A Walk in the Rain

I’m a walkin’ in the rain

Tears are fallin’ and I feel a pain

A wishin’ you were here with me

To end this misery

And I wonder…

—Del Shannon, “Runaway”

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

The week dawns, cool and gray, and I am determined to be more organized. I will, I decide, take my first walk of the day before I have my first cup of coffee. So, as the sky lightens, I pour fresh water into the coffee maker and put a brown paper liner in the basket. I scoop coffee into the grinder and make it hum, shaking it up between grindings.

The ground coffee (the beans come by mail from a wonderful roaster in Clintonville) smells rich and hearty. The odor wafts through the kitchen; it’s the scent of the start of day, with all the mysteries and possibilities that entails.

I pour the coffee into the filter, and I lace up my new walking shoes. I slide into a light jacket, and just before I leave, I hit ‘brew’. As I close the back door gently behind me, I hear the coffee maker gearing up with a sigh, and a pause, and a hiss.

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

This is finals week, and I think about my classes as I push off around the block. We started off face-to-face, building the kind of momentum that meeting in a group and talking in person brings. And then there was spring break, and we returned to a different kind of environment: an online one.

This was especially hard for my gen ed students, taking a first writing class to get ready for the one that bears transferable credit. Everything was new to that small group: college expectations, college pacing, and definitely college technology.

There were hiccups as we morphed to a new kind of class delivery, but the students hunkered down and worked it through. And now, in the last week of class, most of them have found their way and their voice.

Their work has amazed me.

I round to the right, onto a larger street. Squirrels are manic this morning. I walk under a bank of shady, mature trees, and a black squirrel dithers on the sidewalk before me, maybe twenty feet away.

It sees me, freezes, then throws up its little arms.

It puts its head down and runs toward the street. Then it stops and scurries back to the sidewalk. It bounces, jittery, from side to side.

Finally, when I am less than ten feet away, it decides. It runs off into the yard and leaps into a tiny sapling, swaying the trunk as I plod on by.

Sometimes, I think, I act exactly like that, frenetically dithering.

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

I meet my two ‘women of a certain age’ walking buddies; we stop and talk, keeping six feet between us. They hold their hands out, palms up, testing. They say they think they feel some drops.

My weather app didn’t say anything about any morning showers, I think. And they head off south while I push on.

I reach my turn-around point, waving to a hefty young guy softly jogging across the road, and I veer around an older couple in crisp cloth jackets. They are slowly walking a white-muzzled, red-haired, shaggy beast. Another jogger, sleek and intent in fitted, matching black tights and jacket, is going the way I will take up when I turn. I go an extra block or so in my turning around so we don’t have to navigate the courtesies of shared space in the outdoor COVID universe.

And as I turn around, finally, as I head back, I feel the first energetic plop of rain.

By the time I get home, my hair, missing its wonderful haircutter’s touch anyway, is a thick, wet, unruly, flattened mass.

Just because the weather app didn’t mention it, that doesn’t mean it WON’T rain.

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

I spend the morning grading exam essays: it’s a good endeavor, with unique work and evidence of mastery, and I am in the happy position of awarding very high grades to almost every paper. But finally I reach a limit; my neck is aching, and I need to stand up, feed my Fitbit, and check messages.

When I grab my phone and unhook it from its charger, I see a message from the kind of friend who is almost family. Her son is a rising young professional, enthusiastic and gifted. Today, writes my friend, he has been furloughed indefinitely from a job he loves. His industry, too, falls victim to the pandemic.

I think about what it must be like to be a young person, starting a career, having done it all right—earning the degrees with great GPA’s, scooping up every chance to get the right kinds of experience, making those essential connections, landing just the right job.

And then the world is blindsided by COVID-19.

I walk to the back door and open it.

The unpredicted rain is still falling, heavy and cold.

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

On Wednesday, the weather app warns of possible early showers. I get my morning walk in with no problems, though, and the little weather-app pictures under “11 a.m.” show clouds but no droplets. That’s when Mark and Jim and I head off to the college campus.

The clouds are broody gray when we park, but, hey: the app does say mostly cloudy. I help Jim untangle his ear bud cords, and he heads off to walk the front way. Mark and I decide we’ll walk through the quad and then circle around.

Mark starts to tell me something the governor said in yesterday’s briefing. He stops.

“Is that a drop?” he asks.

We keep on, though, but in ten yards or so, we have to admit there are MANY drops.

And then it is truly raining. We turn around to retrace our steps and see Jim, too, is running toward the car.

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

At home, I use the extra time to finish up grading and check student messages. I get a follow up email from a student who had written the day before. She’d said she’d been in bed for two days with a high temp, unable to eat or talk or concentrate.

I shot an email back and said, Call your doctor RIGHT NOW, even though I suspected her support system must have already insured that happened.

Today’s email says she is still very sick, and the bad news is she’s tested positive for COVID-19. She is sorry she can’t get her final exam essay in on time.

I reply, telling her we can work out an incomplete. I let her know the college has extended the incomplete period, and not to even think about it until she feels better.

I ask her if it’s okay if I pray for her.

I feel a physical thud in the floor of my gut; I push the chair away from the computer, and I step out on to the back porch.

I think about this student, very young, separated by an ocean from her family, suffering from a scary, little understood illness. I feel the dragon moving, feel the worm shift and nudge, and realize the beast is not so very far away at all. We can try, and we can follow all the rules and guidelines, we can do our best. We hope these things will help, but we none of us are guaranteed immunity.

And I watch the rain fall.

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

Thursday’s early morning walk is droplet-free; in fact, the sky is brightening like the sun might just crack through those crowds. I send off grade-posting day emails to both my classes, check averages, populate grade columns. Mark comes out of his office at about 10:45.

“Should I get my shoes on?” asks Jim, and I reflect that two months ago the boyo would not have gotten so excited about taking a daily walk. It’s a good change.

“Look how bright the sky is getting!” I say, and we agree this day is working out to be a little nicer than expected. I gather up my phone, my hanky, my keys, and join the boyos on the back porch.

They turn to me with bland faces. Someone grabbed the metallic edges of the sky-doors and pulled them open with a rusty squawk.

And, heavens opened, the rain pours down.

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

So Thursday’s walk turns into a drive. As Mark pulls out of the drive, I dig my buzzing phone from my pocket. A lifelong friend has left a message. I’ll listen and call her back when we get home.

Heavy rain sluices down the windshield; James plays songs from a sixties play list. Mark pulls us out onto Route 146.

