Categories
pain

Stumped

stumped
I don’t mean to co-opt his story.

Then again, no story — even if its cast is a single character — can be told without rubbing up against someone else’s story.

Indeed, even when there is only one character in a narrative, the way that person behaves, the choices he or she makes — those things reveal a great deal about everyone else whose lives have ever converged with that solitary protagonist.

The nature of stories is that they’re intersectional, always a swirl of cause and effect, always a matter of “this thing happened to this one guy, but then ripples from that guy’s thing rolled outwards and bounced other people around, too.”

So I don’t mean to co-opt his story.

But even I, someone who hasn’t seen Dave Mackey in a few years, someone who married into friendship with him, am feeling ripples.

Before I read his announcement on Facebook the other day, I was at a point of disgust with social media — exhausted by both liberals and conservatives, depleted by everyone’s revelations of their truest selves. When it comes to politics, people not only discuss ideologies, they also discover that although they love many of their friends and family, they don’t actually like them. In fact, many are agonizing through internal debates within themselves, asking questions like: “If my uncle can look at footage of Donald Trump mocking a person with disabilities, if he can hear the audio of Trump boasting about predatory behavior towards women, if he can see all the reports of women coming forward and recounting how Trump pushed them against walls and jammed his tongue down their throats while grabbing their ‘pussies,’ if he can hear the racism in the rhetoric, yet he, my uncle, can still decide to vote for Trump, is that not an indication of my uncle’s character that I cannot ignore?” On the other side, there are people who despair, “If my son can support that woman who is essentially a corporate creation, a candidate with decades-long history of scandals, a person whose campaign is riddled with cynicism, corruption, and cover-ups — if my son still supports Clinton, does that not indicate something to me about my son that I cannot ignore?”

It’s all making me sick inside. In recent days, a fog of sadness clouds my head and my heart. My brain keeps returning to a few articles that have stuck with me — reading that I hoped would offer some clarity, some support, some shared sense that others are heartsore, too. Months ago, I read an article, “I Lost My Dad to Fox News,” and still, every day, I think about it (and the extended comment section after it, in which person after person relates similar sorrow). Then my brain wanders back to the writer’s points in “Dear Dad, Please Don’t Vote for Donald Trump,” an essay in which the tone is almost woebegone as a son contemplates the disconnect between the father who raised him and his father as a person who could vote for Donald Trump: “The choice is simple because it’s hard for me to think of a single person who violates more of what you taught me as a child . . . It was from you that I learned to respect just how hard Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants worked to make a life for themselves here. You told me what it was like picking fruit in the California heat, and explained how they took jobs that other people weren’t willing to do — because they wanted to support their families just like everyone else.” And I keep thinking of the betrayal a Latina daughter feels from her Trump-supporting father: “Donald Trump, you may argue to me, is making women strong again by forcing them to suffer insult after insult and grin and bear it. You may think, Dad, that the reason both of your daughters spent time in the hospital with eating disorders 15 years apart has nothing at all to do with insecurity or issues with lack of control in our lives because of our gender and the amount of pressure placed on a young woman from birth until the very end.”

My head hurts too much. My heart hurts too much.

Too often, when social media gives me insights into the values of friends and family, I flinch. I flounder. I wonder if I should stuff my disappointment into a shoebox and shove it to the back of the closet, pretending that careful containment of dismay will allow me to forget we are fundamentally divided. I wonder if those shoeboxes will fill my closet to bursting, if I’ll trip over them as I cling to flimsy shams of relationships.

I’m trying to breathe, yet I can’t fill my lungs.

But then the other day, just when I sat staring at Facebook and thinking, “I reallllly have to shut this tab and focus on creating a quiz for my class because I officially hate everybody,” a particularly shocking post showed up in my feed.

For at least five minutes, I sat in front of the monitor, reading, rereading, gasping, putting my hand over my heart, gasping more, feeling sick, wanting to drop my head to the desk and leave it there as I dabbed away tears.

I was looking at a post from Dave Mackey, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Dave is a long-time friend of Byron’s. They were interns together in the early ’90s at an environmental learning center in Northern Minnesota. Living in an isolated place, driven by a common passion, linked through communal living, the interns became each other’s People for Life.

After his time as an intern, Dave moved to Colorado and started to unpack the potential of his genetic and hard-earned talents. Specifically, Dave can run long, he can run hard, and he can run fast. Wikipedia sums up his largest career accomplishments thusly:

In 2011, Mackey won the Montrail Cup, which he also won in 2004. He won the Ultrarunning Magazine North American Ultrarunner of the Year in 2011, and was runner-up in 2004. He won the USA Track and Field Ultrarunner of the Year in 2004 and in 2005, and also has won several USATF national trail running titles at three different distances: 50K, 50 mile, and 100 kilometers. In running from one side of the Grand Canyon and back, also known as the rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R), Mackey holds the former record of 6:59:57, which has since been lowered by Rob Krar.

Mackey also holds speed climbing records in the Boulder, CO, area, including the fastest round-trip time climbing and descending the Third Flatiron from Chautauqua Park in Boulder.

In 2012, Dave set the master’s course record for the Western States 100 trail race, covering the 100 miles in 15:53:36, finishing fourth overall. The first time Dave ran the Western States, in 2004, he and Scott Jurek pushed each other beautifully — with Jurek setting a new course record, thanks to the threat of Dave, who finished second. As that race unfolded, Byron and I, far away in Northern Minnesota, frantically refreshed our browser every few minutes as we tracked Dave’s progress through live streaming. Running on a mountain trail for 100 miles? Now that’s a sport we in our house can geek out on.

