Taking a Tumble

  A little over a week ago, the morning after a long day in the car following two weeks at the lake, I chose to go for a run. The July weather was unseasonably perfect for a run with low temps and no humidity. Running was not advised as I’m battling plantar fasciitis, but I was tempted and I gave in. Reasoning that it would be better for my foot (and less painful) to run on a soft surface rather than roads, I headed directly for my beloved trails.

Lush with recent rainfall and filled with the music of birds, the wooded path offered me the peace and shade I craved. Reaching the halfway point, I turned onto the path for my route home. I passed a woman walking four dogs, the first person I’d seen that morning. I stumbled over a rock on the path and caught myself. I wondered if the woman saw me and then I wondered why I’m so self-conscious. A mile later, picking up speed on a flat area of the path, I stumbled again, but didn’t catch myself. I went sprawling. A young couple emerged from the curve on the path as I picked myself up.

“Are you okay?” said the young man.

 

“Yeah, I think so,” I said, looking over my scrapes.

“Here, take some water to wash them out.” He handed me his water bottle.

I squirted water over my elbow and knee.

“That’s how we wake up out here, right?” the young woman said, grinning. “Take a tumble, wake right up.”

The trails where I run are studded with rocks so the surprise is not that I fell and scraped myself up; the surprise is that I’ve never fallen. I’ve stumbled plenty, but I’ve always caught myself. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I took some pride in my quick reflexes. Now I felt oddly…betrayed. Not by the lovely trail, but by my body.

“I’m so old,” I complained when I arrived home dripping blood from my elbow and my knee. “I’m not as nimble as I was.”

“You’re reading too much into this,” my husband said. “You just fell. It happens.”

A friend and fellow trail runner said the same when I ran into her – my elbow bandaged up - at a favorite coffee shop a few days later.

“Oh, I fall all the time,” she said cheerfully

“She does,” her husband agreed.

I reasoned that my friend falls while running because she’s a super-fast runner whereas I simply fell because I’m clumsy. I do this a lot. I reason away someone else’s similar mishap and view my own mishap as a personal failing of some sort. It’s an oddly egocentric approach, like I’m holding myself to a higher standard than I hold for others.

IMG_1898Yesterday I returned to the scene of the crime while walking with my dog. The particular part of the path where I fell is no different from any other part of the path where I was running. Dirt and rocks bordered by ferns and trees. Lovely as always. There’s no reason for me to have fallen in that spot versus any other. Just as there’s no reason for countless things that happen – good and bad – to me and those around me. Things happen. Not because we are good or bad. They just happen. Friends get cancer. Family members die. Our kids face challenges. We fall down. We get back up.

My cuts and scrapes are pretty much healed now and I’m hoping this plantar fasciitis resolves soon so I can get back out there. And if I fall, I’ll simply get back up.

 

 

More Alike Than Different

Maybe you’ve seen the iPhone commercial featuring Maya Angelou reciting her beautiful poem, “Human Family.” Some people seem to think that the use of the poem to sell iPhones somehow diminishes the poem. I disagree. I love hearing Angelou’s distinctive voice over the many images of human beings during the course of the commercial. Over the weekend, I was reminded of that poem. My husband and son were running the Philadelphia Half-Marathon in support of the Alzheimer’s Association. The morning broke clear and crisp and I rode my bike through our glorious Wissahickon Park to the area where the race was taking place. cresting-the-hill

Finding an excellent viewing spot just after mile 7, I parked my bike and waited for the first runners to crest the hill. Before the first runners, were the paralyzed athletes using handcycles to propel themselves up the huge hill. We cheered them on. A bit later came the leaders: three slim black men running 5 minute miles like it was no big deal. We cheered them on. Later, more runners climbed the hill. Young men and women like my son and his friend, well-conditioned from cross country season. We cheered them on. Then I jumped on my bike and parked myself at mile 12, just 1.1 miles from the finish.

zach-and-friend

Soon, I saw my son and his friend. Then my trainer. Next, my husband. I cheered them on. As I waited for my son and my husband to join me, I continued to cheer. I had watched as the participants morphed from ropey runners in tank tops and shorts to, let’s say, more round runners in running tights, long-sleeved shirts and headphones plugging their ears. The front of the pack runners made it look easy, like they could run that pace all the way to New York, if need be. The runners at the end of the pack were fighting for every step.

