Traveling Without Siri

I hadn’t walked very far this morning when a swoosh of movement caught my eye; that amber flash was a mama and baby deer, scooting up a neighbor’s driveway. The drive is bordered by a hedge, and, as I started down the hill toward it, the baby poked its head up over the bushes to watch me. It was all liquid dark eyes and twitchy black velvet nose and huge, pointy-oval, radar ears.

I cocked my head one way and it cocked its head the other, and we stopped and eyed each other like that for a moment. And then the mama keck-ed, deep in her throat, and the baby deer sprang away. The two of them were grazing side by side in the neighbor’s backyard when I walked by. They raised their heads to look backwards at me, and I waved.

Around the corner, ungainly bumblebees were busy at the wonderful shrubs that border a lush lawn. I call them doll-skirt bushes; the huge blossoms start out tightly fisted and deeply pink, and as they unfurl, their color gets lighter and the petals swirl out like the kind of outrageous pleated outfits trim dancers kicked around in, in 1940’s musicals.  The flowers turn a creamy white. By nightfall, they’ve curled into tubes and fallen off—limp and dirty cigars laying sadly on the gravelly shoulder. Derelicts, fallen to the curb after a splendid day’s showing…

The bees sent one of their comrades my way on reconnaissance. The fat thing burbled menacingly around and around my head; I had to stop and turn slowly along with it until it got bored and went back to nectarizing.

I pushed on to Dresden Road and headed north. I stopped again at the big white house, which has gone from neglected to sparkling. It’s huge–during the long interval it was on sale, I think we read in the listing that it has six bedrooms. It has a newly painted in-the-city farm barn, appropriately bright barn red, and all the accoutrements–the wicker furniture on the sprawling porch, plant stands, outside wall art–pop in that same deep color.

In the front yard, there’s a real, old-fashioned wooden sledge, the kind horses might have drawn in the northern backwoods in 1880. Some days, it’s being pulled by pink flamingos.  Some days, the flamingos are sitting on the wicker on the porch. Today, the flamingos shared the driver’s seat, and one had the reins on its beak.

Satisfied that I knew where the flamingos were, I pressed on until I’d walked about three-fourths of a mile, and then I turned to head back. I like to walk on Friday mornings, just a little bit of a stretch to start the weekend. The weekend, I thought, and felt the heady absence of work in the three days ahead.

And then I had one of those moments. It was just like when I’m using Siri for directions, and I willfully make a wrong turn.  There’s a pause–I always think she’s biting her electronic tongue to keep from barking obscenities at me–and then she snaps, Make a U-turn! Make a U-turn! And then, when I don’t, I imagine Siri’s digitized sigh, and the whole picture shifts, swings around, encapsulates a brand new vista. I was heading back down Dresden, and my horizon just completely morphed. It was almost physical, like picking up my foot and expecting it to touch the ground as usual, and finding it hits the ground someplace else entirely.

Because,–although the weekend is still two days, of course,–I DON’T have to go back to work on Monday. I’m taking Monday off, and then, on Tuesday, I am officially retired.

So, although I will not ever be a lady of leisure–neither by inclination nor by financial reality–it could be true that I never actually ‘go to work’ again.

*********

Whoa. The hard cement wall called Work-On-Monday just burst, and time went flooding over it.

**********

My father retired in his mid-50’s on disability, and he was lost without the schedule and the sense of being needed work gave him. For the first months, he drove my mother crazy. He followed her around, helped her make the beds. Asked what was next. Then he hit his stride and started doing woodworking and refinishing furniture. But it was a tough transition.

I have other role models, though, who make me think this change won’t be so hard. Take my friend Teri, who wasn’t even 18 when, a skilled high school graduate, she slid into a civil service job. Teri retired at 50 and never looked back. Now she works when she wants to and does amazing things at home. She mothers her still-at-home teen-aged daughter. She travels.  In the last years, she’s become a grandma with all the joy and busyness that entails.  She savors the pension she paid into from the time she was a young girl, and she embraces the after-working life.

************

I was picking up some signed certificates in the president’s office this week and talking to my colleagues Brenda and Kathy. Kathy will also officially retire on Tuesday, and Brenda asked the two of us, “What are you going to do with all that time?”

I looked at Kathy and she looked back, and we shared a charged understanding.

“I’m going,” Kathy said to Brenda, “to do all the things I’ve been putting off until this day arrived.”

Amen, Sister! I thought, and I slid my certificates into their manila envelope, waved them merrily, and went off about my way.

***********

I went walking later than usual this morning because James and I made an early trip to the library. It occurred to me I could stop making excuses and plan a weekday trip to the Clark Gable birthplace museum in Cadiz, Ohio, about an hour and a half from here. So, while Jim was browsing the DVD’s, I found a Gable biography and began reading about his early years in Ohio. I grabbed a copy of the Mutiny on the Bounty DVD too: there’s time now, to do a little research.

Later, I checked the weather on my phone and was pleased to see happy little sunshines–and reasonable temperatures–next to the next five days. This weekend, I’ll finish painting the car port–where the ceiling fan looks so festive and moves, still, so glacially.

I can clear out the weedy old flower beds and put in last minute annuals, schedule the planting of bulbs and seeds and pretty hydrangea bushes.

James and I will sketch out a plan for his bedroom, move him into temporary quarters, and repaint–the ceiling blue, like a limitless sky, the walls a fresh cream.

I will uncover my neglected sewing machine, and it and I will become, again, partners in creative projects.

And in the quiet of the morning, I will write.

Those are the top bullets on a long, long list of things that have been waiting, sighing and patient, for the time to come when there’s time to act.

I’ll start, I keep telling my family, as I mean to go on: with a schedule and a plan.

And then I’ll walk forward into loosely woven days–the only deadlines or restrictions ones I’ve chosen to embrace.

*************

It’s going to be different, retirement. It’s the first time I’ve left a job without another to step into, and I feel daringly untethered, a little bit anxious, a whole lot excited. Time now, to step into the next phase, and to determine the shape of things to come.