When Byron and I got married, Dave was there. When Dave and his phenomenal wife, Ellen, got married, we drove out to Colorado to celebrate with them. Whenever we’ve been in Colorado and able to make it happen, we’ve had a few hours together, falling easily into shared company. Life carries on, and he’s become a dad and a physician’s assistant. Always, with every step he’s ever taken, Dave has been gracious, sweet, even, goofy, and full of thousand-watt smiles.

Then, last year, Dave had an accident — one of those quick nanosecond blips that change everything.

After the initial shock and worry, we fell back into normal life patterns, shrugged, and figured Dave would mend and be back to fighting form in no time.

However, those of us who figured Dave was invincible were too cavalier.

This is what thousands of fans and friends discovered a few days ago as we sat in front of Facebook, gasping:

It’s been a long 16 months since I fell off Bear Peak above my house, sustaining an open tibial/fibula fracture to my left leg. The long rescue followed, 13 surgeries, including skin, muscle and bone grafting, washouts of the open-fracture contaminated surgical sites, being in an external-fixator (think “iron lung”, only on the outside of the leg) for three months, and bone infection (which still resides). I have achieved a degree of success in mobility and some improvement. I went from not walking at all, to walking with a cane until this past July, to walking cane-free now. Running has not been an option in the least just yet. Riding a mountain bike most every day now is almost real freedom. But there is still pain whenever I walk and throbbing at night, and now intramedullary nail (a rod) is wobbling and the bone grafting at the middle if the fracture sight is not dense.

So I am at a cross roads. Do I continue with more surgeries with very high likelihood of failure? More time in a hellish external fixator? And even then there would always be pain.

But there is another solution, the definite, non-reversible one, to be 100% to where I was before the accident and almost completely pain-free. There is a way to get here and I’ve decided to go this route. This would mean the freedom, if I choose it, to walk the kids to school without a thought, ski, run in 6-8 weeks, compete in races again, even take down Mike Wardian’s treadmill world record (okay, this will NOT happen). So the big news is that next week I will have my left leg amputated below the left knee here in Boulder.

I’ve spoken extensively with orthopedic surgeons and other healthcare professionals and co-workers about my options. And there are other surgical options than amputation, but the chances of success are slim, and it feels time to move on. Being below the knee, this is “good” amputation to have. The technology of prosthetics is incredible these days, and improving, so I will be out in the mountains as before with my family and friends, to completing or competing in events again, having the ability to run any distance.

Dave posted this announcement a week ago, and the response was immediate and unified: if this is what Dave needed to do, then all love on him, and may his decision result in greater quality of life and a return to him feeling like his full self again.

There were no trolls. There were no naysayers. There was no outrage. There was no disappointment.

In a rare and beautiful moment, thousands of people poured out unadulterated support. If a man who can run a hundred miles without complaining announces “I can’t live like this any more,” then that’s all anyone needs to know.

After a party on Halloween night — a gathering of loved ones and running luminaries — Dave had the amputation surgery the next day. Yesterday, he posted:

Finally an update here on the big surgery yesterday. First of all thank you for all your voices of support, thoughts, prayers, and good energy. Once again, as it was last summer when the accident occurred, I am so blessed to have such good friends. The party two nights ago at Flatirons Running company was a complete blast. It was worth busting up my leg just to see some of the folks who came out I hadn’t seen in years. Thank you to Real Athlete Diets, Avery Brewing, and Southern Sun for the delicious food and beer, and to Hoka and Suffer Better. Generous funds were collected for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

So medically speaking yesterday was a huge day, as well as today. The procedure was scheduled for 2 1/2 hours and took five hours. It’s a pretty involved process as amputation, many nerves, blood vessels, muscle, skin and bone need to be excised and moved around. Much of the surgical procedure is creating an effective interface to work well with a prosthetic in a few weeks, and I am fortunate to work with one of the best lower limb surgeons, Dr. Rob Leland.

I am in a full leg/stump cast now, which I will have for up to two weeks, then be fitted for a prosthetic. Another ortho pod buddy of mine, Mike Hewitt, says I will be running in six weeks and running Leadville or Leadman next summer. For my part I plan on taking it literally one step at a time and not screw up all the work that’s been done on my leg!

Billy Yang has been around and documenting much of the process over the last few days and will probably be putting out a cool documentary. I hope he edits out some of the graphic stuff though!

Sorry I have not replied to many posts. I did read them though and appreciate the good feelings. Thank you so much. Now that I’ll be out and about more I look forward to connecting.

dave

So.

I don’t mean to co-opt Dave’s story. He is living it. It is his journey.

But.

I find that this week, this year, last year, next year, I need Dave’s story. I can’t stop thinking about him. He is all the things my hurting heart has been wishing for during this election season: a dignified, genuine person who is humble, intelligent, heroic.

In these days of being overwhelmed, disappointed, disillusioned, of feeling like the shoeboxes of dismay are threatening to spill out of my overstuffed closet, I find something sustaining in Dave’s thoughtful approach to his days.

In the midst of all the clamor and mud-slinging, Dave’s courage has reminded me that every important choice can be distilled into two questions.

“How do I want to live?” and “How can I make that happen?”