“We’re exploring,” he says before I can ask.

The rain flickers; the rain strengthens. Mark turns onto a road we’ve never taken, a meandering road that winds past a state nature preserve and opens out into other options, not all of them paved.

Wet cows stand stolidly in fields. We pass mini-mansions with broad sweeping grounds. We pass working farms. We pass bedraggled tiny homes with half a dozen rusting vehicles clogging their drives.

We crunch onto gravel, and Jim’s face clouds.

“I think I’ll listen on my headphones,” he says.

Wind gusts; rain sputters. Mark drives on, a grin tweaking the corners of his mouth. This is just the kind of exploration he enjoys.

Gravel gives way to dirt, which is quickly turning to mud. Jim pulls the ear buds out.

Annnnnnnnnd…there’s no signal,” he sighs. “We’re in a DEAD zone,” he tells his dad.

I am just about to suggest the map app when Mark sees a sign. “I know where we are!” he says triumphantly, and ten minutes later we are pulling onto a four-lane, half an hour from home.

Jim, relieved, shares some classic rock, and the rain surges and stops, surges a little less confidently, spits at us, and then takes a break.

Rain is falling when we got home, but kind of half-heartedly. A good time, we agree, for a leftovers lunch.

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

Then I call my dear friend from my little study upstairs. We have a good talk, about keeping busy and active in a quarantine, about the differences between our two states’ rules and guidelines. She shares the wonderful news that her daughter is expecting. Being optimistic, she is planning a shower for summer’s end, hoping that gatherings can take place in four months’ time.

I tell her about my sick student, and she tells me about her good friend whose mother died on Sunday night.

It isn’t the first recent loss for this friend; the lady across the street passed on Easter Sunday. Unable to meet, the neighbors sowed their front windows with white fairy lights, and they turned them on at 8 p.m. on Easter Monday to honor the passed one’s memory and warm her widower with their caring. The widower’s siblings and family heard of this, and they drove to the neighborhood. They stood in the dark, six feet apart, holding candles.

And the neighbor who’d lost his wife stood in his window and soaked it all in, the glow and the warmth, the grief and the love.

My friend says the web went into action for this second loss. She got calls: Could we do this again? And so they repeated the vigil, the lights and the candles, the silent and separate ceremony. The solidarity even when they couldn’t stand together.

She says, wryly, that they seemed to have developed a COVID way of creating memorials. She hopes that few people struggle with a loved one’s death during these strange days. But, if people do, my friend says, maybe this is a way to mark that passing.

She has been my friend since high school; she has always been the one who can defuse tension with kindness, who reads the need in a person’s very posture and instinctively, compassionately, does just the right thing to make even something horrible a little bit better.

I am pretty sure the lights and the candles and the just-right way of sharing in grief in COVID days come from the caring imagination of her warm heart. But, “Ahhh, it was everyone,” she says. “Everyone together.”

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

After we talk, I tromp downstairs and post my grades. Restless, I pull on my walking shoes and my jacket and step outside. The rain has stopped, but dark clouds bank to the west. In the east, though, it looks as though the sun is still fighting to shine through.

I check the weather app on my phone. Thirty per cent chance of rain, it says. I stand uncertainly for a minute, but, really, what can I do? I step off the porch, and I start out on a walk.

Listening to My Inside Voice

We were surveying the courtyard at the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Springfield, Ohio, when I felt Connie—my Fitbit—slide off my wrist.

“Damn!” I said, and I picked her up from the pavement. It looked like the wristband had come unhooked.

Mark noticed and came over to help. He tried to slide the wristband back on to no avail.

“Oh, I see,” he said, holding the slender thing up to the sky. “There’s a piece missing from the band. See there?”

And sure enough, the little grippy piece that held the band onto the command central of the Fitbit was just gone.

“Well, damn,” I said again. I slid Connie into my jacket pocket, thinking morosely that I’d be doing all this walking and not getting any credit at all.

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

At home I rootled in a drawer and came up with two neon-bright rolls of duct tape. I chose the orange since it was almost Hallowe’en…It would look festive, I thought, with Connie’s sleek black exterior.

I cut thin slices of tape with my sewing shears. I held the band tightly to Connie, and I wrapped the tape where the rubber met the metal. Then I slapped two pieces down the sides, and wrapped a last piece around all the joins.

I pulled at it gently, and all seemed to hold, so I went out for a walk to make up for the steps of which, I thought, I had been robbed.

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

I meant to get online and order another Fitbit band, but my duct tape solution was working just fine, and it slipped my mind. The orange tape took me right up through All Hallow’s Eve, but the next morning, I got up and showered, and put Connie back on, and the band slithered out of its duct-taped tunnel. I sighed and trundled downstairs, and peeled away the old tape, scraping off all the gooey adhesive.

I made a new temporary joint, using the green duct tape this time, and I thought to myself, “Tonight I’ll order that band.”

The green tape worked for two days, and then I had to re-tape band and Fitbit together. Then it lasted one day, and then it was just not holding together at all.

I put the Fitbit in my pocket. A thought came floating in, full-fledged and flat, like a written message through a mail slot.

“Now,” I thought, “I won’t be able to walk.”

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

That night, I tracked down a Fitbit band on Amazon and, after finding furnace filters, too, I placed my order. They estimated the new band would arrive in two days.

I wondered how I’d walk until then.

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

The next day was Sunday, and the morning grumbled in with gray clouds almost close enough to touch. I plugged the earbuds into my phone and headed out for a walk before it rained.

I walked my usual long route, but all the while, a little voice was nagging me. “How will you know how far you walk?” it asked me. “How will you know how many steps you take?”

And, “What’s the point of walking if no one’s counting?”

“I walk because walking is good,” I argued with me. “The counting is not the point.”

But still, as I stomped along, I felt untethered and unremarked.

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

That day, I clipped Connie onto her charger and let her be. Later, I pulled her free, and her little light flashed.

“I’m ready!” she said.

“Let’s go!” she pleaded.

I put her down next to the computer tower, averting her face.

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

A funny thing happened, though. I’d be sitting at the computer, reading lovely essays written by my Comp students, and a little notification would fizzle into consciousness.

“You’ve been sitting long enough,” it would say. “Get off your duff and move.”

And I would—I’d get up and stretch and roll my neck and then I’d stride around the house, or up and down the driveway, getting my hourly 250 steps—just like I’d do when Connie was snugly on my wrist. Only now I wasn’t doing it because my little techno-friend was nudging me.