A Flabby Granny Hits the Gym

I walk in behind a beautifully togged, perfectly lean, runner. Her bouncy blonde hair is swooped up in a pert pony tail, and her form fitting ‘wick-away-the sweat’ polyesters are fluorescent rose and black and pink.  Her socks and running shoes, of course, match her outfit. There is not an ounce of fat on the woman.

She slows at the door, strides in, crows, “SIX today!” and high fives a petite brunette, who breaks from her dainty, darned near a split, stretching to reach out a congratulatory hand.  They bounce on the balls of their feet for a minute, then head off together to the members’ locker room.

A grizzled, toned gentleman runs down the stairs and leaps in front of me to the desk, where he leans on his elbows and grins at the attendant.  She hands him a thick white towel, and he tells her just how many crunches and lifts and other absurdly painful rituals he has performed today.

The gym: it is not a place for the faint of heart or the less than enthusiastic of spirit.

And yet: here I am.

**********

I am here because I get a twenty-five per cent discount at this gym from my place of work and, since this beautiful new facility opened a year or two ago, the price of membership has dropped by about half. Now even my tight, frugal heart can embrace the cost.

I am here because, as a family, we have realized that the long winter past has snugged our britches and broadened our butts…and that another cold dark eating  season approaches.

I am here because this summer has been so hot, averaging well over ninety degrees, that taking a nice brisk three mile walk is a major production, complete with iced water bottles and warnings about symptoms of heat prostration.  This gym, now: it is air conditioned.

I am here because, in exactly one month, my walking buddy Wendy and I will be striding proudly in a walking 10-K, and I want to be practiced and ready.

I am here for my health, and my family’s health, and to stave off those nasty cramping effects of aging.

I am here for many good reasons.

But I don’t have to like it.

*********

My son James has embraced the concept of the gym, and he accompanies me today.  We swipe our membership key cards under the laser, catch the red band, and hear the “Peep!” that means we’re good to go.  We bound upstairs to where a vast field of exercise machines are encircled by the track (twelve laps = one mile).

James and I, we like the treadmills, and we spy two at the end of a long row. We walk down an aisle, between haughty, lean people in spanky exercise gear; on our left, they’re on machines that have their feet marching up and down and their arms reaching up and down and surging back  and forth. The treadmills are on our right, and excessive young idiots have them turned up to 15 or something, and they are RUNNING.  On the treadmill.

“Show offs,” mutters Jim. Then he looks innocently away when a dapper young runner turns his head sharply.

We march down the row and find our treadmills.  I pull my Ipod out of my pocket and unravel the ear buds, and turn it on.  First I pull up the fitness app and hit the button for “Walking.”  (I don’t need no stinkin’ Fit Bit.)  Then I turn the music on, and push the buds into my ears, and Dave Matthews croons that I must be an angel.

I straddle the belt and turn on the machine, which hums slowly into life at a speed of about ‘1’.  I step on the track and start ramping up the pace until I am walking at a speed of ‘3.6’.  I have no idea what that means,–3.6 whats???– but my goal is a 15-minute walking mile, and this pace gives me a 16 minute mile–right there in the neighborhood. I stride along; and Dave Matthews gives way to Leonard Cohen, reminding me we’ll take Manhattan before we take Berlin.

James is happily walking along on the machine next to me. He, more tech savvy than his mother, has downloaded his play list onto his smart phone; he bops to, no doubt, bands like Metallica and the Beastie Boys. James has retro, hard metal tastes.  I haven’t yet asked him to transfer my playlist from IPod to IPhone, so I have the phone in one pocket, the music in the other.

I stride.

The bank of TV’s in front of us offer all kinds of intellectual fare, from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ episodes to the movie, ‘Ted.’  My mind wanders. Am I, I wonder, the only person in this place with pockets in my shorts?  I am wearing a pair of older denim shorts and a baggy T-shirt emblazoned with the name of my undergrad school. Both have touches, here and there, of paint.  I love to transform rooms and furniture with cheerful coats of innocuous latex.  My husband claims that I am a paint magnet, though; he says I could paint a border on the floor and wind up with paint on top of my head, on the shoulders of my shirt, and on the waistband of my pants.

All of my leisure clothes sport paint, even ones, I swear, that were in the drawer while I was painting.  I don’t care, but I do notice, now I think of it, some of those spanky-clad people looking at me a little pityingly.

James, next to me, is blissfully, unconcernedly, clad in his hot weather uniform: a Hawaiian shirt (base color maroon) over an orange T-shirt, and khaki cargo shorts. His Nikes are old and comfortable and he pulls his socks up to his knees. One of the gifts his autism gives him–and really, there are gifts aplenty, if one looks–is a total unconcern for the subtle pressure of peers or the imminent threats of committing fashion faux pas. Should someone say to him, “I think those shorts are last year’s style,” he would simply reply, “I LIKE these shorts,”  and continue on.  It’s one of the many qualities about the boy I greatly admire.

But perhaps we do make a quaint pair at the trendy new gym.  I noticed last weekend, when Mark came with us to work out, he grabbed a stationary bike about a half mile away from our tread mills.

***********
My dashboard tells me I have completed 1.5 miles, so I chug down to a barely moving speed, turn off my machine, and head off to the track.  I notice, as I walk, trying to maintain a pace close to ‘3.6’, that there are, really, lots of regular folks among the tanned and lean and incredibly fit denizens.  There’s a sweet couple on the tread mills, maybe seventy or so, who reach out and hold hands every once in a while.  They smile and wave every time I pass them.  I round the curve and pass the weight area; an anguished looking plump man presses iron under the watchful eye of what must be his fitness coach–a service that comes with the premium membership, or for which you can pay extra.

Hah.  One of our adjuncts, Kendra, who is absolutely wonderful, and probably weighs now about what she weighed in fifth grade, is a fitness coach here.  She did a wonderful wellness series for the employees at the College, too.

She scared the horse hockey out of me.