Trump and Clinton be damned.

I vote for Dave.


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Categories
kids

The Creek Elves

creek elf

He doesn’t care that I’m running past him, earbuds in. From his three-foot height, perspective is a tricky thing.

Intending to slide by, I smile at the little boy.

As soon as his eyes meet mine, though, words fly through the gap in his top front teeth. A big boy at age six, he shouts: “I brwaught my sister to the creek to show her the creek, and we rode our bikes!”

Slowing to a molasses trot, I smile again — my heart genuinely feels the smile at the same time my public face, knowing it must be kind to children, makes the right move. “Hey, cool,” I reply, grinning towards his younger sister, all of four, who, gasping with excitement at the sight of her brother talking to a tall person, hikes her charming flowered sundress and holds up a single muddy hand, showing the tall person that she’s been busy.

“I this dirt water brudder.” Her lips move, the voice reaching me faintly over the podcast that pours into my ears.

Still, a four-year-old is waving her hand at me, so I wave back, slowing my movement to two inches per second. Part of my brain thinks, “Should I worry that a six and a four-year-old are by themselves at a creek?” while the other part reassures “Those noggins are still strapped into bike helmets that some bigger person helped clasp.”

As if he reads my fleeting consternation, the big brother in charge continues his information dump. Pointing, straight-armed, up the gravel road, he yells, “We live on Idlewild, and we came over there from Idlewild on our bikes, and there are two ways you can get to our house from here.”

My bladder is full; I consider asking him for specifics about main-floor plumbing.

“Two ways, huh?” I ask, still shuffling my feet, trying to convey that the runner lady has places to go. Yet, gad, an enthusiastic gap-toother is about to provide me with a map to the place where his Legos live. I surely do love Legos.

And I surely do love teaching kids lessons about not talking to strangers, which is exactly what they’ll learn when all their Legos disappear.

I pull an earbud out. All the better to hear him with.

“YETH, THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO GET TO OUR HOUSE ON IDLEWILD FROM HERE,” the creek host hollers. “YOU CAN GO UP THAT ROAD, OR YOU CAN…”

His arm remains outstretched, but he stops. This is hard. Two ways is hard.

“Okay, first you can either go up that road. Or you can –…” An invisible hand reaches up and scratches his head.

I am compelled to help Short Stuff out. “Can you maybe also get to Idlewild if you go on that road, right there?” I ask, pointing at the nearest street.

Attempting to win through volume, the brother corrects me. “NO. NOT THAT WAY. BUT THERE ARE TWO WAYS. ONE IS THAT ROAD. AND THE OTHER IS–…”

He stands, frozen. Yet the energy of adventure fuels him. “THERE ARE ACTUALLY THREE WAYS. IS WHAT I MEANT TO SAY. THERE ARE THREE WAYS. FIRST, YOU CAN GO ON THAT ROAD. AND THEN YOU CAN–… BUT THEN THERE’S A THIRD WAY, TOO, IF YOU GO OVER…”

In this election season, I am familiar with his impulse to cover confusion and ignorance with a flood of words. His parents, no doubt sipping vodka gimlets in deck chairs somewhere on Idlewild while their kids riddle their way home, must be CNN junkies.

The kid is flummoxed, but he persists, saying words about the third way. Street. Bikes. Go. Up. No. Down.

Behind him, his little sister twirls, admiring the flare of her skirt.

I love these kids. But a thin trickle of urine threatens my spandex. Inhaling deeply, I reach for closure. “So there are three ways home? You seem really sure of the first one, so when you head home, that would be the best one to take, right? When you have a couple of choices, but you’re unsure, it’s best to–”

The four-year-old interrupts me with a bellow learned from a gap-toothed master. “HE SAID THERE ARE THREE WAYS. THREE IS NOT A ‘COUPLE.’ TWO IS A ‘COUPLE.'”

These kids are going to be just fine.

Shrugging with defeat, I wave goodbye and turn towards home.

Wherever it is.

There are probably fifteen ways I could get there.

——————————–

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Categories
gratitude

Be Your Own Badass

I fear I am a one-note writer.

So many of my essays are expressions of gratitude — although sometimes I bury it deeply enough that readers simply think the piece was about eating pie (blueberry up my nose) or getting new shoes (don’t touch: MINE) or loving my kids (Have you met them? They will gaze silently, listen intently, disappear into a book, and two weeks later drop a devastatingly astute observation that reveals they got it.).

Often, I write from gratitude because it’s safe. No one will object to positivity and affirmation. No one will tell me I’m wrong or out of line or inappropriate if the point of a story is a happy glow capped by a heartfelt swoop and a wave of peace fingers.

When I skid into areas that are raw, challenging, anti-gratitudinal, people get uncomfortable. It’s the rare reader who seeks distress. Most folks object to a perspective that grates. So there is an erosion that happens: the writer edits her ideas before she ever edits the punctuation.

I write safe.

It chafes.

It’s okay if I point out my own foibles and tell stories in which I’m the dunce. However, the second others enter the narrative, they have rights, too. An uneasy tension between I’m telling my story and I’m telling their story crops up. From there, it gets murky and complicated. I’m just trying to write what’s in my head, and if my right to do that only extends to myself, then I’m hobbled.

Every time I sit down and stare at a blank screen, these are the things that are on my mind. Many simply leave others out of their writing: they crank out snappy anecdotes about the fungus thickening their toenails or make listicles of ways parents are actually toddlers. Others, and I admire their courage and ability, own their story and write all the things in their heads, consequences be damned.

