Life is an Unplanned March…

…but there are companions on the way.

**********

Sometimes, you make a friend in grade school. She, like you, is tall—taller than the other girls, who are cute, tiny people that boys want to protect.

You, Amazon girl, will never need protecting in that particular way, which makes you kind of sad when you’re 11, 12, and 13, but kind of proud when you are 20, 35, and 50.

Your friend doesn’t need protecting either. And she also comes from a sprawling family that isn’t always polite…that, in fact, sometimes screams and yells and slams doors or pounds out to the ten-year-old sedan and drives off, screeching. Neither of your mothers owns pearls or looks like June Cleaver.

But you both prefer your families to the postcard-perfect ones that surely have plaster slathered over their cracks. Our families, you assure each other, are REAL families.

And this friend sticks with you through grade school, through the awful, awkward days of middle school, and through the hormone-driven high school years.

**********

Sometimes, you are really, really lucky, and that friend stays with you beyond that, stays through early marriage and young divorce and the terrible transition, then the choosing of a mate who gets it, who understands what you’ve learned in a tasking school. She’s there when kids are born, when you cry over the challenges of step-parenting…challenges you find yourself failing to meet, time and again.

That friend sends letters in your twenties. When you’re in your thirties, you come home one day and find six perfect quarts of raspberries at your doorstep, gleaming like deep red jewels. Your friend zipped through town; she didn’t have time to visit, but she had time to leave you a wonderful gift.

You freeze berries and make pies all that winter, and those pies taste brightly of lifelong friendship.

She sends you birthday cards when you are 42; she cries with you when your never-like-a-sitcom-mom mother dies.

You help each other, even from a distance, over rough spots and tragedies, and you’re there to help each other NOT to mourn as you slough off childhood veneers—false fronts that may once have been cute, but that now, you realize, have nothing to do with what’s important, or what, ultimately, is beautiful.

When you look at that friend now, you see a young and yearning girl, and you see a wise and weathered woman, and you see the whole continuum between.

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a friend like that.

*******

Sometimes, you make friends in grade school and in high school and they are so important. You can’t imagine life without them. And then comes college and there are so many different forks in the road, so many choices. And each choice you make takes you further down a path that leads you away from people who were once integral, and who grow, now, far, far away.

Sometimes, friendships, even the most dear ones, slip away.

*********

Sometimes you make work friends…people with whom you share inside jokes and with whom you complain behind the cranky boss’s back. You weave yourselves into each other’s lives; you’re there for weddings and break-ups, baby births and parent deaths. You offer and accept rides, and you go out after stressful work events and quaff, together, one too many foaming brews.

Often, you spend more time with these work friends than you do with family members—eight intense hours a day, usually: who can say they spend that kind of engaged time with family?

**********

And then life sighs and shifts, and your job changes.

Sometimes, the ties, once so tight, ravel. The threads spin undone; they are fragile, gossamer, like milkweed thistle. Breeze lifts them. And the people who very recently inhabited your every day now live in different realms.

**********

But sometimes, the threads don’t break; they stay strong. And those people you met through work are woven firmly into your big picture tapestry.

**********

Sometimes it happens like that with friends you meet in grad school, or through your husband’s grad work, or through your children’s schools. Sometimes you make friends through church or through clubs or community connections. Sometimes, students become friends. Sometimes, even, you meet people through on-line activities, through blogs and forums and classes, faraway people, but ones who share beliefs and humor and excitement about the same things that compel you.

Sometimes you think those friends are true life-longers, and you’re wrong, and sometimes, people you never suspected might sneak in, do. They sneak in; they fill that one empty, ache-y spot. They surprise you.

And they stay.

**********

And sometimes, after life has done a masterful job of tumbling you, when you are polished and molded in ways you couldn’t have imagined twenty, thirty, FORTY years ago,—sometimes, friends come back.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a class reunion.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a catastrophic or climactic event that circles around someone you both loved dearly.

They come back, maybe, because social media makes it possible.

And you realize then that that friendship didn’t fade. It just stretched, on and on, through years and miles, in silent, transparent threads stronger than the webs that spiders weave.

Waiting threads, pending the right time, the time when all the busy days of career and kids and noisy bustle have settled down—the time when you sit your butt down in front of the fire and think, “What’s really important here?