Before each session, she would plunk down her little electronic scale and fire it up, tapping people as they arrived, making them step on it, and recording the read out. “No flipping way,” I’d think, hiding around the corner until it was time to begin, and, after searching the hallway once last time, Kendra reluctantly grabbed the scale, put it in her bag, and dragged her equipment into the classroom.  When she was well and surely in, I would sprint down the hallway, push through the door, and, trying to exude that aura one has when she’s been busily doing some terribly important, apologize for being late AGAIN.

“I’ll catch you after class,” Kendra would mouth, but I always had to run off immediately to a meeting.

Kendra talked to us about diet; and I perked up when she said eating healthily did not mean giving up treats.  Thank God! I thought.  Kendra passed out recipes, and I looked at the first. Carob Balls, it read.  They had nut butter and flax seed, and if you really HAD to have that extra sweetness, a soupcon of honey, and Kendra confessed that sometimes she had TWO Carob Balls at a time. In the photo on the recipe, the balls appeared to be about the size of one of the beads on my necklace.

How many calories do you need to expend to burn off the gigundo sized Heath Bar Blizzard? I wondered to myself. And I gathered up my stuff, readying to run away as soon as fitness class was over.

At the gym, Kendra teaches things like Hot Yoga and Spinning and Pounding and Cycling.

I like to walk, but I am thinking that, if I am feeling greatly daring later this month, I may sign up for something as exotic as water aerobics.

***********

I walk past the overview that looks out over the two pools and watch people churning the water.  I think I’d like to get into shape enough to do water laps.

Maybe by November.

But for now, I walk, enjoying the movement, the camaraderie with my son, the sense that we are taking a step into a healthier lifestyle. I am sleeping better, and I’m feeling more energetic, and I’m confident now that I won’t let Wendy down when we walk our 10-K on 9/11. Eighteen laps melt away; Jim waves and slows his machine down. I wind down and wait for him.

As we leave, some of the spanky people on the machines smile at us and wave. Well, heck, I think, they’re kind of real people too, aren’t they? and I grin back and give them a thumbs up.  The nice attendants call us by name, tell us they’ll see us tomorrow maybe.  I give them a thumbs up, too.

I have joined gyms before, and quickly backslid, but this time, I think it’s working.  I’m committed; I have a goal. I have companions on the journey. I even have new shorts coming, via UPS, any day now.  They’re gray and they’re baggy, but they have not one drop of paint upon them, yet.

And I feel the magic of regular exercise working.  My clothes fit a little better.  My legs feel a little stronger.  I might, I think, take my walking and turn it into running.

And at just that moment, I see Kendra rounding the corner, and I think, Maybe today’s the day.

“Come on, James!” I challenge, and we bolt out the doors, into the warm night, heading for the safety of the car.

An Ordinary Week, Triumphant

 

I clip the leash on to the little dog’s collar and we step out into pale morning sunshine.  This early, the air is cool, and I think I will bring my coffee and IPad outside and sit on the repurposed chair, with its plush new cushion, and write this morning. I’ll pour steaming coffee into my Hartstone mug, the one with the pansies–but first, the insistent little dog needs her morning walk.

We head down the driveway, and we veer to the left.  Greta sniffs and grumbles among the rocks in Shirley’s landscaping, tippy-toeing around the plantings, investigating last night’s rich residue of smells.  In the hard, caked dirt, there are exactly round drill-holes, the evidence that the cicadas were here, vividly present for much of May and June. Now the offspring of those noisy, vanquished conquerors have begun their long slow burrow below.

Birds call; a robin pulls a tidbit from the dirt on the other side of Shirley’s lawn. I just read something about birds and their relationship to dinosaurs, and now I can’t help but picturing T-Rex with feathers. Or seeing hidden meaning in the bright, bold glint of a robin’s eye. This one ignores me, hopping into clumsy flight, its morning treat dangling from its beak.

****

I think, as I wander alongside the exploring hound, about last night’s presentation at the Gant House, where Anita Jackson, with a simple prop or two, made the character of Anna Maria Gant come alive.  Love’s difficult when you’re enslaved: that was a big part of Anita’s message, and she told the story of the Gants in the mid-1800’s, owned by different people but united in lawful marriage.  When Nelson’s owner died and left him free, Anna Maria was still someone’s personal belonging. Nelson worked all summer to earn a thick bundle of bills; he came and put it on the mistress’s table.

And she, Anita showed us, laughed at him.

Nelson persevered, and he finally purchased his wife’s freedom; they started a family, and they left a legacy, spiraling from the building where we sat, watching Anita bring them back to life. We looked at the transom over the door, with ‘NT GANT’ etched into the fine old glass, and we thought about their triumph.

We listened to a local lawyer share a tale with a different ending, of a man from the same era who’d escaped slavery and settled into Zanesville. Who, after three years of freedom, was returned back into slavery by the local sheriff.  That sheriff argued that he was bound to uphold the law, the lawyer said, but he was excommunicated by his church, which held that God’s law supersedes man’s.

Too late for the slave, though, who disappeared back into the system of bondage.

We listened, Mark and I, and then we talked to friends afterward in the full and milling room.

This week, we remembered that history also burrows into the ground where we walk–that tragedies and triumphs both have led to this time now.

*****
We reach the end of the morning’s forward march, Greta and I, and turn back so she can start to re-snuffle all the things she’s just explored. And I think about the visit yesterday, in the building where my office is, of a wonderful group of adults from the local disability services center.  We’ve partnered with them, our little college, providing rooms for meetings and an aud for a movie and a venture into adapting technology at the IDEA Lab.

Those partnerings have provided times of fun and laughter and opportunities for thought and growth; they have been gifts in themselves, the events, but the folks involved wanted to thank the college a little more tangibly. They brought in little glass jars. Each one was labelled with a letter, spelling out ‘FANS’…an acronym for friends and neighbors. Our visitors filled the jars with candy, with Twix and  Milky Ways and Snickers bars. They set a pan of home-baked chocolate chip cookies on the counter, and they provided paper plates and napkins.

The display was resplendent (we eyed the goodies greedily), and the providers turned from it with happy smiles, proud and generous.