 

But every person out there was there for the same reason: to complete 13.1 miles that day in Philadelphia. Black, white, brown, beige and pink. Tall, short, thin, fat. Running on two legs, running on two blades, running while juggling. Propelling themselves on recumbent bikes, walking fast, walking slow, hobbling on a sore leg. Wearing race gear, wearing tutus, wearing a Captain America costume. Kids in middle school, adults well past retirement age and everyone in between. They all showed up to do the same thing. In these post election weeks fraught with fear and anxiety, I was struck by the common purpose of these 12,000 individuals and I cheered them all on. I agree with Maya Angelou. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

drummers

Human Family

I note the obvious differences in the human family. Some of us are serious, some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived as true profundity, and others claim they really live the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones can confuse, bemuse, delight, brown and pink and beige and purple, tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas and stopped in every land, I've seen the wonders of the world not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women called Jane and Mary Jane, but I've not seen any two who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different although their features jibe, and lovers think quite different thoughts while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China, we weep on England's moors, and laugh and moan in Guinea, and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland, are born and die in Maine. In minor ways we differ, in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Small Efforts in Response to Big Things

Between the World and MeOne day last week, the day after I finished listening to an audio version of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book "Between the World and Me," I went for a run. Truth be told, parts of the book were a tough listen for me. Coates's language is gorgeous. But he had hard words for our country and when the book was finished, I felt a sense of despair that more hasn't changed in the one hundred fifty-one years since slavery was abolished in this country. Or in the fifty some odd years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. So,  I went for a run. And I decided that on that run, I would smile at every human being that I saw. It was a sweltering morning in Philadelphia with the humidity pushing the temperature to feel closer to 100 then the actual 85 degrees. We were all sweaty out there. We were running; we were walking; we were biking. We were young and old and we were men and women and we were all shades of color. We walked with dogs or strollers or just with friends. Some of us were alone. I smiled at every one of us. Many didn't register me, either engaged in conversation or maybe working through the pain of their workout. Some met my eye and didn't smile back. But others did. They caught my smile and tossed it back to me, doubled. A smile may seem a small thing, but it was a small thing that I had control over.

That night, my younger son had some friends over. Well, he's said it would be a few. It was closer to a dozen. With Coates's words swirling in my head, I watched these teens enter my house, all different shades of the human rainbow. They'd gathered because several of them had pitched in to build a computer for one of the guys so that he could game with them. These are not kids who grew up the dangerous parts of our city, like the area where Coates grew up in Baltimore. But neither are they all suburban kids, protected with fenced-in yards. I marveled, not for the first time, how different my sons' lives are from how I grew up. How much more of the world they've seen, how much they already know about justice and compassion and right living.

I can't repair the scars that divide our country all by myself. But I can do what I can in my corner of the world. And I can share my smiles with all of those traveling this road alongside me.

 

 

A bear, finally.

We’ve had our cabin in the Adirondacks for five years this month. The town where we are is Long Lake, which is smack in the middle of the park and the symbol for the town is this. images.png

In the foyer of the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake stands an 8 ft tall stuffed bear. And yet, for five years, we’ve never seen one.

The May 2016 issue of National Geographic focuses on Yellowstone National Park on account of the 100th anniversary of the national park system and in it there is much about the tension between pleasing the visitors to the park and at the same time keeping it wild. Used to be that seeing bears in garbage dumps was not only a common occurrence, but served as an attraction. At some point, people figured out that this wasn’t such a great idea for either bear or person and the habit was stopped. This is true in Yellowstone as it’s true in the Adirondacks.

Bearjam Jonathan Blair NG May 2016.jpg

A month or so ago, a bear was sighted in the Wissahickon Valley park that begins less than a mile from my home. Though it’s a protected area including 50 miles of trails, it exists within Philadelphia and most certainly not where you’d expect to see a bear. The sighting of the small bear was announced on local news along with dire warnings not go hiking alone.

As far as wildlife goes at our cabin on Long Lake, we’ve seen otters and a snapping turtle, lots of chipmunks and a ton of dragonflies, not to mention the biggest spiders I’ve ever laid eyes on. But no bears. Until yesterday.

Tom and I went for a run on one of my favorite routes. After running a couple of miles on paved roads, we descended down a hill on a dirt road to a wooden bridge that looks over wetlands. I love the view, though I’ve never captured an image of it because I don’t run with my phone. Tom and I stopped at the bridge and took in the stunning view before turning around. As we ran back up the dirt road, the only exit from the area, Tom said, “Um, that’s a bear.”

I looked up to see a small bear sniffing about in the middle of the road. To be clear, it’s the only road. This isn’t like the suburbs where you could just take a different route home. There are no other routes home.

“That is a bear, right?” Tom said, no doubt remembering the time he thought he saw a bear, but it turned out to be a Newfoundland.