Now I was doing it because it felt good, because my BODY was sending me the message, because it was the healthy, self-savoring, right thing to do.

In the evening, I went for a walk around the block, stretching and striding, enjoying the cold air on my cheeks and the fresh air in my lungs. I didn’t have, when I got home, a step-count, but I felt like I had gotten the day’s exercise in.

I felt…right.

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

The new band arrived on schedule, and I fitted it onto to a highly charged Connie. It didn’t buckle like the old band did; it has two short metal spokes that poke through holes in the band to connect. That worried me for a short bit, but I got the hang of it.

The next morning, my friend Wendy very graciously came to my class as an interview subject. Wendy is wide open and respectful dealing with students, and soon they were asking her all kinds of things, some related to their upcoming papers and some just out of curiosity.

“Do you think college should be free?” they asked.

And,

“Why are textbooks so expensive?”

Wonderful discussion ensued.

Somehow that drifted into a conversation about high school students in college. About half of the class members actually are high schoolers taking college courses for credit in both settings. They are, to a student, diligently hard workers.

One of the traditional students,–call her Lisa—said that wouldn’t have worked for her.

“When I was in high school,” Lisa said, “I missed school every chance I got. I had terrible grades. I just didn’t care. I was only doing it because I HAD to, because somebody told me that was what I was going to do.”

Several heads nodded in agreement.

“This, though,” Lisa said, “college—I’m doing this because I want to. I’m paying for it myself, and I make sure I get to every single class unless there’s a really, really important reason for me not to.”

Wendy nodded. “It’s that intrinsic versus extrinsic thing, right?” She turned to me. “Remember when we used to teach that in freshman seminar? Internal versus external locus of control? Inner voice versus voices from the outer world?”

I nodded, vigorously, as Wendy turned back to the students, and the conversation galloped on.

But I stepped off the path and followed my own thoughts. That’s IT, I was thinking; that’s it exactly.

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

This morning, in the brisk, clear, blue-skied cold, I rounded the corner on the last leg of my walk. I had my tomato-colored winter coat and gloves on; the wind was whipping. I started to walk up the hill to the house, and I had to stop.

The big tree in front of the stone ranch house is a late holdout, clinging to its red-gold leaves, and this morning the wind was tearing them off. Amber leaves were flying like snow, and the wind ruffled leave piles snugged up against the curb.

Bob Seeger was crooning, of all things, “If I Were a Carpenter,” in my ear buds, and it was like being inside a crazy kind of musical snow globe—only it was an autumn leaf globe: a crazy, perfect, unexpected kind of setting.

Connie was snugly on my wrist, but, “THIS is why I walk,” I thought to myself.

And, “You aren’t the boss of me,” I muttered to Connie.

She didn’t say anything just then. Later, though, after a busy day, I lit the fire, and grabbed my book, and went to sit in the reading chair. I pulled up the knit blanket and opened Dutch Girl and sighed and settled in.

And Connie chirped at me.

“Ten minutes to get 184 steps!” she said.

“Fine,” I said with paltry grace. “FINE.” I slammed down the book and marched around the house until, “Rocked it!” Connie informed me sweetly.

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

The book and the fire and the chair were all there waiting for me.

Let Connie have her little victory. I’m not walking to keep score or to win prizes. I’m walking because walking makes me feel alive. A little voice—my inside voice—tells me so.

Waiting for the People’s Hour

“Look,” whispers Mark, and I join him at the back door, where we peer through the glass at what could be a day care center for deer.

Light is just breaking; four spotted babies are curled up comfortably in the middle of the backyard. One of the mommas conscientiously concentrates on eating every single bud and blossom from my little tea rose while the other snoozes way back under the pine tree.

We think one of the mommas has triplets, and that the other, smaller, doe is a first-time mom. Three of the fawns are curious, exploratory, nudging; the other is shy and skittery.

We think the shy one is the first-time mom’s baby.

I wonder if the triplet mom is also the momma to the little doe, and so the grandmomma to the shy fawn.

As we watch, three of the babies raise their heads, stretching their long necks, looking around. The fourth sleeps on.

Mark opens the door slowly and steps quietly out onto the stoop. He gently wiggles his cell phone out of the pocket of his shorts, and he lifts it to take a picture.

The biggest fawn jumps to its feet. Mark raises the phone and snaps.

The baby fixes him with a look and, sure that it has Mark’s attention, deliberately stomps its right front foot.

“Look at THAT,” Mark says softly. He stares back at the baby; he stomps HIS right front foot.

The baby leaps, shocked, and sends some sort of signal. Two more fawns jump up to join it, and they drill their gazes into Mark. And the rose-eating momma, message received, ambles over to join the little ones.

They face Mark down while the smallest one sleeps on.

Mark, once again, stomps his right front leg.

Momma and the big fawn stomp right back, and they peer at him intently.

I can almost see conversation bubbles over their heads.

“What is YOUR deal?” they are asking. “This is not your time, human. This hour—when the sun awakens and the darkness broadens into gray, then into dawn, is still part of the Night Domain. This is OUR yard until the Hour of the People begins.

“Wait your turn, Buddy. And leave us alone.”

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

Mark puts away his cell phone and gets his car keys, and he backs out of the carport, heading to the gym. I gently close the door behind him and go into the dining room. I pull my morning pages notebook from the cabinet and find my seven-year pen. I’ll write my pages first, then walk.

For a while I was walking during the transitional hour, thinking, “I’ll get my walk done first thing! It’ll be cool and pleasant, and I can sit over my morning pages when I come home.”

So my walks and Mark’s gym forays aligned; when I came back, I’d start the coffee and join him at the patio table. I’d date the page and begin to write, but, inevitably, I’d put down the pen in favor of conversation.

My pages weren’t getting written when I walked in the transition time.

And things happened then that reminded me that that hour—that gray and glistening time—does not belong entirely to people. During that hour, the world slides slowly, and sometimes reluctantly, away from the Night Domain.

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

It IS cooler at 6:00 a.m. on hot summer mornings—so cool, sometimes, that shreds of fog cling. The air feels good, but I found I needed to step it up, to walk briskly, to stay warm enough then.

And I had to watch where I was walking. As the curtain pulls back and day emerges, there are denizens just retreating.

One morning, I rounded the corner and there, mid-street, stood a one-antlered buck. He loomed tall out of the morning fog; he owned the road, and he was not inclined to share.