“I LIKE your purple shirt!” Miss J said to my colleague Jaime, and when I asked if I could snap a photo on my phone, young Mr. B. ran over to give Jim, our CHRO, a big, spontaneous hug.

JIm and Mr B

The hubbub drew a few faculty from their offices and a few interested students from the lounge on that late summer day, and there was a warm little group to appreciate this lovely act of giving.

We focus, Missy Hartley, who coordinates the outreach, told me months ago, on people’s strengths, and not their weaknesses–a person-centered philosophy. People with disabilities have a lot to share, in tangibles and in other, deeper, ways. 

This week I was reminded of that; and in the loving acts of this gentle group, I saw a different kind of triumph.

*****
Greta and I reach the car port; I stash the evidence of our walk in the trash, unhook her tether, and we go inside to get her treat. I gather up my coffee and my aging technology, and I head outside to the cool and quiet patio. I cast my thoughts back over this ordinary week. This week we joined, after much dithering and indecision, a beautiful gym on the college campus.  It’s a gleaming two story building across the road, on the furthest reach of the College drive, nuzzling up against the nature walk.  It has two pools and it has an indoor track.  There are treadmills and stationary bikes and coaches and classes. We vowed, this time, to use our memberships regularly.

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, my son James got up in time to come to work with me at 7:00.  He left his book-bag in my office and he took his laptop over to the gym and he came back, grinning, 90 minutes later.

“I walked on the treadmill for 36 minutes,” he said proudly, “and burned off 96 calories.”  He wedged his laptop up in front of him, he said, put it where one might rest a book, and he typed as he strode on the moving belt.

“It was pretty cool,” said my autistic son, for whom new people and unfamiliar places can be pretty daunting challenges, and he allowed how he can’t wait to go back.

*****

Maybe, now I think about it, triumph’s all around me.

*****
This week, a friend is feeling better after the latest round of chemo has rassled its way through her system, broadening the part in her hair, wreaking havoc with her digestion, but doing, we pray each day, its harsh and hopeful work.

This week another gutsy friend dared to put her vision out there, to interview for a wonderful new job. It’s a position where she could take her gifts and broadcast them wholesale, helping thousands instead of hundreds, sending ripples far out in our endless sea. A dreamer, a do-er, she cast her longing out there into highly competitive waters. We’re praying her power links slickly and solidly with the enterprise that, surely and certainly, needs her wondrous talent.

But, even if that doesn’t happen, there is power in the daring.

This week, we used the bounty of Randy’s fields to cook up a pot of veggie soup, to swirl together an imaginative stir-fry, and to simmer a big batch of tangy chili. We are learning about using peppers–Hungarian, banana, and jalapeno. We are circling around the habaneros, wondering if we’ve got what it takes to appreciate them fully.  And we are enjoying the sunshine in the flavors, and the zest of locally grown foods.

New tastes. New explorations. A little culinary triumph.

*****

In fact, I realize as I write this morning, there’s been a lot of the triumphant in this mundane and ordinary week.  One little, hardly unusual, barely remarkable week: but fully triumphant.  Seeds were planted. Seeds flourish. Hardship is endured to bring on the next stage, the blossoming.

Is this ALWAYS there, I wonder today, amid the bustle, below the bellowing, these real and vibrant, important things? Prayer forms: Please keep me awake–don’t let me miss it.  Help me strong-arm the frou-frau off the table and help me see the triumphs–triumphs past, and new, and brewing–triumphs that are surely there, just as now, in every ordinary week.

Walking Out the Kinks

After dinner, I run upstairs and grab a pair of footie socks.  I dig out my IPod (I know, I know,–old people’s technology) and attach its ear buds, and I pull on the socks and my comfy sneakers. It is time to start walking every night, to build up from two miles to four miles, and then to push on further.  I am signed up for a walking 10K in September, and wouldn’t it be nice to be among the first walkers to finish in the Old Girls’ category?

I crank up Leonard Cohen; he croodles pulsingly in my ears, and I push on out the back door, swinging out the driveway, down the hill, out toward Dresden Road.  Every night: a good, stretching walk, an opportunity for meandering meditation.  I am committed to this routine.

I blame it all on Wendy.

**************

Wendy is one of those blessed people who burst into our lives when we needed exactly what she shares, someone whom we felt, from the beginning, as if we had always known. She was Mark’s academic advisor when he earned his paralegal degree, the testing ground before law school. Mark was in a life-changing situation; he hadn’t been back in college in–hmm—27 years.  Wendy was in a life-changing situation: she hadn’t been a single person in just about that same length of time.  As Mark worked toward his degree, Wendy set up a new household, established her independent identity.  And between us two bossy women,–he was armed, too, of course, with his own determination,–we nudged Mark firmly onto the road to law school.

In the process, Wendy became more than a friend: she became family.

And so, every year after we moved to Ohio, Wendy would come for a visit.  One year, she called to say that she had signed up to walk a half-marathon in Columbus.  She was walking in honor of a friend, Dan, who was fighting cancer; she had collected pledges for him and was excited to complete the race and help him out in a wonderfully healthy, meaningful way. She’d walk the race, she said, and then we’d have the long weekend to visit.

It was a beautiful Spring weekend.  I drove Wendy to the race on Saturday morning, saw her walk off in the midst of thousands of bouncing, excited walkers, and then found a convenient Starbucks.  I pulled end-of-term essays out of my valise, and while Wendy got to know Columbus, up close and personal, I sipped dark roast and graded papers.

After three hours or so, I took my schoolwork to the car and made my way, on that cool sunny morning, back toward the finish line. It was thickly  rimmed with waiters and cheerers.  A medley of people continuously finished–runners who’d opted for the full marathon, walkers who’d selected the half, the 10 K folks who’d started later.  Music pulsed.  The perked-up celebrity announcers roared each person’s name as he or she crossed the finish line, and an official race-person ran over to drape a medal–anchored by a hugely impressive piece of bling–around the completer’s neck.

Friends and family surged to hug and snap photos and congratulate.  Continuous applause pounded a back beat, excitement simmered, happy tears spurted. The completers were beaming and exhausted. Just as I turned on my little digital camera, here came Wendy, striding along with barely a sweat broken, smiling at newly met walking companions.