There is also the cover of fiction. Elena Ferrante, an author who has deliberately chosen to remain private and unknown, has acknowledged that the only way she can tell her truths is behind the veil of fiction. “She writes with hard-won honesty about subjects that people don’t feel they can write about with their own identity,” says Megan O’Grady, one of the first American journalists to interview Ferrante, which she did via e-mail in 2014. “She writes about hating your mother or your child. She writes about betrayal and sex.” No one is completely sure who Elena Ferrante is, what she looks like, where she lives, and every time she asserts that writing should stand separate from the author, the public becomes more wild to pin down who she is — so they can better probe her fiction for the non-fiction behind it. Readers are desperate to correlate the fiction to reality.

No matter what, it’s risky stuff, the business of putting words to page.

It’s risky stuff, the business of feeling compelled, from a deep, pounding place, to put words to page and to know that most of the recipients of those words have never engaged in the blood-and-sweat process of writing their own stories. Unquestionably: I became a better, sharper, more appreciative and understanding reader once I started trying to figure out how to write.

Unquestionably, I have had personal moments of reckoning when readers have reacted to something I’ve written, moments in which it is revealed I’m an asshole. I have been an asshole; I am an asshole; I will be an asshole. What flummoxes many is this: I’m okay with being an asshole. When my assholery occurs, it’s not on purpose, necessarily. But I learn from the reactions; subsequent to the lesson, I hunker down even tighter. The reactions erode future content. I edit myself. But still: I am okay with being an asshole. At least it feels real, like I’m willing to caress something prickly.

All of this is what I’m thinking about as I run along Brighton Beach on the first truly warm day of the year. This is what I thought about the day before when I ran up Seven Bridges Road, blinded by sunlit diamonds dancing across the surface of Amity Creek. This is what I considered the day before that, running the streets of the Lakeside neighborhood, my musings skidding along the loose gravel lining the newly exposed sidewalks.

Recently out of an immobilizer after shoulder surgery, I’ve been easing back in to running. Some days, the arm swing results in ache and swelling; other days, it feels great. At first, I just walked. Then, eventually, I started trotting for a block or two. Now, wanting to grab hard at this phase of  “free” recovery — leaving behind those days of constant icing, help with showering, thanks when my kids snapped me into my seat belt, groans when I tipped from left to right in the night, frustration at trying to put a liner into a garbage can, struggles to pull up my pants, sighs at how hard it was to open a yogurt container, sobs at the sensation of my bones splintering as red-hot screwdrivers were driven into them — I am running and running and running, outpacing those fragile and tentative weeks.

To feel my feet moving, both arms swaying, is powerful, particularly as Spring hits the city. Sunshine makes my soul sit up straight; the water rushing over waterfalls dazzles me. I am propelling myself from darkness to light.

As I run, I listen to podcasts. My brain is pipping with voices floating into my skull and, always, with the voices that live permanently inside my head. I hear interviews, benefit from people explaining their work and lives, and, always, my thoughts veer towards the analytical. I think about people, their choices, their behaviors, their intersections with their communities. And, always, I have notes. Always, I have observations. I have probing questions. Always. It’s the downfall of analytical thinking: the brain tangles with endless angles.

Often, when I’m running and my brain has had a good perk, I take the ideas and pour them into an essay. Teetering on the line between extrovert and introvert, I need to express externally, but in selective ways. Writing cleans me vein-deep.

Except when my brain has been percolating on matters of raw honesty that would offend.

I can’t put such stuff into writing. I lack the courage, the cleverness, the ability to say all that I would say. It’s frustrating.

I can put such stuff into my husband’s ears. He is right for me that way. I can unleash with a torrent of “And why did he have to…? Plus, wouldn’t it make more sense if…? How is that the best…? Does she ever question…? Isn’t it weird that they…?” — and he, an analytical thinker himself, provides responses that couple emotional with intellectual without being defensive or reactive. He is not threatened by stripped-down perspicuity, something that can strike others as brutal.

Thus, the things I ponder the most deeply and with the most oomph float across oral turf, across the stovetop in a kitchen with a stool next to some spatulas, an ephemeral exchange with a controlled audience.

As well, they live inside my running head, a special space governed by rhythm and unconstrained whirls.

Every day, I am running.

Every day, I am trying to riddle out a way to write about all the things, not just the easy positives. I play around with scenarios of using a pseudonym, simply writing fiction and telling everyone they’re wrong when they claim to spot themselves, or going balls-out and alienating everyone I know. Then I laugh, only a little ruefully, at the appeal of that final option.

Every day, I am returning to myself after some months of struggle. In every way, I am working at increasing my mobility and range of motion.

IMG_20160427_161550691

The sun makes the pine trees pop bright green, every needle distinct. The bright yellow of the sky illuminates the pebbles I carefully dodge because the single helpful thing the surgeon told me when I saw him a few weeks ago was “Just don’t fall.” The golden cast to the world energizes my cells.

As I hoof down the road, soaking up warmth and glory, I am ramming through frustrations. So many thoughts without a repository.

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.