I stopped and gazed at his asymmetrical head. Why only one antler? I wondered.

He stared at me, unamused.

It was a long looking moment, and I, of course, faltered first.

No reason I can’t walk the other way ‘round the block, I reasoned, and I reversed course and turned away.

When I had gone about twenty yards, I looked back. He was still there, the one-antlered buck, owning his corner and his misty hour of morn.

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

It may have been that morning that I became aware that a robin seemed to be following me. I was on the straightaway and several yards ahead of me, a robin stood his ground in the sidewalk. Maybe he had seen the deer best me and thought he’d do the same. He stood, unflinching, mid-sidewalk, head cocked, one round black eye meeting mine.

I walked closer and he stayed still.

Come on, I thought. I am not giving up the sidewalk to a little bird. Move, buddy. MOVE.

I was less than six feet from the valiant little creature when he threw in the towel. He fluttered into a nearby tree, and he hid in the leafy branches, and, honest to gawd, he YELLED at me.

I walked on, fast—not scared, mind you, just setting a brisk pace in the morning cool.

And every 600 feet or so, I’d look up, and there would be a robin on a branch ahead, eying me. Same size, same attitude, same posture: one ebony eye-bead fixed on my face.

Are you FOLLOWING me? I demanded, and then I looked around, quick, hoping no other morning walkers were near enough to hear me interrogating a bird.

The bird just held its gaze.

I walked.

And six hundred feet later, there he was again.

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

Maybe he was sending progress signals to his paisans. She’s just about to turn on to Yale, he might be telepathing.

And the one-antlered deer would shrug and say, Let her come.

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

One early-early I interrupted two small raccoons deep in conversation in the alley. I swear the closer one held up his hand to halt the other’s narrative; he swiveled his head and stared at me as I walked past.

It is quiet, quiet, in the transition hour. What do little raccoons discuss then?

That day, they froze and watched me out of sight, and, until I reached and turned the corner, awareness prickled down my back.

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

Another early-early,—and I am not making this up—a man was walking a passel of tiny jumping dogs. There were eight little yippers, at least, each on its own leash. They moved as a body, the yippers bouncing. They looked like a strange great spider.

The man himself looked like the Christopher Lloyd character in Back to the Future—a shiny pate, a shock of silvery hair, a face that was lined and on the gaunt side. His belly, though—that protruded, and it was more noticeable because he was sporting a long, belted, leopard-skin robe. His skinny white legs ended in red crocs.

Clearly he wasn’t used to encountering other humans at that hour. The tiny dogs bounced and barked and leashes tangled, and the man muttered, eying me and trying to get his herd to edge away.

The little dogs ignored him.

Finally, he yelled, “BATHTUB!”

The tumult stopped and the dogs organized themselves, and the man gave me a look—that look, the same ones the animals gave us: What are YOU doing HERE NOW???? And the whole entourage turned and made their regal way up a narrow side street.

I watched a while and I itched to take a picture, because I wanted to be sure I had seen this.

But I thought picture-taking was rude, and a part of me thought that maybe the encounter was a function of the transition hour, a shape-shifting kind of trick, and the man was really going to morph back into a spider with a leopard-print body, and the dogs into tiny aphids attending him.

And then I shook my head and stepped up my pace. It can get fanciful, walking in the transition time.

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

One day, in my early-early walking week, I turned the corner to head home, and came upon a thick-furred black and white cat that crouched, motionless and ready, on the sidewalk. It flicked its eyes, and a whole venomous message came sniggling right at me.

Go AWAY, the message said.

Don’t you dare interrupt this, the message said.

I stopped and turned and I saw, frozen in the alley that leads to the back of my house, a rabbit, stiff with fright, huge eyes rolling wildly.

The cat stared at the rabbit, and I stared at the cat.

Run AWAY, bunny! I said, but the rabbit was paralyzed. The cat all but hissed at me.

I thought of the deer. I stomped my right foot.

I clapped my hands.

I yelled.

And the bunny leapt; it bounded off, finally released from that awful feline hypnosis.

The cat was disgusted. It gave me a pursed-face, meaningful look—again with the message: What are YOU doing here? This is not your time!

With great and august dignity it rose, floofed its plumy tail at me and ambled, not one to hurry, away.

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

That was the morning I decided I had had enough of walking in the hour before the Night Domain receded. I brewed my coffee and sat with Mark on the patio, and then the day got underway.

That night, I mentioned that I was going to reverse the order—do the pages first, then walk.

It’ll just work better, I explained. The day rolls much more smoothly when I get those morning pages written.

Uh huh, said Mark. I get you. Makes sense to me, he said.

And so that’s what I’ve been doing. Writing those morning pages—well, it’s like sweeping cobwebs from the bony chambers of my mind. It’s best to do them first thing.

And if my human presence no longer intrudes on transition time, if I wait for the Hour of the People to pop my earbuds in and do my walking,—well, of course, that’s simply incidental.

And there’s nothing wrong, after all,—nothing one could say, “Fraidy-pants!!” about—with walking AFTER the Night Domain recedes.

Trials and Triumphs: Everything in One Trek

The Trials.

It is probably just a little bit bigger than a grain of sand, but the pebble in my shoe is relentless. It rocks beneath the tender skin below my little toe, nagging, nagging. I shake my foot, and it relocates.

Ahhhh… I sigh, and then, after a few strides, it resurfaces, poking the fleshy soft spot in the middle of my sole. No amount of foot gyrations dislodge it, and when I get to the retaining wall by the field that once was home to a school and soon will become a park, I sit down (the concrete is still a little damp from mid-night rains) and untie my shoe.

I shake it out thoroughly. I run my fingers around every inch of the shoe’s interior, and I rub down my sock, too, just in case that little culprit is caught in the knitting somewhere.

Then I slide my foot back into the shoe, and I lace it up snugly, and I take a little, mincing, shoe-store-y, How does THAT feel? kind of a walk.

It feels GOOD, I answer that imaginary shoe clerk’s voice, and I walk away from the retaining wall, heading north on Dresden Road, swinging my legs and my arms. Pebble-free.

For about 600 yards. Then suddenly, there’s an interloper, a tiny nagger, roiling around the insole of my lovely new sneaker.

How does a rock get INTO the shoe, anyway?

These are new shoes; there should not be a hole or a cavity or a tunnel in the thick, soft soles.

Perhaps I kick it in? One foot dislodges and kicks up grit and the other foot catches it?

But wouldn’t I see that happen? Wouldn’t my ankles complain about unregistered entrants?