“And…it’s WENDY! ” blared the announcer.  “Congratulations, WENDY!”

A girl ran out and looped the medal over Wendy’s neck. Wendy stopped and executed a jazzy little dance.  I snapped her picture, and I ran to give her a hug, and then we navigated down the row of replenishing foods, finding her half a bagel, a banana, a bottle of water.

Oh, it was exciting.  We strode back to the car–Wendy wasn’t even winded: 13.1 miles!–and I said, impulsively, “I’d do this next year.”

Wendy, dear and sincere friend, took me at my word.

************
That November, she sent me the link to registration, and I signed up.  Snug in my chair with an afghan and a book, the thirteen mile walk seemed like a fine idea.

It didn’t seem quite so lovely along about March when it was time to start training, but I did it, grudgingly.  Every night after dinner, I’d get out there and walk.  Well, almost every night.

Well, at least two nights a week.

I worked my way up to a four mile circuit, and on weekends, I’d push a little further.  A young colleague from work who was planning to run the race would stop in my office to talk training; he kept me motivated and moving.

By the time the race date rolled around, I hadn’t quite walked a full thirteen, but I’d made it to ten or eleven.  I was confident.  I had read up on distance walking; those writers recommended not breaking in brand new shoes for the race, so I cleaned up my cozy old size nine-and-a-half Nikes, put on two snug pairs of fleecy socks, and off we went, Wendy and me, in the bright early hours of a Spring morning, to walk a half-marathon.

Oh, it was exciting. We bounced along with the other walkers in our corral, screaming in one voice as batch after batch of runners were released, feet flashing, hands flailing, into the sunshine.  And then finally: us.

We walked.

Bands played on every corner.  Residents sat on porch steps with coffee, cheering and encouraging.  Grinning volunteers held out cups of water and Gatorade; we grabbed and gulped and kept on going.

We found that our paces matched pretty well.

We found that energy sagged at just past the halfway point. And we found that then we hit a zone and it ramped back up, an expectation of movement plugged in, and our feet kept moving.

But, oh, my big toes were hurting.

We made it to the bling and the celebration, to the bagels and bananas, back to the car in a ‘we did it’ happy haze, and we drove the hour back to the house, where the boyos waited to congratulate and feed us.  I showered; I napped; I noticed my toenails were kind of…black.

Within two days, those nails had fallen right off. Ick! Ouch!  I hobbled a bit for a week or two, and then, healed, I went to a famous shoe store, nestled in a country town thirty miles from my home, to get me some new and better walking shoes.

The perky young clerk–she probably was legal age, but she looked about thirteen,–asked me my size, and I told her nine-and-a-half.

“Well,” she chirped, and I could see she doubted me, “let’s just measure, shall we?”

She pulled out the metal foot tray, and I snugged my heel in the cradle and stood.

And topped out, to my shock, at size eleven.

“Our feet grow,” said my diminutive young clerk, sympathetically, “as we grow older.”

What’s this ‘WE’ business, Sherlock? I thought sourly, looking at her tiny, teenaged, size twos.  She went and got me a couple of pairs of sneakers to choose from: Which of these sets of lengthy canoes do you like best?

I tried; I chose; I forked over an outrageous sum of money. Perhaps they charged me by the inch.

I fwapped out to the car, feeling like I was wearing long-boats, like I had clown shoes on my feet.

But I had to admit, the shoes felt better.

**************

Appropriately shod, I marched off into the future. Wendy and I walked the half marathon for a few more years, even dragging Larisa in with us on the fourth go-round.  That was the day the President made a visit to Columbus, and the police were pulled off the race to concentrate on a different kind of safety.  Halfway through the route, the beaming Gatorade volunteers disappeared, the bands packed up their instruments and went away, and a police cruiser came along and told all of us walkers to get out of the street and on to the sidewalk.  We walked the last six miles dodging ordinary Saturday morning pedestrians intent on coffee or laundry or a bagel run.  It slowed us down; it sapped our glee.

The finish line was a deserted anti-climax; the bling, that year, seemed not so bright.

We sent letters of complaint to the race organizers–Respect the WALKERS!!! we wrote–and decided against a fifth reprise.

*****************

But the walking had become a reluctant habit.  Creativity guru Julia Cameron writes about the necessity of walking; she likens it to moving meditation, and I find that to be true–when I hit my swinging, oblivious stride, tension drains, and there’s an almost musical intensity to a long, well-paced walk. So, despite woeful excuses and jazzed-up schedules and the fact that there are always too many chores and tasks to squeeze into the precious hours after the dinner dishes are done, I bow to what I know is true: walking season has, again, begun.

Having a goal and a challenge inspires me, gets me out of the reading chair, makes me put down my knitting.  And it will be fun and worthwhile this September to join that 10 K, to lace up and jump into a field that is ONLY walkers.

But the race, I’ve come to realize, is not the thing–it’s the every night walk that’s really important.  It’s the freshness of the air and the looseness of my muscles and the sense of moving forward.  It’s the luxury of listening,  during a solitary, slogging march, to music I have chosen. It’s the magic of thoughts unwinding, of tenseness being stretched out and hammered away, of the realization of the beauty of streets and the friendliness of people–appreciation of all those things that just blur by when I pass them in my car.

*****************

This summer, I’ll visit Wendy, and Wendy will come here, and chunks of those weekends will include long meandering walks through Mission Oak Gardens or around the rim of the pretty gorge in Wendy’s hometown.  We’ll look forward to September and the walkers’ race it brings.  But walking will infuse my ordinary days, too, a habit inspired by, a practice that’s a gift from, a wonderful friendship.

I’ll lace up my flapping size elevens, point those long-boats toward the north, and sally forth, walking out the tension, stepping into a habit that enriches and energizes my life.

Our friendships bring us many gifts, and for the gift of nightly walking, I thank Wendy.

Sacramental Walking

 

Daffs 1
Just itching to open…

The furnace is churgling.

