sister: never give up, never give in. The first time I was nineteen, a Sophomore in college and given to running only in spurts. I was not in top shape then; my main exercise consisted of walking the mile each way to campus, lugging my load of books, in all weather. I also lifted weights then, building up strength but not stamina or wind. I missed the discipline of all the high school sports I’d played, so I started running sporadically.

In January, we had what was called J-term, a month-long “break” between semesters when intensive coursework was offered. Students were required to take two J-term courses in 4 years. I signed up for one each of my first two years, because besides trying to get in shape, I was discovering my vocation: writing. I could supplement my regular English lit and creative writing courses with month-long courses focusing on a single genre. My Freshman year, I took a Poetry course. My sophomore year, I took Fiction. Perhaps it was that foray into the relative unknown of prose that made me a little crazy; I remember sitting in that classroom with much older students—Juniors and Seniors, certainly—feeling a mix of intimidation and cockiness. I could write. I had ideas. But I felt like a juvenile next to these students, my ideas shrinking in my mind until I had to go home and pump myself up with a run, to build my confidence so I could write them down.

That winter we had a week of record cold, wind chills hovering around -60. One day, to prove I could do it, I decided to go out for a run. I told no one, figuring that since I ran through residential neighborhoods, help would be there if I needed it. But that is my older psyche speaking; I didn’t fear anything, and that was na├»ve—or stupid.

I layered up in the way I normally did in those days: one T-shirt from my softball days, my favorite long-sleeved T-shirt sporting an image of the Tasmanian Devil, and a hooded sweatshirt. I wore only one pair of sweat pants. One pair of socks. Gloves, I think.

The day was almost painfully still—no wind scattered snow across the pavement or made the frozen tree limbs creak. My first impression was of stiffness; the cold was so brittle that nothing could move, except me. I began slowly, treading carefully over ice, wiggling my fingers inside my gloves to keep them warm.

I felt the cold after the first quarter mile, in my cheeks, which were uncovered. Did I wear the hood on my sweatshirt? I can’t recall. What I remember thinking was that the cold couldn’t penetrate me very deeply if I kept moving. So I did, completing my circuit with only a few frozen eyelashes to show for it. The skin on my legs and arms was red when I undressed for the shower, otherwise I thought I had triumphed. Now I think I was just lucky.

Years later I did it again, in another snap of brutal cold, my three children home for Christmas break, my mind spinning in circles from the lack of physical movement. I planted them in front of the TV (they were old enough to stay home for short periods of time, with the door locked, with strict instructions not to answer it if someone rang). And I went out.

This time, I was older, which occurred to me as I noticed how slowly the tape in my Walkman was playing. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sounded like they were being filtered through one of those voice-warping machines. By the time I rounded the corner by Savoren’s Service and turned to face the long straight stretch along the parkway, I was chilled. Even inside thick gloves, my fingers began to numb. My legs felt fine, swathed this time in long underwear and a pair of running pants. But by the time I circled the monument at the halfway mark, I could hardly feel my feet. I kept them moving, thinking with a smirk—my lips were too cold for a smile--that my route said something about me: half the distance out, half back. Once I’d gone halfway, there was no shortening the mileage. I was stranded by my own idea of toughness; I never wanted to give myself a break. Now, when I might want one, it was unavailable.

My muffled feet kept moving; I felt like I was on a layer of air. I couldn’t really feel my feet hit, I just felt a vague pressure in my ankles and legs.

In the shower afterwards, I stared at my fingers, cramped, red, stiff, even after standing under a stream of hot water for 10 minutes. I tried to wash my hair but couldn’t really press my scalp hard. Eventually, a half-hour post-shower, I regained the full movement in my fingers. Only then did I think I had made a dumb, risky decision to go out in this cold. What had I been trying to prove, and to whom?

I haven’t run outside regularly in winter since 2004. Even when I did, on cold days I stayed inside for yoga or took many days off in a row, waiting for a day mild enough for me—at least 15 degrees, not too windy.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, when I gave up and became “sensible,” I also gave up my mindless devotion to my sister, who works out harder than anyone I know: up at 4:30 am every day, she lifts, rides the stationary bike, runs or walks outside. And did I say, she has allergies so severe that she carries an inhaler with her all summer?

She can win this one, I guess, she who advised me to exercise in the throes of morning sickness so the sickness wouldn’t win. I do what I can to stay in shape, trying to respect the cold and my aging body. She can do what she wants; if push came to shove, she could kick my sorry ass. But I will have to live with that.