I don’t know where the pebbles come from, but I know they are a nuisance. I lift my foot, and I Hokey-Pokily shake it all about, and a carful of early travelers swivel their heads to look at me oddly.

That’s what it’s all about, I think grimly, and they swivel their heads back forward, and they forge off on their morning mission.

The pebble hides itself someplace innocuous, and I stop my gyrating and walk back into my morning pace.

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

It has been a wet spring. That is, maybe, why the flowering trees and bushes have fragrant blossoms that are so long-lasting and so very splendid this year.

It is also why there are mud slicks on many stretches of the sidewalks I pace in the mornings.

I know where they are by now, and I don’t mess with them. I give them a far berth, arching around telephone poles in the hell strip, preferring to sully my pristine new white sneakers with grass stains than to play slip and slide in the mud.

A while back, I decided to extend my walk a little, and I thought I’d just tiptoe carefully through a shiny muddy patch heading up a southbound hill. And then, quickly, I found myself on my hands and knees, slickly connecting to that thin skim of mud.

The mud had grit in it, and my left knee burned as I crouched there on the pavement. “Damn,” I thought, and a car slowed down; its driver looked at me inquiringly.

I sprang to my feet, gingerly, and waved him on, and I stepped off the sidewalk into the soft grass.

And that was the last time I told myself I could just tiptoe across a mud slick.

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

There’s a black SUV waiting at the cross walk as I approach, and I slow down to see if they notice me. Usually folks wave me across, and I wave and smile, and they smile back.

But not always. If the driver doesn’t make eye contact, I stop and wait, because that, I think, signals this: If I don’t meet your eyes, I can ignore your existence.

Sure enough, the sleek black vehicle roars off in front of me, making a fast left turn, the driver’s eyes locked straight ahead.

The little white sedan waiting after the SUV beeps at me. The lady behind the wheel smiles and waves me vigorously on.

Most people are just that lovely.

But I’ve learned that it always pays to stop and check it out.

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

 I turn onto the curved road that starts at the top of the hill and then swings back around to meet Dresden Road again in about three-fourths of a mile. It is a pretty neighborhood, and I like to alternate different sides of the street as I walk, getting different perspectives. Today I take the far side, and I remember the house almost at the end had two bumpus hounds who used to come rollicking out and bark at me, bark seriously enough to make me scurry across the street and hope there’s an invisible fence in play. I haven’t seen them since before the snow fell, though.

But, damn. Aren’t they there today? And as soon as I hove into view, they begin—and their barking sounds vicious to me, their rangy bodies pressing forward.

Come on. Come ON! they dare me.

I decline the challenge, and I hurry across the street. They stay in their yard, but they eye me, vocally, until I hit the main road again. From my heels to my neck, I feel cautionary prickles. I turn to look back before I turn south. They are watching, watching, and their barking is still relentless.

And deep in the backyards of the houses I will pass by, I hear more amp-ed up woofing. The bumpus hounds have awakened the barking chain.

They’re all securely leashed, I assure myself; I feel for the phone in my pocket, just in case.

It’s FINE, I reiterate, quelling the frantic voice that rises up.

But there are goose bumps on my neck until I leave the barking far behind.

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

The Triumphs.

It is a chill morning, but all the promise of spring backs up that coolness, a shy sun promising more warmth, and the trees preening in full fledge, and the birds, who are busy, busy, busy.

I round the corner and I am surprised to see two very active robins; they are happy, hopping, hopping, and yelling at each other when their little bird beaks are not avidly attacking whatever goodie they’ve discovered. I imagine bird seed or a split-open package of crushed cheese and crackers. The birds hop reluctantly into flight as I get very close. They light on a fence which is not so very far away, and they cock their heads and watch me.

I imagine they are trying to give me birdie-threatening looks, that they’re sending me warning thoughts: Leave our bootie alone, Sister!

And I look as I pass to see what they’ve been enjoying so much.

It’s a banana peel.

As soon as I am three feet away, they’re right back at it, pecking at that peel, screaming at each other with first-morning pleasure.

Robins like bananas. Who knew?

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

When I walk, I see the changes: the day the blossoms begin to fall and a brisk breeze makes that little corner kind of a like a fleeting visit to the inside of a snow shaker…only this ‘snow’ is not so cold, and oh, it smells so sweet. I see the hosta shooting up like tightly rolled cigars and then opening, opening, a little more each day, allowing themselves to be coaxed by the sun. Finally they settle in, their leaves wide open, the plant equivalent, I imagine, of a green, oxygenated, all-encompassing, hug.

And I see human-made changes as well. One day, a lawn will be thick and high and dense with dandelions; the next it will be trimmed and preening. That smell—fresh-cut grass with a hint of gasoline—lingers pleasingly.

Mulch appears where weeds were yesterday. New-planted pansies turn their blank, shy faces to the sun.

And one day the big brick house with the White House-style portico has a For Sale in front of it. I snap a picture and send it off to Mark, and before I am home, he has researched everything about that house, from square footage and number of bathrooms to current asking price and the price the current owners paid seven years ago. We feel like we’re members of the Insiders’ Club: most people don’t even know it’s for sale, and we can tell you how many cars will fit in its garage.

We are not in the market, but we ARE in the know. And there’s a silly satisfaction involved in knowing FIRST.

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

There is wildlife. Sweet but foolish big-eyed bunnies freeze as I approach them, nibbling halted, thinking, I am sure, that they have frozen themselves into invisibility.

“Runaway, Bunny,” I murmur, and sometimes they do.

One day I see a substantially-sized bird on the sidewalk as I round a corner. I walk a little closer and realize it’s a mama duck, and that Dad is right there, too.

Dad yells at Mama as I approach; “WOCK!” he says.

“Wockwockwockwockwock,” she mutters and they show me their tails, waddling away much faster than their broad bottoms and flat feet would seem to make possible.

It’s a long way from the river or a pond, and I wonder what brought those two travelers this far inland. I hope they haven’t set their sights on raising kiddies in one of Spring’s capacious puddles.

Nah. Ducks are too smart.

Aren’t they?

A little further down the street, I feel that ripple in the force, and I look around to see two mama deer staring at me solemnly from under a majestic evergreen. I stop a moment and we just look at each other. Then, before I can wish them good morning, they turn in unison, and they bound away, gracefully disappearing into the foggy backyards.

And I remember I don’t own these streets and that, in addition to our oh-so-important human dramas, there are other lives playing out every day, only steps away.