Mark bustles around, getting his things together, showing me a funny video he just remembered finding on FaceBook, a video of a baby elephant nuzzling its people, trying to wriggle up onto their laps.  We laugh together, even while our knees ache in sympathy with those loving handlers. We step out onto the back stoop and a cold wind weaves around us.  The little dog Greta slips out, and she stands between us, hopefully.

Mark offers to supervise her duties in the front yard; she trots out, too-long nails clicky-clacking on the concrete driveway, but turns and comes right back.

Shivering, Mark ducks in to get a jacket.

The dog stares up at me, entreating.

Sighing heavily, I go back inside, pour my steaming mug of coffee back into the pot, close up my journal (which is a beat-up wine-colored binder filled with a sprawl of loose-leaf pages and clippings and notes, its pockets bulging with reminders of things I need to think about when the day to think about things arrives), and pull three plastic Kroger bags from the master sack by the door.  I shlep into my old red slippy shoes, their silly bows limned in housepaint from some past project, push the bags into the pocket of my old cloth jacket, and grab the leash. The little dog dances happily.

I slip the hook onto the metal ring on her collar, and we head out.  I breathe the awful breath of desperate martyrdom, thinking of my warm dining room, my coffee, and my unfilled pages.

Soft gray clouds ceiling the sky. Off to the…hmm: southeast, I think,…off over where the river winds through the downtown, it’s like a giant finger lifts an enormous gray window shade.  Golden light pours underneath the edge, glows around the horizon. Looky here, says the sky; pretty special, eh? 

The dog slows down to let me look; I breathe deeply.  A little foul martyrdom dissipates on the exhale.

I could have missed that golden rim.

Today, Greta pulls me left.  She snuffles in the ivy that borders Shirley’s yard. I bet she is smelling the neighborhood deer.  Last night, seven does uptailed and bounded away through Sandy’s backyard, on the other side, when the little dog and I stepped out the back door for her late night rituals.  Five of them moved clumsily, their sides tightly extended.  The two littler, lither bounders circled back and returned to the wobbling mamas, a sweet gesture of protection.

There will be white-spotted babies soon, our neighborhood herd burgeoning.  I know I probably shouldn’t be excited about the impending births; there are territory issues and garden wars and hosta hostilities.  One day, not too long after we moved here, I looked up from my writing and saw the whole family, Big Buck and Little Buck included, meandering down the hill mid-morning.  I grabbed my cell phone, pulled up the camera app, and ran outside, arm extended, to capture this unexpected visit.

The deer stopped and turned to look at me, willing posers, and I lifted the phone to snap a shot.  And then a screen door slammed open, loudly, and my neighbor Beth popped out of the doorway.

“Don’t you feed them!” she yelled, and her voice had a little edge of hysteria.  “Don’t FEED them!” I shifted to show her I was snapping only, and the deer slipped away, down the rocky ledge to some secret domain.  And I realized then the shakiness of the detente between deer and human in this tucked-in city habitat.  The wild meets the tamed, for sure, but it’s not a willing meeting.

Still.  I cannot wait to see those untamed, leggy babies explore their new world.

We walk on down to the big messy lawn of the 1950’s rancher where Old Dog lives.  Old Dog is 18, I think, blind and lame and mostly silent.  In warm weather, when her people are home, she rests on a crib mattress in the shade of a scraggly old tree.  She surveys the neighborhood wisely through milky eyes; she nods a blessing at passers-by.

 

One night, when Mark and Jim and I were taking a family walk with the little dog, Old Dog suddenly lurched to her feet and stumbled out to us on stiff, unbending legs. Head down, she was intent and urgent, and we stopped, amazed, to wait for her. She wanted, I guess, to say hello, to check out this younger, crazier dog who was carving out a chunk of neighborhood.  She came to meet us, let us stroke the soft, sleek top of her bony head. Then, chuffing, she stiff-legged back to collapse on her mattress.

 

Old Dog’s lady was outside unloading shopping from her little bronze hatchback, and she came over to tell us she hadn’t seen the old girl move like that in two years or more.  The sunshine must have made her springy, thought the owner, and she told us tales of when Old Dog was a fierce force with which to be reckoned.  There was a front yard confrontation with an alpha buck, she said, that the buck finally won by lifting Old Dog in its antlers, tumbling her across the lawn.

Stitches were planted in the dog’s torn and oozing side that day, and that was not the first or last contretemps that led Old Dog to the vet’s office.  The owner shook her head fondly.

“As long as she’s not in pain and life interests her, we’re keeping her around,” she said.  The dog lifted her whitened head in benediction.  We tugged Greta along and continued down the hill.

 

There’s no sign of Old Dog on this spare, gray March morning.  I wonder how she wintered. Greta stops to snuffle in the yard, and I see, as I pay attention, little stars of crocus, lavender and white with brave orange hearts, peppered through the lawn.  The neighborhood is quiet at 7:32 AM on a Friday morning, neither cars nor people in motion–just us, the awful sighing woman, the anxious little dog.

The air, compared to yesterday’s balminess, is fresh and crisp. We wander down the hill to where a low fence, orange and white striped luminescence when caught in the headlights during dark-night drives, keeps the driver, the pedaller, the walker, from tumbling down the rocky slope the deer traverse so surely.  Greta stops to sniff the tough grass that grows up around the fence posts.

I look out over the ridge, across the street down below, and see the lights in the steel plant, hear the chugging of great machines.  Industry, I think, and I ponder the connotations of that word.

Greta, scented messages received, turns back up the hill, and I climb up the street with her, enjoying the tug at my leg muscles.  I think of my friend Kim, whom James and I will visit later today.  Kim will walk from her snug little apartment to meet us at the biscuit place; she’ll walk despite the advanced cancer that kept her up until 4 AM last night, and that nips firmly at the edges of the longevity she should, by all that’s right and just, be able to enjoy.  All told, her meandering will take her a  mile or more.  She will wander home to where the hospice people wait for someone who is supposed to be an invalid, but who refuses to sit still.