The trees are a blur, the creek a reassuring burble. Finally, I am starting to feel strong and able again. Never will I be a fast runner; I’m not made for it. Yet I have been fortunate enough to get to a place in life where I don’t care how fast other people can run. All that matters is my own body, part of the landscape, witnessing the world from the intimate vantage of foot travel. It’s complete joy, this feeling of independence and control, and from my diaphragm a notion wells up: “I love being a badass for myself. I missed this.”

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Arms swinging. The miles tick by.

I am so lucky. My body is working. My brain has bones, clutched in pointy claws, to gnaw on. The air is smiling.

Everything is a happy glow, a heartfelt swoop, a wave of peace fingers.

Just as readers would have it.

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Categories
running

Sloggin’ in the Rain

SONY DSC

I like to pretend that life is a musical wherein all the Best Moments are enhanced by atmospheric lighting and the promise of a standing ovation. For me, everything — from the making of pancakes to the folding of laundry — takes on a brighter sheen if it is accompanied by high kicks and jazz hands, all the better if someone emerges from the wings wearing crinolines or drops from the rafters strapped into a harness.

One autumn day in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, however, I was forced to concede that sometimes drama is overrated.

Three months into our whimsical sabbatical year of living abroad, my family had experienced stunning summer heat, but the change of seasons introduced us to a new genre of weather. That October, the stage had been draped with striking scenery: the skies were unrelentingly grey, with ominous clouds hanging overhead that unleashed into pounding sheets of rain which seeped under the door jam and soaked the threshold of the 400-year-old stone house we were renting. Contemplating this dreary backdrop, I was reluctant to explore new valleys and canyons around the village when I went out running, thinking that I’d rather venture into new landscape theaters on sunny, classically-autumn days and avoid the stark topography that smacked of Ibsen more than Gershwin.

Since the weather didn’t seem to be shifting, though, and my time in Cappadocia was ticking away, I decided to throw myself out there and break a leg.

Late in the afternoon, I headed towards the crumbling monastery outside of the village and navigated the warren of trails that zigzagged throughout the valley below. Humming, I took a left whenever the trail diverged. Eventually, I was beneath a panoramic overlook frequented by tour buses that disgorged French and Korean travelers in search of a photo op.

Soon, I realized the overlook tourists were noticing me far below them on the stage of the valley floor–a living, breathing part of the spectacle they’d been ogling, and I fought the impulse to belt out an echoing “Everything’s coming up roses and daffodils” à la Ethel Merman in hopes that my performance would be rewarded with a shower of Turkish lira, raining down from the appreciative audience.

At that moment, a long roll of thunder resonated across the valley, and the action began to rise. Looking up, I saw not stage lights but a black cloud moving with startling swiftness towards my mark. Just above the rapidly re-bussing tourists, the sky popped white with lightning.

There’d be showers raining down upon me all right, but it looked like my show had received the worst of reviews, and early cancellation was imminent.

Crikey. I was a half hour’s run from home, standing at the foot of a cliff somewhere in a confusing valley in the middle of Asia Minor, and the sky was roiling with noise and light.

I was shaking like an understudy who’d forgotten the lyrics.

Taking stock of the situation (dire), sorting through the options (limited), I felt panic dancing in my balcony. Before that moment, my greatest stressors had been adjusting to life in a dusty village, living next door to a donkey, learning to eat drink salted yogurt, and attempting to communicate without verbs. All of that seemed like ice cream at intermission, however, compared to the fast-moving blackness that hung over my solitary figure, threatening genuine danger.

Exposed and alone, I stifled a scream as a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and connected with the dirt fifty feet away. Fear-driven clarity entered my mind. No one knew where I was. No one was coming to “save” me. No one and nothing on earth was going to fix this for me.

Quite unintentionally, I had been cast as the star of a one-woman show. Quickly, I decided that crouching down and balancing on the balls of my feet felt too passive, too much like allowing the scene to unfold rather than being an active player in it. Despite the cautionary voice in my head telling me to hunker down in the open until the worst had passed, I threw my shoulders back, inhaled from my diaphragm, and took charge of my fate.

Feigning confidence as lightning continued to stab down from the clouds, I ran well for the first few minutes. Even though my glasses were being pelted by raindrops, I could still find the trail. Minutes later, however, my vision blurred into nothingness. The raindrops hardened into stinging. My mood slid into alarm. My pace slowed. There wasn’t a jazz hand or high kick in sight.

A complete inability to see where I was going; a tragic sense of direction; clothes completely sopped; trails that had turned into rushing creeks; impulsive shrieking whenever lightning zapped around me; and a sky that had turned so dark that visibility was nil—all of these realities synergized into a single thought: “Keep moving.”

With less than an hour until dark, I hacked my way around dead-end trails and decided to believe that if I just kept trying, eventually I’d find my way back to something familiar.

However. The lightning was truly on top of me, and that created a danger bigger than dark. More than anything, I needed to find shelter.

In an irony so sharp it could have been scripted, I discovered that, in a region with thousands of abandoned pigeon alcoves, cave homes, lemon caves, and early Christian churches, I couldn’t find a single carved-out opening. If I could find the trail back to my starting point, it would take me only a few minutes to get to the ancient, crumbling monastery—an idea that roused my waning dramaturge and caused her to muse, “What a lark! Then you could tell people that you once sought shelter in a monastery!”

Early Christian monks didn’t know jack about signage, though.

As I kept running trail after trail, unable to find any overhang or refuge, I lapsed into a chant of, “One foot. Now the other. One foot. Now the other.”