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

The cool air pushes me to walk faster, and I am almost home when I see the dew-bedazzled chapel veils hanging from the branches of Phyllis’s pine tree. Lacy, intricate, glistening: they are works of grandeur and fleeting beauty. I stop and try to capture an echo of their glory with my cell phone camera.

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

And then I am home, and the coffee has churgled itself into being; the boyos are pouring cereal and laying out plans for the day. My gears switch and a new kind of engagement kicks in.

But the morning walk informs it, and the trials and the triumphs build a foundation, a solid, thoughtful platform, on which to build this day.

Stepping In

Snow and frigid temperatures, sun and balmy days, rain and wind and sleet…all of those kinds of weather crammed into the last three weeks. And Connie, the Fitbit on my wrist, blithely ignores all of it. The temperature, the weather, what’s falling from the heavens: these things mean nothing to her relentless little self.

If I sit too long, snuggled in the chair by the fire, she buzzes me out of rapt reading. She wants me to take at least 250 steps every sixty minutes; at about a quarter till the hour, my wrist will tingle and a message will scroll on Connie’s flat visage. “Only 113 steps left!” she’ll remind me.

And I’ll finish the paragraph and sigh, put down the book, and step it up.

And every other week, Connie challenges me to add 500 steps to my daily total. My walks get longer and more well-planned. I don’t like the thought of ending the day shy of my goal.

Most of the time, if it’s not raining too hard, if the walks aren’t icy, and if the temps are above ten degrees, I walk outside. I like that best: taking long strides, swinging my arms, the fresh air rubbing my cheeks. I have a regular walk; most days I walk a long walk; sometimes, on days I have to step in other ways, I take a short walk; and on changeable days, when I need a diversion, I go for an other-way walk. Those days I dodge around different corners, pace the trails at what we blithely call the old folks’ home (where folks right around our age live quite happily, although most of them are, to say the truth, a good bit older.)

When I walk outside, there’s a sense of mission, of forward marching, and there is the possibility of lots of unexpected things happening. There’s, Hey, look, Misty’s waving in her black SUV, and there’s a chat with a cute young couple carrying pizza boxes, leaking fragrant steam, up the steep steps of their porch, and there’s the chance to see how people’s decorations change, from Christmas to Valentines Day to St. Paddy’s green, and just now starting to speak up, a few hopeful pastel hues of springtime. I might stop and chat with neighbors on my walk. I get to see houses with for sale signs just about the minute those signs go up. Quite often, when I walk early or at dusk, I’ll have conversations with unimpressed deer.

I like my outdoor walks.

But many days lately, the weather has sent me scurrying to walk indoors.

Sometimes I drop James off at the campus library and drive around the back of the college road and go to the rec center. If I walk twelve times around their indoor track, I rack up a mile. Often, it’s crowded, and walking is more like weaving: friendly groups of gal pals in all kinds of togs, from the trendiest and gym-iest, to cotton shirts, denim capris, and Crocs, stride along in all three lanes, chatting and laughing. I veer off to the way-outside; they smile and pat my arm and wave me on and go back to their discussion of this one’s kids and that one’s stubborn husband. Some folks stand in the edge area, between the track and the tall bank of windows, and stretch. One rangy, aging gent wrapped his arms around a thin pole, a pole as long as he was tall, and whipped around from side to side. I ducked and flinched when I walked by; that pole looked like it was flying mighty close to my head, and he dropped the thing and gave me an exaggerated arm wave—a kind of, ‘After you, MADAME!’

I was glad when that guy went inside the equipment room and started bouncing on some odd round floor fixtures and I was removed from his flailing and sarcasm.

One young woman worked out on the machines in the middle floor, but periodically bolted across the track to press her hands against the wall, to stretch and squat, and to puff out her cheeks. She wasn’t always careful about watching for walkers. When she nearly ran me over, she glared at me as if I should have been more careful.

The day Jim came with me, the day his work was cancelled, he tried to walk the track. I took off before him as he screwed his ear buds in and tightened up his laces, and I found him, white-faced by the chairs, flinching as the chatty silver sneakers scurried past.

“It’s too CROWDED,” he said, and that day we went home early.

The next day, a day of relentless cold rain, we drove to the mall and walked there. The floors gleamed, the crowds were diffuse, and the stores offered interesting possibilities. Jim went one direction (“You walk too fast,” he grumbled) and I went the other; we high-fived each time we met in the middle, and I found him, finally, in the food court, where he munched on an Aunt Annie’s pretzel as he waited for me to complete my final circuit. Jim likes walking at the mall, where the other walkers don’t press so close, but I find the floors there very slick, and I am glad when my half hour’s walking is done.

I like to walk outdoors, but it’s nice to have indoor alternatives.

But Wednesday, it snowed, then rained, then cooled down again, and the slush froze into hurtful hard points. The streets were clogged with snow that squawked and crunched. I went out to clear the front walk for the mail carrier, and I slipped and slid and leaned on the push broom for a crutch. I broadcast eco-friendly snow melt from the stairs to the street and then hobbled slowly up the walk and around the house to the back door.

Wednesday I realized there’d be no walking outside, and there’d be no driving to another indoor venue to walk, either.

Wednesday I realized that, if I wanted to walk for half an hour, I was going to be walking inside my house.

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

Mark had slipped out to work in that half hour between the snow and the rain; Jim was still upstairs at 9:00, my walking time. I opened the door to the glassed in side porch, the space we grandly call our Florida room, and I started mapping a track through the house.

I started at the big window in the kitchen, and I noticed that the floor really needed to be swept. I stopped and did that; sweeping the tiled floor, like sweeping the front walk, is just another kind of walking. I swept up a big pile of crumbs, and I pushed them into the dust-catcher, and I dumped that into the garbage can. I did another circuit of our little kitchen, and I noticed the new toaster, a long sleek silver thing. Instead of four slots, it has two extra-long ones. We can do two slices of normal-sized bread in each one, and we can also carve slices from large artisan loaves and toast them without cutting them in half.

It’s nice. I took Jim shopping after our old toaster—which had moved to this house with us, so it was at least seven years old, and not an expensive purchase in the first place—stopped popping up the toast on the right side. We went to Kohl’s with a small credit and a coupon for 30% off, and Jim chose this toaster.

It’s an Oster.

So, it’s an Oster toaster.

And when Jim was telling Mark what a great toaster it was, we said he was an Oster toaster boaster.

