Saturday, August 28, 2010

For Those Without Walls

I started a summer running challenge on Memorial Day. A twitter friend suggested running 150 miles from the beginning of summer to Labor Day. At the time, I was looking for a little motivation to run with the dog who lives at my house. (If you know me, you know he poops under my sewing machine when I don't take him. Jerk.) I don't accept any running challenge without assessing the feasibility. I figured even if I only ran a mile or two a day, I could easily squeeze in 150 miles, as staggering as the number seemed on May 30.

As I ran my regular short path near my neighborhood, I grew stronger and more capable of running longer distances, so I started exploring the trail to see where it would lead and how long it extended. I ran over a bridge one day, looked underneath as I did so, and noticed two figures in repose under a light blanket. A bucket and a box lined up against the concrete abutment of the bridge. In a flash, I made my decision to run in the opposite direction.

I ran in the opposite direction from the homeless people all summer. Never ventured under or beyond the bridge. Each day in passing, thoughts flooded through me; conflicting ideas, emotions and questions. Should I help? What would I do? Why are they there? How awful! How infuriating! How gross! (I should say here that it never ceases to amaze me the vast expanse and complexity of human emotions that so much can run through me so quickly.)

Finally, my running endurance was such that I needed to run under that bridge, and I'm embarrassed to say that I felt nervous. I didn't want to disturb them or, worse, interact with them. I didn't want my dog rummaging around in their business. I just wanted to run by and get on with it. Running above them on the bridge was entirely different from running past them. My awareness of them as humans came into disturbing relief.

It seemed like I invaded their space, that I had just trampled through their bedroom. That thought made me angry on two levels, and they are not pretty. To be perfectly honest, my first thought was an incredibly selfish, "This is NOT your living room. It is a running trail." My second was to kick myself for my ignorance. "How can I possibly run by these people every day and not act?"

All summer, I tried to think of what I would do about it, but I never did anything. Two days ago, I ran under the bridge on my way home and I beheld the most grim vision that has spurred me. The woman crouched over an old bucket to relieve herself. As gross as that might seem, the reality is there is no dignity for a person without walls. I don't know her story, I don't know why she's there but I do know that every person deserves food, clothing and shelter.

I've been thinking about walls on my runs this summer and I've written about them before. Here is another kind of wall. Or to be more precise, a lack of walls that builds a distinct barrier. I know, with absolute clarity, that I need to do something about this. I still don't know what it is. I'm thinking, I'm praying, and now I'm asking you, my friends. I want to help. I want to say that I acknowledge them as humans. I want to show compassion to my brothers and sisters. Will anything I do make a real difference? Will it house the multitudes? I don't know but I have to stop running by and start doing. What should I do?

I made my goal and then some, by the way. When I accepted the challenge to run 150 miles, I didn't know that it would potentially take me, and my community even farther than that.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

And the Walls Came Down

Been thinking about walls lately. Not just structural walls like the ones around me right now as I type, although I'm glad they're here. No. I've been thinking about the ones we humans make to navigate the world, to hide the darkest parts of ourselves, to keep out the darkest parts of others.

Just like house walls, they serve a purpose. I want walls in my house. They tell me when the kitchen becomes the family room. They separate my room from my children's rooms. They let me use the bathroom in peace. (My kids don't but that's not their job, right?) They keep the hot summer "air" out, the cold winter wind knocks at the door but can't get through. Walls are good.

Walls also shut people out. And while I don't want my house crowded full of people all the time, there's a time and a place for hospitality. Right?

I had a few emotional hiccoughs this summer, which spun me into a mild summer funk. A sort of sadness turned me inward. I locked up my personal doors and windows. I put extra insulation around my virtual interior windows, drew the blinds and shut off for a while. I was hurt. I was confused. I didn't want to write because writing would make me feel and I didn't want to feel. I wanted to float. To simply exist without thought or notion.

I kept living my life, of course. I mean there are these people at my house who rely on me, things to do, people to see and all that. So while I tuned out emotionally for a bit, I kept running. Usually when I run my brain works on overdrive on creative ideas I can use either in my studio or in my writing. Running opens part of my brain that helps me see the shadow of possibility, a glinty piece of silver on the path. During this emotional wall building thing, I concentrated on step after step. That was it. That was all I had. I had nary a decent idea or thought. My train of thought went something like: "step, breathe, step, breathe...."