“Yes, that’s definitely a bear,” I said.

He was a ways away. Maybe a hundred yards. We didn’t feel that we were in immediate danger, except that the bear blocked our exit. And we didn’t have any pots and pans.

“He’s small,” I said.

“Which means that the mom is probably nearby,” Tom said.

While the bear continued sniffing at the road, completely oblivious of us and our worry about how to get by him, two trucks rumbled down the road. The bear, mirroring our own response to seeing him, looked at the trucks and started booking it in the opposite direction. Toward us.He was far enough away that my reaction just a mild uh oh and not a full-fledged freak-out.

The trucks stopped and the bear veered into the woods. Tom and I agreed that it made sense to run as fast as possible up the hill while the trucks were there. You know, in case we needed a shield. As we booked it up the hill, the first truck slowed as we approached. The driver rolled down the passenger window and said in the calm unsurprised manner of Adirondack people, “You might want to keep a look out on the right. Little bear in those woods.”

My gut response was Um, yeah, can we jump in your truck bed, please? Instead, Tom and I just nodded our understanding and continued running until we crested the hill. A look behind us confirmed that the bear had not re-emerged from the woods.

It had never occurred to me that I’d see a bear sniffing about on my favorite running route. As if that dirt road with the view from the bridge belongs to me. Maybe it’s the bear’s favorite area too. Because after all, we chose to settle in his territory, right? Not the other way around.

(Long Lake image from wikipedia. Bearjam from National Geographic, May 2016. Photo by Jonathan Blair.)

 

A Universe Conspiring

Paulo Coelho by Philip Van VolsemA couple of weeks ago on a long run I listened to Paulo Coelho’s interview with Krista Tippett for her NPR show “On Being.” I was struck by much of what Coelho said, but my week became busy and the words sifted out of my mind. Yesterday, when I donned my iPod for yet another long run, I saw that I’d forgotten to update it and the same interview sat there. Faced with a 2+ hour run, I decided to listen to the interview again. (I love music, but anything gets old after 2 hours). As it turns out, I enjoyed the interview even more the second time. You’ve probably heard of Coelho. He wrote the bestselling book The Alchemist, which has been translated into 80 languages. The book was required reading for my son in seventh grade and so I read it as well. In the book and in his life, Coelho urges people to follow their personal legends, their dreams. He says in the book that when you want something the whole universe conspires to help you.

I love that concept, even when it’s difficult for me to fully have faith in it. What I hadn’t realized from reading the book is that Coelho’s own journey was neither clear nor easy. His parents discouraged him from writing, even institutionalized him. It wasn’t until he was forty years old that he decided he must follow the dream to write. Even after writing the book, the path remained challenging. The book didn’t sell and his publisher let him go. In the interview with Tippett, Coelho shares that after the publisher let him go, he realized that he could not give up. In the interview, he says, “I have to honor my words. I have to be an example.” He found a new publisher and nearly fourteen years later, the book became a bestseller in the United States.

In the course of the interview, Coelho spoke of the difference between being a builder and a gardener. The garden, he said, never sleeps. “And it’s by its constant demands it makes of the gardener’s life a great adventure.”

The interview reminded me of something I’d read on brainpickings.org about Charles Bukowski: “…the year before Bukowski’s fiftieth birthday, he caught the attention of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who offered Buk a monthly stipend of $100 to quit his day job and dedicate himself fully to writing.”

Again on brainpickings.org just yesterday morning, Maria Popova posted a letter of gratitude from Leonard Bernstein to his mentor. In it Bernstein says, “I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems.”

Aside from the obvious message that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, it seems that in Bukowski’s case and Bernstein’s, the universe was indeed conspiring in their favor. But you know what else? They worked hard. They showed up. They were gardeners, never resting, always tending to their creations. I can hear you protesting: but I’m not Bukowski or Bernstein or Coelho. This does not matter. You are you and you have a dream. Go tend to it.

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(photo of Paulo Coelho by Philip Van Volsem for onbeing.org; paulo coelho quote from wordsonimages.com)

Unexpected Visitors

We’ve had our lake house for three years now. We love being up in the middle of the Adirondack Park on a cool lake framed by mountains. It suits us. But one thing we’ve joked about is the fact that we rarely see any wildlife. In fact, I’ve seen more wildlife on my early morning runs in suburban Philadelphia than I’ve seen in weeks of time at our camp. Last week I saw two foxes and one hedgehog — or maybe it was a groundhog. I’m really not clear on the difference. Anyway, this week at the camp, the lack of wildlife changed. While sitting on my deck, typing away at my laptop, I heard my husband exclaim from dock, “Laura! Come down here! Bring a camera!”