And since we were being snarky, I guess that made us Oster toaster boaster roasters.

But: time to walk on.

*******

In the family room, I walked the perimeter, behind the backs of furniture, and noticed the knit throws and fuzzy blankets were all puddled and lumped on the love seat. I stopped and fluffed and folded, and I gave each sitting spot its own snuggly blankie. I straightened up stacks of DVD’s, and I moved a laptop lap-desk from the walkway.

I noticed that the TV was a little fuzzed with dust and I turned round and got the Swiffer duster from the cabinet. I am too cheap to buy Swiffer duster refills, so it is armed with clean white sock rags, and they work just fine, thank you very much, to wipe the dust from TV screen and stand. I walked back and put the duster away and then headed out onto the sunporch. There was evidence of my early winter’s project: two boxes of documents to shred, left after I cleaned out files and divested them of anything we do not need to keep. I made a mental note to ask Jim if he’d like to make some extra cash; I’ve been meaning to shred those papers, but it seems that something always interferes.

I circled the sunporch twice, and I thought we need to think about furnishings. We ordered new curtains; Mark mounted industrial pipe for rods, and we hung bright, thick curtains so the little three season room is private and quiet. This spring we’ll move the daybed downstairs from the tiny bedroom and create a new guest space…and a new napping space, too.

We’ll take the old, wine-colored flowered furniture and contribute them to Jim’s man cave downstairs, if he wants them. We’ll need to think about what else should go in the Florida room once the little bed is added.

But walking, it was cold out there, and I completed the circuit and shut the door behind me.

I swung around into the living room, where the waiting fireplace beckoned me. I calmed it down. Not right NOW, I told it; not at 9:10 in the morning. But it was tempting, and as I straightened the books and magazines, napkins, emery board, IPad, and old letters that have piled up around my reading space, I thought about that. Who SAYS, really, that I can’t light a fire and take a reading break, mid-morning? Who SAYS?

Well, Connie does, for one. I sighed, circled the living room a couple of times, and forged on.

In each room, I stopped and straightened, noting things that needed to be dusted or moved. I thought wryly to myself that, if the track at the gym requires twelve circuits to make a mile, here at home, I must need something like fifty.

I walked, and I stopped to neatly put shoes into their spaces in the back hall and I straightened books on the shelves and I moved a stack of recipes to the bookshelves where the recipes to be sorted live.

With each pass through, the clutter became a little more controlled.

By 9:30, I had stepped a lot of steps and straightened up my house.

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

Later that sloppy, indoor day, I ran the vacuum and mopped tile floors, two different ways of getting steps in.

By late afternoon, it had cleared enough that driving to teach my night class was no problem, although I sighed at the thought that I could have had a snow day. And, at class, just as I started to talk about the night’s adventures into writing, Connie exploded on my wrist. I’d achieved my daily step goal.

Whoo hooo, said my students.

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

The weather is clearing. Today is a much nicer day, and I laced up my black Nikes, twice, and stretched out into the outdoor world, and I enjoyed that stretch. But it’s nice to know that, even if stuck at home, I can get my steps in.

I can get my steps in and wind up with a cleaner, neater house because of it.

I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but there’s something to be said for stepping in.

Thank You, Little Voice

All the consciences I have ever heard of were nagging, badgering, fault-finding, execrable savages! Yes; and always in a sweat about some poor little insignificant trifle or other–destruction catch the lot of them, I say!
– Mark Twain, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”

**********

The squirrel sits on top of a garden boulder like a fuzzy black statue; it is frozen but quivering with alertness. As I round the corner, it leaps into the empty street and runs up onto the grassy hill beyond, its little legs splayed, its gait awkward but speedy.

There are all kinds of squirrels—gray, black, and brown; well-padded and rangy–out and hustling this warm December day; they dig and recover and run, mouths clutching acorns. They scamper and skitter up tree trunks.

A dozen sleek black crows hop arrogantly in a yard as I pass by, and I see the red darts that are cardinals zipping high up in the tree tops. Leaves lay, crisp and brown, across the sidewalks. A guy with a hat pulled down over his ears walks by me, smiling. His almost-white blond hair springs out beneath the knitted tuque; his eyes crinkle behind thick lenses.

I try to decide who he reminds me of as I smile back and say hello.  

A little like Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

A little Elton John-y.

A heavy-set young woman with long dark hair and shiny, opaque, ear gages, flits her eyes away from mine and walks far around me, slipping a little on the muddy grass. She does not respond to my morning greeting.

Toward the bottom of the sloping hill, neighbors, the couple from the big old house around the corner from ours, stride out of a side street. They single file it to make room for me on the sidewalk. They smile and wave.

I love the morning for walking…love connecting with what’s going on in nature; love seeing the other walkers and runners cheerfully (mostly) up and about.

But sometimes, it’s hard to motivate myself. There is housework to be done; there are classes to be planned; there is writing I should not be ignoring. I could, on cold December days, light the fire in the fireplace and sit at my computer, basking in the comforting snap and glow. I have to push myself to lace up my sneaks, pull on my jacket, head off into the chill.

I love the sense of accomplishment in walking, too,–in taking a walk that chalks up, oh—maybe, two miles, maybe more. I use my phone’s health app to track the distance. One day I figure out exactly where I’ve reached 1.5 miles; then I turn around; I arrive home having completed a brisk three-mile walk.

The next day, though, I take the same exact walk, and I check my distance on the phone…and it tells me something different. It tells me I’ve only gone 2.75 miles.

What’s up with that? I demand, and not quietly. Does it depend on where I put the phone—if it’s in the coat pocket or my jeans pocket? Does it depend on how I stride? How can it be different when I walked exactly the same route?

Mark shrugs and rolls his eyes. He’s heard it before. And he’s heard my motivation laments, too.

For Christmas, he gives me a solution: I unwrap a FitBit. That night, we sync it to my phone and the computer, and I set what it tells me is a reasonable starting goal: 8,000 steps a day. I’ll do that for a week or so, develop a rhythm, and then ramp up to where I should be: 10,000 steps.

And then we’ll see.

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

The Fitbit stays with me almost all the time; it knows when I am sleeping, and it knows when I’m awake. It buzzes little reminders to get up and move when I sit at the computer for long stretches. It tells me, sadly, toward the end of the afternoon, when I haven’t met my hourly expected rate of stepping. Then I sigh and log out of whatever work I am doing and pull on my jacket, wave to the boyos, and head out for another, longer walk.