Just as I convinced myself that dogged diligence would see me through, the Great Director in the Sky decided to kick up a frigid wind.

On the positive side, the onset of shivering meant being lost suddenly dropped much lower on my list of worries. Completely soaked and well into the second hour of running, I imagined my children introducing themselves to their future in-laws with a fraught summary of youthful tragedy: “My mother was killed by a freak intersection of lightning strike and hypothermia one day when she got lost in a wild valley in Turkey.”

Naturally, states of heightened dramatic tension always break, and it apparently wasn’t time for my grand finale just yet. The orchestra in my heart swelled as—trumpet fanfare!–the sky magically lightened, and the storm blew past, leaving behind only a gentle, steady rain.

I smeared my glasses “dry,” and after five more false starts, I finally happened upon the road leading towards the monastery. Soaked to the marrow, but with a song in my heart, I trotted the last fifteen minutes home, down the main street of the village. Each step squished loudly. My hair dripped rivulets down my torso. My pants refused to stay up, due to the weight of the water pulling them down. My shirt clung to my torso, providing show-stopping burlesque for onlookers accustomed to body-obscuring, layered clothing.

I’ve never before had a more rapt audience than I did on that long stretch from the monastery to the village square. At one point, near the taxi stand, I stopped and took a bow for three men who couldn’t believe the soggy apparition that had emerged from the raindrops. Had one of them not finally blinked, I would have been forced to burst into the chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” to snap them out of their reverie.

By the time I made my way through the center of the village, the square was Standing Room Only. As had been the case for the previous two hours, I pointed my eyes to the ground and just kept moving…albeit with one hand holding up my sagging pants.

One foot. Then the other.

Nearing home, I considered the power generated from placing one foot in front of the other. Pushing back against fear, carrying on in the face of uncertainty, and moving forward blindly had brought me out of the storm; months before, these same abilities had given me the gumption to pack up my life and plunk it down 7,000 miles from home, in the midst of fairy chimneys, headscarves, and The Call to Prayer.

None of it had been easy. Much of it had been nerve wracking. All of it had been amazing.

A grin spread across my drenched face, and my free hand rose and pointed to the still-clearing sky. Fingers splayed wide, palm pulsing, I saluted the clouds with a triumphant jazz hand of joy.

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travels

Going for a Run in Turkey

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I wrote the post below five years ago, when our family lived in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Since that time, not a day goes by when I don’t feel some resonance from that experience. I look in our spice drawer in the kitchen, and I see bags of pul biber. The kilim rugs under my feet, as I walk through the house, were carried home in our suitcases. The hamam soap I use in the shower is Turkish. Messages I receive on social media are from friends who sustained us.

During weeks when there is an election in Turkey, as there was recently, that country is even more on my mind. It’s playing a huge role on the world stage these days–hell, it always has, if one looks at history. While my Western sensibility is saddened that this past week’s election indicates the majority of Turkish citizens are supporting a trend towards autocracy over the democracy established after WWI, I also realize that it’s important to consider why so many Turks are behind the platforms of former-prime-minister-now-president Recep Erdogan. For millions who live in Turkey, the move towards conservatism feels like the best choice. I don’t get that. But I wasn’t raised there. As was the case during our time abroad, Turkey illuminates my cultural blindness–how hard my head has to work to wrap itself around politics, values, and history so foreign from my own.

Good on you, Turkey. I need your lessons.

Here, then, is a callback to that year, a time that bred an enduring love of a hospitable, bewildering land. This is what it took to head out the door of our 400-year-old Greek home and head through the village, out to run on the dusty roads of Cappadocia.

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First, I have to brace myself, especially if it’s a hot day, and I’ve decided that wearing shorts is the only choice between me and heat exhaustion.

Secondly, I replay in my mind the guidebook phrase that informs, “Turks don’t consider staring to be rude.” As I remind myself of that phrase, I try not to flash back to high school, when all the boys over six feet tall sat on “Jock Rock” in the front entry of the building and assigned scores to every passing female.

Thirdly, I shield myself with sunglasses, hat, and earbuds–devices that serve as interference between me and the stares that are not rude but that, nevertheless, feel like a challenge.

Fourthly, I prepare myself for the audible commentary and mock applause that Turkish men over 50 produce at the sight of a woman running. It’s a bonus day when they pump their fists in the air and act as though I’m crossing a finish line. As well, I do a special “dodge and weave” stretching routine that limbers me up so I can maneuver my way through the gamut of neighbor housewives who badger me to buy a doll, a scarf, a pair of socks–despite my refusal to do so every single time I’ve passed their houses for the past 11 months.

Fifthly, I ready myself for defense against passing adolescent males on motorcycles and scooters who enjoy a quick game of “Buzz the Runner” when they spot me out on a country road. When this happens, I count myself lucky that I’ve never had men in loafers smoking cigarettes pretend to chase me down–proving their macho by keeping up with the runner–as Byron has. Fortunately, when it happened to Byron, the two faux chase runners, cheered on by their compatriots, had to drop out after a few meters due to hacking and an inability to draw breath.

Six, I try not to laugh visibly at the disconnect between the podcasts I’m listening to and the landscape and people I am seeing. It tickles me immensely to be listening to fairly, erm, hardcore advice being dispensed by Dan Savage as I pass a grandpa on a donkey.