And you look to your family, of course.

And you define, now, at last, when time and resources allow, what you really mean by ‘work.’

And you think about your friendships.

You thank the good sweet Lord for that steadfast friend who always stayed. And you marvel at the people you met along the way, the exact right people at the exact needing time. When you think about the ones that became permanent parts of your hectic, unpredictable life, you get more than a little misty. You feel more than a little undeserving and more than a little blessed.

And you giving up trying to understand why, and you just accept the lovely, warming truth of the people who return. You get it, now; it’s really true. You’ve got people, wonderfully different, variously gifted, constantly surprising, and always precious people.

They will be there for you when it’s time to celebrate.

They will hold you up when the mourning sinks like a weight too great to bear, lands in the basin of your belly, and knocks you, helpless, to the ground.

And they will be there in the everyday, in the ordinary irritations of dishes left in sink, undone, and snarky acquaintances, and roads that need to have pot-holes patched, and in the tiny joys of new curtains and way-finding and family triumphs.

You didn’t earn this; you didn’t anticipate it, and yet, it’s yours: this amazing team.

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

Life, for many of us, is an unplanned march.

But there are companions on the way.

Advertisements

Thanks for the Gifts of Stuff and Spirit

Gifts.jpg

A dog barks, nearby, urgent, in the dark cave of night-time. I wake up, listening, startled out of a silly dream in which my job seems to be driving my car around a former campus and picking up students who can’t walk on the slick ice.

And then my 62-year-old bladder reminds me it’s awake, too. We take a walk together.

In the bathroom, with its window on the backyard, I breathe in the deep, pungent odor of skunk. Now I know why that pup was barking. And I know what that family is going to be doing for a few days–the tomato baths and the special shampoos, and the reluctant letting of the smelly, shaggy hound into the family room to sleep on these frosty, crisp, clear nights.

Skunk smell seems to graft itself into tender sinus tissue. Long after it’s dissipated, you still think you smell it.

Ah, the mercurial gifts of nature, I think. I crawl back into a warm bed, pull the covers high, and drift back into sleep. My little dog, curled into her cozy dog bed, doesn’t twitch.

**********
Mark does not let the dog run out into the backyard this morning; he clips the leash onto her collar and walks with her, just in case a furry black and white friend still lurks in a cozy, shrubby spot. They startle Mama Deer and her two almost-grown babies curled up in one of the rock-walled flower beds; the deer reluctantly shake themselves, heave up on their long, stalky legs, huff somewhat indignantly, and head, unhurriedly, away.

But, fortunately, Mark and Greta do not find the skunk.

What Mark DOES find, tucked between the glass door and the mail-slot door, is a fat package from Florida, a gift from my niece Shayne. He brings it to me, and I put my pen down and grab a pair of scissors. I cut the top away and find wonderful things–a card, a hand-written note, a lovingly decorated oven mitt, and a pot holder artistically emblazoned.

They are almost–almost!–too nice to use; I could hang them on the wall in the kitchen. But I know I will not do that. I will use the oven mitt and pot holder; they will become my new favorites, and they will make me smile every time I pull a steaming casserole from the oven, lift the top off a bubbling sauté, or situate a tray of cookies on the rack, ready to be lifted off onto a platter.

Nieces are the nicest, I think, and grand nieces are, too. What a wonderful gift to find wedged in my door on a skunky cold morning.

*************
After breakfast, I lace up my sneakers and head out into the cold sunshine. I walk down the hill and away from the skunk smell. Tomorrow, there will be wind and rain and the scent will wash away. Today it’s a reminder of all the different kinds of things that nature gives us, the yin and the yang of it.

I walk under trees that burst with color, as if they have grabbed all the sunlight they can get and gripped it fast in their soon-to-be-fallen leaves. Flaming colors–golden, red, amber, almost purple. I try to capture the glory, with my limited skill and technology, in a cell phone shot.

I think of the tree in my front yard, which is called, I believe, a Taunting Tree. Trying diligently to keep our leaves from cluttering our treeless neighbors’ yards, I rake or mow every three days. Mark says the tree waits until I’ve turned my back on the uncluttered green expanse I’ve just created, and then it does a sassy shake. Leaves detach and flutter down.