Not wanting to miss whatever he’d seen, I scurried down the steps sans camera. Beside the dock, three little heads bobbed in the water.

“Beavers?” Tom asked. Our neighbor had seen beavers. He’d also seen a bear meandering our property while we were not there.

“I don’t think so,” I said. Though I don’t recall ever seeing a beaver up close and personal, these guys didn’t have those famous buckteeth. The three made a clicking noise and then dove beneath the water with the grace of a selkie, dark pelts gleaming wet in the sunlight.

“They can’t be seals, right?” he said.

“Otters!” I said, as they surfaced again and dove once more. “They’re otters!”

Then they were gone. Disappeared beneath the dark waters of the lake leaving us with nothing but wonder.

otter

The next day, as we started a late morning run, I was startled to see a brood of wild turkeys waddling down the road like a gaggle of women shuttling children home from church. They paid me little mind before returning to their walk. Of course I didn’t have a camera that time either. Later, I remembered that my friend, Linda, met up with a few wild turkeys in a different mountain cabin far from here. She was smart enough to have a camera.

Yesterday we went for a long hike and I wondered if our wildlife luck had change enough to give us a glimpse of something interesting on our hike. I brought my camera just in case, but the most we saw were three tiny frogs, each smaller than a quarter and the color of autumn leaves, hopping across the path. In retrospect, that’s probably for the best. I’m not anxious to meet mountain lions, coyotes or bears while walking in the woods. Instead of wildlife, I’ll leave you with the view from the top of Owl’s Head. (River otter image from mylonglake.com, view from Owl's Head my own.)

View from Owl's Head

 

Accidental Trail Run

81 The other day I was scheduled for a long run, the longest of this training season so far, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’m up at the lake and as beautiful as it is up here, there are few quiet shaded roads that go for miles and miles. Not to mention that there’s nothing that remotely resembles flat. It is, after all, the Adirondack Mountains.

After plenty of procrastinating, I set out and cobbled together several miles on some of my favorite roads and then resigned myself to running the second half on Route 30, a major road traversed by logging trucks, RVs and motorcycles. A little more than a mile on Rt 30, I saw the entrance to a park where we’ve cross-country skied in the winter. I trotted in, worked my way past the many campsites and found the snowmobile trail. The sign, with an arrow and bright orange trail marker, told me that the trail ended near a familiar trailhead. Running the mileage calculations, I figured that the trail, plus the run home from the trailhead, would get me to my goal.

I didn’t give a second thought to embarking on the trail because I knew that if it seemed dicey, I could simply turn around after a mile or two and complete my run as planned. Once I’d gone beyond the two miles and I was committed to completing the trail to its endpoint, I admit to feeling a bit nervous to be running on an unfamiliar trail with no phone and no one aware of my location. While that’s not the safe way to go — everyone knows that the first rule of hiking alone is to let someone know where you’ll be and when you plan to return — the risk was small (weather forecast was good, the route was short). After skimming the nervousness off the top, waiting like a kid on Christmas morning, I found exhilaration, bringing to mind that Eleanor Roosevelt quote about doing things that scare us.

Right away, I realized is that running on a new trail is tricky – at least for me. While keeping my eyes on the trail to avoid rocks and logs, I wasn’t keeping my head up to watch for trail markers. Several times, I paused, nervous that I’d lost the trail and reminded that I had no phone and no map and then I’d see the bright orange marker and I’d continue on. The mountains must have gotten quite a bit of rain in the days previous. At first, picking my way around the sloppy mess, I worried that I’d reach a part so flooded that I wouldn’t find a way around it, but eventually I was committed come hell or high water. The route was almost all flat, bursting with ferns, and much of it ran alongside a lake. Even in my imagination, I couldn’t have dreamed up a greener, more peaceful environment to complete that long run. At one point, my foot landed in a mucky soup of mud and I found that when I slowed to a walk, deer flies found me delicious, but that was the worst of it. When I landed at the trailhead and the road that I run on most often, I experienced a swell of pride. I’d tried something unexpected and it ended up even better than I’d hoped.

The thing about Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote is that we find magic when we push past our comfort zones and the go beyond the familiar. I don’t believe, when she said that famous sentence, she intended that every day we must climb a mountain or leap off of a 20-foot ledge. I think Eleanor meant that each day we have the opportunity to take one step outside of what we know and possibly find out who we are. What could you do today that scares you a little bit?