Seventh, once I am out of the village, I pick up handfuls of rocks, all the better to use when and if I encounter the myriad wild dogs. Byron remains genuinely traumatized after his major showdowns with packs of thirty and, most recently, ten angry and aggressive dogs circling him. For the most part, the feral dogs retreat in the face of a rocks and shouting, but even still, Dog Rendezvous adrenaline trumps a “runner’s high” any day.

Finally, once I’ve run the gauntlet of staring; attempted to explain in my limited Turkish the idea that I’m not running any place specific but, instead, am doing spor; and equipped myself with nature’s weaponry, I turn up the volume and set to the jog. On the days when I find the entire endeavor tiresome and just wish for an easy, anonymous run,

at least I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ve provided the natives with some new entertainment–which, clearly, they were needing–and then, smiling, I imagine the neighborhood aunties, so puzzled by my actions, witnessing Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon and watching 9,000 runners pass by in the space of a few hours.

They would wet their shalwars.

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Nature's full of weirdos

Flushing the Queer Birds out of the Bushes

She was built like a hobbit hut.

Squat. Stout. Solidly constructed. Unlikely to tip over, even when besieged by orcs.

Then she bent down to examine something on the path, and as the elastic waistband on her denim shorts stretched to its limits, the outline of her person both shrank and expanded. Her skin was as pale as Dita Von Teese’s soft white underbelly in mid-winter, her brown hair shorter than General MacArthur’s at the peak of his power in the Pacific Theater.

Although she appeared to be nearly fifty, she struck me as someone who would move through life, even in adulthood, under the watchful eye of a guardian.

Yet there was no watchful guardian there on the trail. Hobbit Hut Woman was entirely on her own near the Amity Creek that day, apparently just another hiker out enjoying the gorgeous September sun.

I was out for a run, soaking up that same sun, and as I neared HHW, I tried to gauge whether or not she’d heard me coming. Giving her another second or two to note my presence, I prepared to emit a quiet cough to alert her. Wouldn’t want to affright the nice lady enjoying a lovely afternoon all on her lonesome, now would we?

She was squatting, deeply engrossed in the dry, packed earth. Just as I opened my mouth to give a warning cough, HHW stood up dramatically from her crouch, raised her arms above her head–What was that in her hands? A screwdriver? Ah, an awl!–and plunged the tool into the ground. Then again: she straightened, raised, and plunged, over and over, like Buffy slaying a vampire, if the earth were The Undead.

Coincidentally,

unfortunately,

just as I opened my mouth to alert her–with a warning noise that could potentially save me from an awl to the heart–a bug (smaller than a fly; bigger than a mosquito) flew into my mouth and shellacked its twitching body to the soft, wet wall of my oropharynx.

The moment was a perfect storm, wherein a Human Hobbit Hut was stabbing at, puncturing, the surface of Earth, no doubt striving to reach Middle, and I, citizen runner hoping not to trigger anxiety in an awl-wielding maniac, was tamping down a gag reflex so strong I felt my gall bladder heaving.

In a nanosecond, my priorities became clear:

1) Stifle, lest history’s loudest-ever “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI” startle;

2) Get past The Wild Awler as quickly as possible, affording her a wide berth, and put enough yardage between us that history’s loudest-ever “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI” could come safely tearing out of my mouth. Repeatedly. Followed by some ladylike spitting, genteel hoiking, and polite mouth dabbing.

Lawsy, friends, but the gag reflex is a powerful thing.

Repressing it while simultaneously running quickly as possible past one of the forest’s Special Creatures, well, now, that was a physical challenge akin to being ten centimeters dilated and ready to push but having to fold a load of laundry first.

I tried distracting my gag reflex–recalling the words of a Texan college roommate who advised, referring to a drastically different scenario involving gag-reflex-stifling, that she’d always found helpful a policy of “Close your eyes, and think of flowers.” I tried distracting my brain–thinking about how I never could get through The Hobbit, yet my ten-year-old gobbled up both it and The Lord of the Rings trilogy a couple years ago, so whatever, J.R.R.. I tried distracting my body–forcing it to leap every tree root and muddy patch it came to.

It didn’t work. I couldn’t close my eyes and think of flowers while running on an uneven trail, or I’d trip and fracture my patella. I couldn’t think of The Lord of the Rings because such thoughts would just make me want to give Gandalf a makeover (don’t get me started on that hair). The mud and roots weren’t challenges but, rather, obstacles between me and a satisfying one of these:

All I could do, as I tried to put a reasonable distance between me and HHW so that I could expel my innards, or at least one very small insect corpse, onto the ground, was chant, “A few more feet. Just cover a few more feet. Almost there. Almost far enough away. Almost time to release the hack.”

Ahhh, there it was: a curve in the trail thirty yards away from HHW. Once I rounded it, I could stop, prop my hands onto my knees, get intimate with my uvula, and not fear the jamming of a stabby tool into my clavicle.

All right, then…almost there…just about around the bend…time to give in and let-‘er-rip…

But wait.

WHAT HO?

Coming toward me were an off-duty Santa Claus and his Alison Bechdel-ish hiking partner. Even worse, these people were looking to friend up with any random passer-by on the trail. Full of direct eye contact, wallets stuffed with dollars aimed at the Whole Foods Co-op’s tills, and a desire to combat personal body odor by rubbing crystallized mineral salts on their armpits, this couple viewed every walk in the woods as an opportunity to commune with the immensity of existence. Their eyes clapped warmly and intensely upon my purple face, and Off-Duty Santa noted, under his breath, “Well, now, Runner Lady appears to be suffering from a tragic overdose of Blue Gentian ingestion.” His gentle gaze turned even kinder and softer as he contemplated a mid-trail Intervention.