If there are routines in your life you depend on for some semblance of regularity and those systems go on the fritz, it can feel like trying to catch a speck out of a glass of water. You see it. You know the solution but you can't make it happen. I felt frustrated. Stupid, even. Creatively dry.

Until two days ago. I put new music on the old ipod, music that had no emotional connotations for me. Music I had never before heard, music that drummed into my head and feet a rhythm that breathed and stepped for me and suddenly, the cobwebs of doubt and confusion disintegrated. In my head, I composed a sentence. Not just any sentence. One that was more than two complete thoughts, related to each other, with interesting word choice and a funny point (if I do say so myself).

In my attempt to keep myself from feeling the hurt, I also closed my eyes to the re-creative potential of the hurt. I'm not saying running is a magic potion. I'm not saying that feeling hurt is amazing because it leads to great art. I'm not saying music is the great salve to the weary soul. Far from it. Maybe it was time, or perspective or simply being tired from the effort of suppressing it. I don't know. But the wall started to crumble, and I'm thankful.

In feeling it, in pulling it out of myself and writing about it, I could polish the stone and reflect on it from different angles. I found that the hurt held good truth in it that I needed to see. We don't always see the good that comes out of pain. Sometimes it just hurts. This time, this one time, the truth is flooding into my head and heart and I'm thankful for that.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Put the Play Dough Down

It rained on my run this morning which made my normally full hands slippery. I had the dog leash in one hand and my phone and ipod in the other. Normally I clip my ipod to my shorts but not today. Today, because SOMEONE had left my ipod in SOMEONE'S car, I had to use SOMEONE else's ipod which doesn't clip to anything Before you give me a thousand different ways I could have solved this problem, of the holding of gear, know that it's a story for another day, personal preference being what it is and all that.

The point is, my hands were full and slippery. Every few paces, I'd notice my hands were clutching the life out of my technology. It reminded me of something a very wise and gentle friend told me this summer. (Not my husband). He told me that I need to let go of the idea that I'm in control.

If you know me, you know I hate when people (my husband) tell me to "relax." My instant and strong reaction is rather the opposite of relaxation. My hackles raise up like a thousand little poisonous snakes ready to strike. I guess that makes me the middle(ish) aged version of a rebellious teenager. I'll relax when I'm darn good and ready to relax, thankyouverymuch. I like control. I enjoy control. When I know what to expect and who's going to be where and exactly when, I feel calm and reasonable. I feel, well, I feel in control.

Trouble is, life is uncontainable. It is largely ungovernable, especially by one as meek and lowly as I. When my friend told me I needed to let go, he was asking me to rethink how I viewed the world, asking me to see that my constant control-seeking kept me from relishing the peace of letting go.

So I'm running along this morning, cursing the dog as usual, and I get this image in my head: a brand new lump of play-dough, right out of the jar. It's all smooth and clean. It smells like salt and kindergarten. But, you notice...see, right there? There's a spot on the top that isn't quite blended in with the rest; it's sort of clumpy. So you reach out to smooth it, and in so doing, you make an impression with your thumb. Now you have to fix that, but you'll have to pick it up to do so, and before you know it, the cylindrical goodness that dumped out of the little tub is now a blob. With fingerprints on it. And some of it is on the floor and the table and under your fingernails. So you roll it up into an inexact spherical representation and put it down. Moments later, you're back to smoothing the edges, ready to get out the compass so you can verify it's symmetry.

That's how I approach life. And that's how approached the first week of school. I worry about my kids. What that tells you is that I'm a good mom. I worry and I pack lunches. Right there's your evidence. So, my eldest gets most of my social anxiety, because she prefers her own company, and her three best friends have all moved away. First week of school, I didn't care about classes, or homework or teachers. I wanted to know who was talking to her, to whom she was talking. Were there new kids who seemed nice? I made myself a tiny, annoying fly of repetition. She tolerated my anxiety. For a while.

Finally, kiddo told me to step off. "Mom. It's fine. I'm happy. Please stop bugging me about it." I knew it was coming. The increase in visible and verbal eye rolling? Off the charts.

But there's that lump of play-dough. I want to grab it and shape it and coax it and make it perfect. Or close. Or closer. And I'm running along, and I realize my shoulders have hunched a bit higher, my hands strangling the ipod. I hear my gentle friend's voice. "Let go."

I suspect this will be a lifelong journey of small steps. I hope the steps get farther and farther apart before I need reminding. I'm thankful for people who tell me the truth and help me to uncover it on my own. I suspect that image will stick in my head and help me to remember there is only One in control. And I'm not it.