(image from buymeposters.com)

Falling Forward

MLK-first-step-960x640Yesterday was my last day of work. Again. Each time I’ve been invited to work at Swarthmore College, the offer has felt like a lifeline. The first time, over ten years ago, I’d been home with my two young boys for four years and was beginning to yearn for the opportunity to use my knowledge and skills in work that didn’t involve dirty diapers or cutting food into very tiny pieces. About six years ago, the writing bug bit me hard. In truth, the bug had been dormant in my system for years. When it finally surfaced, I fell in love with creating stories and characters. Four years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave my fantastic job and embark on the MFA journey at VCFA. Little did I know that I wasn’t finished with my time at Swarthmore. My second semester at VCFA was challenging. I doubted my ability as a writer and didn’t believe that I was developing the skills needed to complete novels. I considered taking a semester off, but I wanted to graduate with my class. When my boss from Swarthmore called to ask if I’d cover my colleague’s maternity leave, I was grateful for the opportunity to return to the work that gave me confidence and a sense of belonging while struggling through a thesis and developing the story for my novel.

Throughout my third and fourth semesters, my confidence as a writer improved and I’d found a home among my fellow students and our advisors at VCFA. But as graduation loomed in the summer of 2012, I began to feel anxious that I didn’t have a job. It was not a financial worry so much as an existential worry. Who am I? What am I? I couldn’t say I was a novelist because I hadn’t sold a book. And because I hadn’t sold a book, I couldn’t validate being home writing. I’d let go of my perfect job. Serendipitously, my boss needed an extra pair of hands to assist with the counseling load and I jumped at the opportunity.

Working just two days per week, these past two years at Swarthmore provided me a needed connection to the my comfortable work world while also affording me time to tinker with my stories and be available for my kids.

As I made my way to work on my last day, the universe sent me signs that I was okay to let go. The traffic was mind-numbingly awful, reminding me of the one aspect of the job that I never did like. When I arrived at work, there was an email informing me that a senior I’d been working with for months had a job offer. A freshman I’d met with since early September had an internship and an alum who I’d corresponded with over the last year, sent a lovely email to my boss about the ways that I helped him. And all of that was before the gang took me to lunch and presented me with a super-awesome running shirt emblazoned with the Swarthmore logo.

Speaking of running, about a month ago I met with a trainer to analyze my gait. At one point, he held me by the shoulders and told me to lean forward as if I might fall. After a moment, he shook my shoulders gently. “Loosen up,” he said. “I’m not going to drop you.”

That’s how I feel today. Like I’m leaning forward, just about to fall and the universe is telling me that all will be okay. I will be held.

(Image from degreesearch.org)

A New Low

Ready to run! For the last few winters, twenty-five degrees has been the coldest that I will run outside. Years ago, after my husband and I realized how much money we were sinking into gyms just to use the treadmills, we purchased one of our own so when it gets below 25, I'll hop on the treadmill. Well, for any of you who lives in the northeast, the midwest, heck most of the United States, the cold this winter has been brutal. That means lots of hopping on the treadmill. If you know me at all -- or any runner for that matter -- you know that treadmills can feel like a death march after a while. Re-runs of Supernatural, Buffy and Charmed can only take my mind off the hamster wheel for so long.

When I woke this morning, the day was clear and cold -- about 17 degrees. Not as bad as Wednesday's 3 degrees, but pretty darn chilly all the same. Not only was it cold, but we'd gotten more snow last night so it looked pretty messy out there. Tom was on the treadmill and I knew I was going into a day with a fair amount of sitting and listening so I did what any self-respecting runner would do -- I geared up.

Not only do I have all the necessary gear, I even had a pair of Yaktrax from my winter residencies at VCFA when a trek into town could be treacherous in the wrong footwear. I'd never run in the Yaktrax, but I thought: what the hell, might as well try it and see.

They're like tire chains  -- for your shoes!

The key to very cold running, in my opinion, is not just in the gear (lightweight upper layers, good gloves, tights with fleece lining), but also in the distance. Although the body warms up quick -- within the first mile -- after about mile 4 or so, I start to feel chilled again. But a short winter run doesn't necessarily translate to an easy run! Running in snow is like running in the sand. I was huffing and puffing in no time. Getting bold, I even attempted the trail near my house. Talk about huffing and puffing! The level of untrodden snow was a bit much for my sneakers, Yaktrax or no, so I turned tail and returned to the slushy sidewalks and roads.

Those of you who usually tune in to hear me talk about my experiences with writing might be wondering: what's the point? How does this relate to writing? For me, it's about being open to new experiences and willing put myself out there to see what happens. Now I can say I've reached a new low: running in sub-20 degree weather. But that's my limit. Or is it?