This would, obviously, not have been the right time to scald my vocal chords in an effort to shed a thorax, for these were more Lorax than thorax folk, in truth, the kind who have the word “Unless” emblazoned on their car license plates.

“Beautiful day—the kind of day that could tempt even the strongest soul to lose her willpower and eat a field of trumpet-shaped flowers,” offered Off-Duty Santa mellifluously, gesturing to the bounty of Gaia that filled up our senses as he began his Intervention. To his right, Alison Bechdel stoically bore witness and adjusted her backpack, which presumably held binoculars, a birding guide, and a mason jar of chia seed trail mix.

Unable to speak, and therefore unable to admit I was powerless in the face of my addiction and make amends, I gave them my best fake grin, an affirming nod, and kept my legs churning. Never let it be said I failed to run frantically in the opposite direction the second I saw a helpful Intervention coming my way.

Actually, the “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI,” she was rising, and the last thing I wanted to do was unleash it upon hearts that were already bleeding–especially because, if Santa and Bechdel abandoned the lost cause that was me and kept walking down the trail, they were about to encounter a Human Hobbit Hut vigorously attacking The Earth Mother. There’s only so much trauma dreamcatcher-lovers in North Face jackets can withstand in the space of an hour.

Trust me. I know. Some of my favorite people are lacto-ovo-pescatarians.

Fighting down my gullet, attempting once again to open a reasonable space between imminent yacking noises of insect carcass clearing and the good intentions of friendly question askers–Are you okay? Do you need some water? Should I slap your back? What’s wrong exactly? Do you need a doctor? Can I do anything? Is it still bothering you? Should I call someone? Maybe you should sit down? Now how are you feeling? Are you sure you don’t have a problem when it comes to Blue Gentian and all the rest of this is trumped-up deflection from the true issue?—I focused on rapid foot turnover and finding a companion-free oasis of trail.

Twenty yards; thirty yards; forty yards; out of sight. YES.

I let loose with it: “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI!”

Although the freedom to hack at will was glorious, the bug corpse didn’t surface. It had Become One with The Jocey. There was no other option: it was time to settle into some deliberate swallowing. Willing my stomach to welcome the protein, I frothed mouthfuls of saliva and forced them down my throat.

At some point during this esophageal hysteria, the itch that was the bug diminished to a tickle—most likely because only its wings remained plastered to my glands while the rest of its being descended into acid–and I was able to continue my run, this time with both voice (scratchy) and normal stride (glacial) back in place.

Tra-la-la, and ain’t the sunshine grand? sang my brain.

After a bit, I glanced at the time and decided to turn around and head back to the car–where a refreshing, larynx-restoring beverage would get the chugging of its life. Skirting muddy bits, avoiding horse apples, I looked up to see a fellow runner heading the opposite direction. As many runners do, she raised her hand to give a wave, but, as not many runners do, she raised her arm slowly, robotically, bent to 90 degrees at the elbow. She looked like a cactus propelled by Adidas. Articulating her hand back and forth a couple of times, she then returned the square angle that was her arm down to her side.

Apparently, that’s how we say “Hi” on Planet Cyborg.

Four minutes later, retracing my route, I looked down a straightaway of trail and spied Off-Duty Santa and Impassive Bechdel standing so close together that I feared the birth of their first child 40 weeks hence, save for the fact that they were fully zipped into their hemp clothing and unencumbered by attraction. As they sensed my presence, they stepped apart rapidly, each retreating with suspicious dispatch to opposite sides of the path. Nearing them and actually able to speak this time ‘round, I prepared the type of enthusiastic greeting that would assure them I’d never needed the Twelve Steps for Blue Gentian addiction at all, as I’d merely been purple-faced due to my penchant for opening my mouth at inopportune moments. If my enthusiastic greeting hit the mark, and Santa and Bechdel and I ended up chatting and eventually becoming friends, I would demonstrate this talent again and again throughout the years.

The enthusiastic greeting never found purchase, however, for Santa and Bechdel quite purposefully turned their backs to me as I approached, with Bechdel immersing herself in deep study of the flowing waters of the creek and Santa sticking his nose up and into the needles on a pine tree.

Perhaps they were contemplating their next purchase of Dr. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, or perhaps they were giving me a good old-fashioned passive-aggressive payback snubbing. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes with tempeh Reuben eaters.

My feet continued clouting the dry earth step after step as I mused upon the colorful cast of characters populating the trail that sunny afternoon. From pine sniffers to cyborgs to aggressive Hobbit huts, Nature was displaying both its most beautiful autumn colors and its most distinctive oddities.

The thing is: it’s all a matter of perspective. I saw a woman assaulting a trail with a tool; had she noticed, she would have seen a knock-kneed Michelin woman staggering sideways while clutching at her throat. I encountered a puzzling couple loitering without purpose; they encountered an antisocial runner the color of an eggplant. I passed a fellow runner whose body language was robotically bizarre; she passed a weak-looking peer whose eyes crossed and eyebrows furrowed together as she flitted by.

By the time I got to the car, snatching desperately at my water bottle, I knew only one thing for certain: it sure is hard to identify which ones are the queer birds in the forest when, in reality, we all are.

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