I still struggle to make it through winter. The older I get, the colder it seems. This past week, when the temps hit 30 I finally ventured out, running on the wide shoulder of the road rather than the iced-over sidewalks. It felt good to splash through some small puddles, to feel the initial cold of my soaked socks warm to a faint dampness, to feel my muscles stretch in a way they never can on a treadmill. Now, I think I can safely commit myself to being outside, where the trees dress and undress for me, where muskrats and geese cross my path by the pond, where I measure distance by the challenges I set for myself (push it until you reach the railroad tracks), where there is never dullness or monotony or pressure. I’m doing it because I want to, I still can, and not because I’m chasing my sister’s shadow, plunging ahead of me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Treading

I have always loved to swim, was never afraid of the water. My cousins lived on a farm; across the dirt road from their place was Lake Francis, where they took swimming lessons starting in May. When we city girls visited, we had to plunge in, even on Memorial Day, since they had already set the standard. There was no retreating from the challenge. Later I would realize the significance of acclimation; by the time we visited, they had been getting used to the cold water for weeks. In the same way, they walked around barefoot, over their gravel driveway, across the gravel road, through grass and everywhere on their toughened soles, while I limped along trying to keep up. My feet were soft; my mother had a strict rule about going barefoot—the temperature had to be in the 70s for a week before she’d agree, while my cousins ran around without shoes from the time the snow melted. I would never catch them, but I would bear pain trying.


So, I would plunge in the cold lake, swim out to the floating dock with them, and play for hours, jumping or diving or cannon balling, then swimming back and climbing on to do it all again. All the activity, and their company, kept me there, swearing I never got cold, in spite of my shriveled fingers, blue lips. Sometimes we hung out by the ladder, treading water, seeing whether the small sunfish, swimming through patches of water shot through with light, would nibble on our legs.

Treading water. One of my favorite things to do in the lake, or the pool where I took swimming lessons. I was an apt swimmer, catching on quickly, demonstrating the frog kick for my fellow classmates or racing them across the narrow width while the teacher watched and corrected our form from the deck. But treading. . . that was something else. It allowed me to spend time in the deep end of the pool, to feel daring and brave and strong. The blue of the water deepened as the tiled bottom slid out of reach of my feet. Sometimes our class got to dive for hockey pucks, but I never enjoyed going under, the pressure building on my ears and eyes as I kicked toward the bottom. I preferred the miraculous buoyancy I had on the surface, kicking my legs slowly and using my hands like paddles—fingers together, palms outward, pushing away from my body, then rotating inward to return. Back and forth, back and forth, palms out, palms in. Finning and sculling, my teacher called it. With minimal movement, I could stay afloat.

Then, in sixth grade, we had a Phy Ed unit on Survival Floating. I didn’t know what that was; I expected more treading, rotating my body in circles to break up the monotony. What I—we—encountered was completely different. Survival Floating meant keeping your face in the water, upper body on the surface, legs dangling below—an L of depleted energy, arms hanging limply, parallel to our legs—then raising our arms and head, a slight breast stroke, sculling out in front of our bodies, coming up for a breath only when necessary. The idea was that if we were in a boating accident, or somehow found ourselves in the middle of a lake without a life jacket, stranded, we would have to conserve our energy until someone came to rescue us. I do not know why floating on our backs was not an option; it is listed on water safety sites on the internet as one option. So is treading water. But for us, those were forbidden. We had to float, and float only.

The unit was 6 weeks long. In all that time, I never feared the scenario that was the purpose for the lesson. I couldn’t imagine myself thrown from a boat or somehow without a flotation device on a lake. I had confidence in myself and my ability to make it. I was—I am—a strong swimmer. Once a year, or whenever we visit my sister and her husband’s cabin, I swim across the small lake and back, trailed by someone in the paddle boat, acting as life guard.

The test, however, was challenging. We had to float for 30 minutes in the deep end of the pool, the whole class bobbing like bugs on the surface of a pond. I didn’t like bumping into people, a feeling of mild claustrophobia that has been duplicated the few times I’ve run a 5K, compressed into a pack of bodies in the first half mile; I found that the effort it took to remind myself to relax made me hyperventilate mildly. I had to keep reminding myself to take regular, not deep or big breaths, to slow down my rapid heartbeat. It was a test; I wanted to do well, and that desire to prove myself added anxiety.

I made it; I passed, satisfying myself and avoiding the shame I always feared for not performing well. But the best part, the part I remember the most, that still comes to mind from time to time, even 30 years later, was the self-made flotation devices. We learned how to tie the legs of our pants together, then splash air and water into them so we could wrap those inflated legs around our necks like denim life jackets, and float upright. We learned to use our shirts in a similar way, but the pants worked better. The teachers said we could use those tactics only intermittently—the object was to FLOAT, but in those intervals of the test, I was relaxed. Upright, able to look around, I felt in control, as I always felt when treading water.

To this day, I prefer to have my head above the surface, able to pivot, swivel, scan the horizon for any help that might soon arrive.