The hills crests at my driveway. Greta prefers to walk on to the middle of the front yard and take the old stone steps up into it; a prissy city dog, she wants to walk on pavement and not sully her precious paws in wet morning grass.  I pick up the big city newspaper, waiting for me in its plastic sleeve,–too late, again, for Mark to enjoy it with his morning tea.  I notice the onion grass sprouting all over the lawn; the tips of its leaves are tan and sere and they curl like witchy fingertips.  But proud clusters of daffodils are readying to bloom; thick bulbs are as tightly ready as those anxious mama deer’s sides.

We will have shining yellow blossoms soon; the next warm day will coax them completely out.  Easter is coming.  The word ‘joyous’ flutters through the mail slot of my mind, lands on the floor of that empty room, settles in.

The dog leads me inside. I dig a treat from the bag in the kitchen pantry, and she takes it and disappears. I pour coffee back into my favorite Hartstone mug, the one with the painted purple pansies, and I sit down, pick up a pen, and open my journal.  The little dog comes and lays her chin on my knee. I stroke her silky head, and I look out the window onto the quiet neighborhood.  The layered branches of the fir tree by Shirley’s house riffle gently.  Back from a walk. Quiet house. Time to breathe it in.

*******

Some times I go chasing prayer; I go chasing it, and never catch it.  And sometimes it comes to me with entreating eyes, and I only grudgingly acknowledge its possibility, grabbing a leash with ill grace and stepping out into a sacred morning.

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood...
Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood…

I clip the leash onto the collar of my wacky little dog, Greta, and pull open the back door. Greta stiffens, and I look down to see Maxie, the new mayor of the neighborhood, standing expectantly outside the storm door.

Maxie is a black cat with a priest’s collar; his head is the size and shape of a squashed softball. He is sleek and talkative. He waits in the ivy, under the shrubs that line the drive, when I come home. As soon as I open the car door, he starts his approach, spouting a long line of complaints: Yowlyowlmewwwwrrrryowlyou! MEW.

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

I usually give him a little piece of frozen turkey from a baggie in the freezer; he accepts this, but seems none too thrilled.

Max lives with the Next-to-Newest Neighbors across the street–a lovely mom and her just-college age daughter. Max was the daughter’s friend’s cat. When Daughter’s Friend was going off to school, Daughter’s Friend’s Dad calmly informed her he was going to shoot the damned cat.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding; so, Maxie came home with our next-to-newest neighbor.

He’s an outdoor guy, Max: he only goes in when the weather is too cold for cats to sleep au naturel. Meantime, he prowls the neighborhood, making sure everything is safe. He spends a lot of time with Shirley, our elderly, widowed neighbor. He naps in her window well. She provides food and drink in case Max needs a little nosh.

Sometimes I’ll pull up the driveway and see Max sitting outside Sandy’s Florida room next door, staring hungrily through the window at her squawking gray parrot, who is not amused by the visitation. And for a while, Max decided he wanted to check out the Newest Neighbors’ home across the street. He would stand by their front door and warble insistently. From the house, deep ominous barks resounded. Maxie was unfazed, but the Newest Neighbors did not seem inclined to let him in to explore.

Today, Maxie glances at Greta on the leash, then looks at me in disgust. Really? he registers clearly. Walking that stupid dog??? He gives his sleek shoulders a shake and ambles off toward his nest in the ivy. Greta rumbles deep in her throat and pulls me toward the yard and the front walk. Let’s avoid that scary cat, she’s implying.

We head out to the street. Maxie forgotten, Greta settles in to a nice sniffing meander. We don’t get two steps before she finds a fascinating pocket of scent. We stop, and I gaze across the street, at the lights down below, twinkling out this early morning. A walk with the Grets is a stop and start affair.

Our neighborhood traces a ravine; my house is on the firmly planted side. Across the street, where Next-to-Newest and Newest Neighbors have their sparkling white abodes, the houses perch. Front yards are lovely; back yards drop off abruptly.

The ravine is long and steep and wooded, a refuge for a herd of deer who wander up, unabashed, almost daily. We watch the babies grow up during the summer; we watch the wary relationship between Senior Buck and Junior Buck. Greta snuffles up their scent, fascinated, and they obligingly leave lots of it around, sometimes in freshly steaming piles on the pine needle carpets in our backyard.

Woe to my plantings; they’re fast food for deer. But this Spring—hah! I have a recipe from my woods-and-fields-savvy friend Theresa. I’ll be dousing my hosta, my impatiens, my everything, with the Theresa Formula. Take that, you foraging deer.

There are gray squirrels and black squirrels in the neighborhood; they bore Greta, who just ignores them. There are bunnies, too, and chipmunks, — although, come to think of it, not as many sightings occur since Maxie’s moved in.

Having read her olfactory messages, the dog snorts and we move on. Phyllis’s house is the last on the street, ravine-side. It has a lovely side deck, between the house and a little woods. The driveway leads right up to that deck, which overlooks the ravine, and, at night, a beautiful light display: you can see the busy commerce and industry of Linden Avenue just below; off to the southeast, the lights of the city glitter in the night sky.

The way Phyllis’s house is situated, the street at the corner leads right into her driveway.

One night, shortly after we moved in–congratulating ourselves on landing in this quiet neighborhood–(Mark would stand outside at night with his eyes closed and his arms at his side, palms parallel with the ground, murmuring, “It’s so QUIET.” Our vacated neighborhood was NOT.)–I went to bed early, worn out from the strenuous haul of moving and unpacking. I was reading in bed, eyelids drooping, when the sirens began, a low whining that grew closer and closer.

And closer. Soon, one could hear speeding cars, tires on pavement, brakes squealing; that grew rapidly closer, too. And then, very close, a crash!

I heard Mark’s startled exclamation, heard him scuffing into his old shoes, heard the front door open as he ran out to see what was going on. “Oh. BOY!” Jim said; he was, I could tell from the placement of his voice, standing at the front window.

I considered going down, but knew the Markmeister had it under control. He would tell me the story when he came in.