I hit 8,000 steps on the way back; my Fitbit friend explodes into congratulations, gently buzzing my wrist, tiny fireworks shooting across its little screen. I tingle with accomplishment.

It tells me other things, too, that little gadget. When someone texts, her name and message scroll across the Fitbit’s face. It jumps and shudders when a call comes through.

It’s like a little finger poking me in the shoulder, like a little voice that says, “Gonna walk some more? Gonna answer that? Gonna keep sitting?”

“Sitting is the new smoking, you know,” I imagine the devious little device whispering as I turn a page in front of the fire.

And I realize Mark didn’t just gift me with a fitness tracker.

He gifted me with a verbal output machine for my conscience.

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

Growing up Catholic in 1960’s America, and growing up the daughter of an avid convert to the religion, meant developing, early and firmly, a nagging conscience. I tried lying, for instance, to get out of trouble when my mother stomped through and thundered, “Who….??????”

I learned not only that it did not work—she had eyes in the back of her head, that woman. (Why did she ask, though, if she already knew?)  I learned that if I lied to get out of trouble, I would suffer that night, when the weight of my venial sins would start pressing on me, jumping up and down on my chest, demanding my attention.

“How COULD you?” my conscience would demand, and then it would brush the bouncing sins away and sit, heavy and cross-legged, on my chest. It would enumerate all the other times I lied, and all the craven excuses I used for uttering those mis-truths. It would point out that I never learned from my sins, that I always said I’d go forth and sin no more; that that in itself (nudge, nudge, poke, poke), that errant pledge, was a lie.

My sleep would come slowly, and it would be roiled when it arrived, and I would be first in line at the confessional that Saturday, waiting to give my itchy conscience a nice little bath.

There were so many torments—nasty thoughts about people who thwarted me, tiny bits of beef in soup served by a friend’s mother on a meatless Friday. (This issue was in a gloomily hazy area. My mother told me that it’s better to sin than to offend a friend. But, oh: beef on Friday! My conscience smugly smacked me, parroting the words of my current nunly teacher back to me. I suspect it would have smacked just as hard if I’d refused the soup. “Nice,” it would have said. “Hurt HER feelings, didn’t you?”) Lies of commission and lies of omission. Gluttony. And sloth.

I watched Pinocchio and wished my conscience were a little more friendly and peppy, a little more like Jiminy Cricket.

I watched my friends, who were blithe and unrepentant in pursuit of certain goals. I wished I could shrug things off like they did, and I began to wonder if my conscience was not, perhaps, on steroids.

As I grew, it kept pace, my guilt-meter, my remorse machine. I could not find the switch that controlled its volume.

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

In middle school and high school, I began to read Mark Twain,–starting of course, with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the juvenile version of which I got for Christmas when I was twelve. I discovered that Twain had lived in my town for a time when he was a young man; he had edited a paper called the Censor, and he had not been happy in the doing of it. His fleeting local-ness was fascinating.

I struggled through Huckleberry Finn, which I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I read it again in college, and I discovered the movie version of The Prince and the Pauper, which, for some reason, I loved. That led me to the book. And then I discovered Twain had a treasure trove of short works.

In high school, I came across an essay by Twain on the subject of conscience, a topic, I think, that troubled him even more than it did me. In this work, Twain described taking his conscience and beating it to death, throwing it into the fireplace, and feeling no remorse.

“I wish,” I thought, and I began the Twain-ian effort of toning down my conscience. Practice, I figured, would make perfect, and so I began to work on it.

“Of course, there will be parents at the party,” I told my mother.

“I would NEVER drink alcohol,” I assured my dad.

“Ick. Who would ever want to smoke cigarettes?” I queried.

“I don’t know what happened,” I said to my professor. “I was sure I handed that paper in, and now I can’t find my draft.”

My conscience railed and railed, but I was relentless. Finally, it rolled over and slept for a bit.

But it would wake up in the darkest, most vulnerable hours; it would wake up and it would wake ME up. At 3 AM I’d be sitting upright in bed, wrestling with questions of how could I….

I visited the confessional less and less often, finding the comfort it had once given was more and more diluted.

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

So I trudged reluctantly into adulthood, dragging a bound and muffled, but never quite abandoned, conscience that kicked and squirmed behind me.

Teaching and marriage, loss and parenting, all the unexpected tumblings of life, taught me to see and feel new layers and permutations of guilt and remorse.

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

I began to think about what the whole concept of ‘conscience’ means. The root word, science, means knowing. The prefix, con, means with. So the word itself meant ‘with knowing,’ the doing of a deed with full awareness of what that doing connotes.

And then I stumbled across a book on mindfulness, and I started wondering how much of life I sleepwalk through, and I started seeing the value—well, the necessity, really—of being awake and aware. Is THAT, I wondered, what a conscience really does? It calls me back to awareness, brings me to the present moment, asks me to acknowledge that I know what churnings the course I contemplate might agitate?

If that was a conscience’s job, maybe it was not such a bad companion. Maybe I could get acquainted with my conscience again, ask it to help me really inhabit my time. We began a cautious renegotiation of roles, my conscience and I. One of the things it recommended that I do is write about it to fully understand it. I wove my conscience into my morning pages. We started, I like to think, a kind of waltzing get-to-know-you dance.

This dance, I believe, continues to this day.

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

And, “Okay!” says my FitBit as I type this. “Time to get up and get moving!”

And I heave myself out of the chair, think longingly of making another short pot of decaf, of helping myself to a piece or two of the locally-famed chocolates that a lovely friend surprised me with last night. But I trudge upstairs instead to pull on my new Sock Monkey socks. It is time for the First Walk of the Day, time to lace up my sneaks and venture forth into a gray world where squirrels scamper and birds shrill,–where, just an hour ago, a deer played peekaboo with Mark, popping its head up and down from behind the bushes as Mark grinned at it from the dining room’s bay window.

The Fitbit tells me this, but it is telling me only what I know: that action is good, that my heart needs me to move and needs me NOT to grab another goodie from the sweetie tray. The Fitbit is just another tool to help me achieve awareness, to guide me into mindfulness. I stare out the window and I acknowledge this as I twist my thoughts so that, “Oh boy! Let’s walk!” shows up on the screen.

I should be thanking my smug little Fitbit, firmly leading me by the wrist. Maybe, I think to myself, I should give my new little friend a nickname.

I reject the first one that comes to mind. ‘Fit Bistird’ just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Maybe I’ll call it Connie.

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.

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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.