And so he did. Hotly pursued by a police cruiser, a car drove up the street, couldn’t make the turn, and flew right on to Phyllis’s deck. The driver jumped out and ran into the backyard, where he didn’t expect a ravine. He tumbled over the edge.

Mark stood with Phyllis and her husband Terry as the drama unfolded. The hapless driver, thinking to avoid arrest, crawled up the ravine at the other end of the street. The police, who’d been nonchalantly watching his progress, cuffed him and threw him into the cruiser, called for a tow truck, and took all the necessary information from Phyllis and Terry.

Mark, who works for a county government unit and gets all the juice, brought the details home next day.

Seems Driver Man was from a notorious ne’er-do-well family. Needing some weekend drinkin’ cash, he called for a pizza, thinking he’d take the delivery guy’s stash. Driver Man lived in an isolated country locale.

Delivery Guy arrived, got out of the car, and was confronted by Driver Man, wielding a pistol. Delivery Guy was big, and not a man for nonsense. He slapped the pizza box into Driver Man’s face and took his gun away. Then, when the pizza box fell off Driver Man’s face, Delivery Guy popped him a good one.

Down went Driver Man. Delivery Guy pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. As he was talking to the dispatcher, Driver Man scrambled to his feet. Delivery Man popped him again.

Down, again, went Driver Man.

Now stop hitting him! the dispatcher purportedly said. Get in your car and drive back to work, and an officer will meet you there to pick up the gun and get your report.

O-kay, said Delivery Guy, reluctantly, but when Driver Man got up again, talking some smack, he couldn’t resist knocking him down one last time. By the time the police arrived, Driver Man had wobbled into his own vehicle, and the chase began.

They drove darned near all over the county before Driver Man flew his vehicle onto Phyllis’s deck, decimating it.

By the time the luckless felon crawled up the cliff, he was battered from the repeated poppings, scraped and cut from the fall down the ravine, and ready for medical attention and a comfortable bed in a cell.

The insurance rebuilt Phyllis and Terry’s deck, but it was one of the last times we saw him, that kind, friendly, helpful neighbor. He was hospitalized shortly after the Deck Event. He never came home. Now Phyllis and her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy sitting on that deck, talking softly on starry summer nights. But we know how much they miss Terry.

Greta makes her mandatory sniff-examination of Phyllis’s rose bush; satisfied, we wander across the street and up the long curving driveway of the Helen Purcell Home. Helen Purcell had been the sickly daughter of a local family in the early 1800’s. Since she was puny, anyway, she was designated as the one to stay home and care for Mamaw and Papaw. Her siblings went to school, got married, moved away; Helen learned to sew. And she was pretty [I so want to say ‘darned’] good at it. She took in sewing and made a little extra money.

And then, the parents both died, and there was Helen, suddenly and sadly free. She packed up her sewing stuff and her belongings and she moved herself to Cincinnati, where she set up shop. And she succeeded; she was a sought-after seamstress, and an independent woman.

Until her brother got sick. Then Helen was called home–her role, after all, was to care for the sick ones. She left her beloved independent life. She nursed her brother, but she never forgot her taste of freedom. She, the sickly one, outlived all her family contemporaries. When she died, she left her estate in trust, to establish a place where women in need could recover from whatever vicissitudes plagued them. It was a healing home for independent women needing to get back on their feet.

Now it is a home for the elderly; not so very long ago, they agreed, finally, to admit men, too, and the facility offers independent and assisted living and managed care. The staff is lovely, the residents energetic; there is a van that takes people out and about, although many of the residents park their own vehicles in the long carport that faces our house. In the lovely common area, with its polished paneled walls and massive fireplace, there is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, and always clusters of people visiting and laughing. Not bad neighbors to have.

We round the expansive driveway, and come out on Norwood Boulevard, near the Mission Oaks Gardens. The park, open to all from dawn to dusk, is reached by crossing the Hendleys’ driveway. The Hendleys had a vision of a winding, meandering park within the city; they bought the house and acquired grounds abutting their property, then acquired more, and the gardens grew. We walk there in the good weather, sometimes sitting in the rustic log tea house; we watch throughout the summer, as the plants shoot up and bloom.

There are rhododendrons, local of root; all kinds of hosta; native flowers and imported flowers; trees and shrubs. There is a vast conifer garden. There are two ponds with tall waterfalls, and there are benches and gazebos and many places where a bride can splendidly pose.

It is not a place for Greta to walk, though. I am not sure, prissy city dog that she is, that she’d even consent to walk down the grassy paths; she’s a sidewalk girl, my Greta. But it doesn’t matter: she’s not invited. The park is home to an aging Scottie dog, who greets all visitors and likes a bit of a scratch. When we moved into the neighborhood, there were a pair of Scotties; now this guy remains, alone. He’s awfully glad to walk a ways with a visitor to the garden.

But it’s cold and muddy January; this is not a Mission Oaks day. We walk the sidewalk by the gracious, Spanish-style home on the property instead. This house, with its lovely upper deck (what a great place for morning coffee, I always think) has a Past. It was the abode of a wealthy businessman’s mistress, who lived brazenly there and entertained her paramour while the respectable wife held court across town.

Deer at the Hendleys

Now the Mistress’s House is the gateway to a great gift to the community. You just never know, I figure.

We start down the street past the Hendleys’, but Greta abruptly changes her mind, turns around, and leads me home. We take the sidewalk, the fast way. We encounter no feline or otherwise furry friends.

It’s not a long walk, but it certainly is a story-filled one. We all know how exhausting stories can be to a tired little hound, one who has to protect a house all day and contend at times with an ornery neighborhood cat.

Greta waits patiently for me to treat her with frozen coins of hot dog once we are safely inside, and then she jumps up on to the couch, paddles down the throw, and snuggles up. I get my book and join her. She puts her heads on my leg and snores; I travel vicariously to Scotland.

We’ll find more neighborhood tales on future days, as we deepen our relations with our neighbors, share their memories, hear their adventures.  It’s one of the perks of coming to such a stopping place: here we can send down our roots, several stories deep.

*****************************************************************************

The cover photo on this site shows one of the ponds from Mission Oaks Gardens…