By evening, it’s not really clear that anyone has recently cleaned that lawn.

And the Taunting Tree plots, coyly. It hangs on to its leaves, sending only outliers to the ground–enough to keep me working, but not nearly all it has to share. This week, the city will send the metal-pated leaf sucker around. It will snuffle up the piles of leaves neighbors have raked to their curbs. Their trees are all but bare, and when the voracious sucking is done, their leaf-cleaning duties will be over.

But not my tree. My tree waits until the leaf-sucker goes, lumbering, sated, down the hill, before it starts to pelt the ground with leaves in earnest. How do you like me NOW? it asks me gleefully, as the leaves pile up, and I debate the merits of raking and bagging over mowing and mulching.

Sometimes, it times the divestment so well that snow covers the thick pad of fallen leaves, and they are there for me to deal with in the spring.

Not this year, I vow. This year, I’ll deal with all the leaves that tree can give me. I’ll do it in real time. This year, I will not be snookered into a spring leaf cleaning.

Of course, I’ve vowed that vow before.

**************
I pour myself a cup of decaf, post-walk, and pull up a list of books that Terri sent me. These are wonderful books, essential books, books to tease and tweak and entice kids of all ages into a lifelong love of reading.

I think about the books I loved as a child. There was a little book that probably had been handed to me by three sets of older brother hands, a story about a little boy who lived in the West but was too small to help with the horses. By the end of the book, he’d proven his worth, and his dad had given him a real, ten-gallon, cowboy hat. I craved that book. I demanded that book, over and over again, thousands and thousands of times.

I think that was the book that taught me how to read, the repetitions turning into keys to the code.

And then, one day, that book was gone. I mourned it and searched for it at the library, but I never could find another copy. (Knowing now what I did not realize then, I almost bet my mother threw that book into the burn barrel and danced around it, knowing she would never have to repeat those familiar, threadbare words again.)

I think about reading A Wrinkle In Time in grade five or six, a book found on a library shelf, and having some brand new doors crack open. A plain, sometimes cranky, unpopular girl who loved math and science as a HERO! Of a fantasy!

A copy of that book, and its companions, remains on my shelves today.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Caddie Woodlawn. Chronicles of Narnia. Anne of Green Gables.

I think about reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to a snuggly boy in footie pajamas. I think of reading Mike Mulligan and The Steam Shovel and having that little boy’s teenaged big brother and his two friends sneak into the living room to listen.

I remember plotting ways to destroy the chirping device in the Eric Carle very-quiet-cricket book, and substituting a hungry caterpillar book as soon as I could.

Books are gifts; being read to aloud is a gift. And it’s a gift, too, to work with Terri to get good books into tender, pudgy, eager hands.

*************
And then it’s time to get ready for lunch. I close up my laptop, and I carefully iron an old work shirt I have embroidered new words on.

It used to say, “Zane State College.” Now it says, “I do not work at Zane State College anymore.

I am meeting four equally retired women; we will crunch into our salads, spoon up steaming soup, and we will remember past days and celebrate new ones. Because retirement brings both perspective and opportunity. Some of us are volunteering in grade schools, giving children–maybe children not gifted with wonderful books–a firm hand up into the land of reading. That’s a land from which, I know personally, you can travel pretty much anywhere.

Some are spending more time with grandkids and grown kids and nieces and nephews. Some are traveling. One has seasons tickets and never misses a Buckeyes’ game, come snow or high water.

Some of us are working independently, and some are using this long-awaited time to polish new skills–crafting beautifully quilted bags, mastering the art of a perfectly fluted pie crust, dipping brushes into water color paints.

It’s a wonderful time of life in many ways, and I realize it’s a gift to share it with these wonderful women. And I think about this time of life and the gift of friendship, and how things circle back. The important people, from all of your ages and stages, seem to make their way back to you…the people you knew in school, the people you met on jobs, like-minded souls from organizations you joined, people forcibly thrown toward you by chance, who wove themselves firmly into your fabric. It’s a real gift, now, to be able to spread out that fabric and see the pulsating patterns emerge, the wonderful shots of color. The individual shades and hues of friends.

Some of those shots occur once, in a vibrant section of the cloth, and disappear. Some appear early and then return. And some persist, a constant motif, a joyful, laughing presence, especially important when the weaving goes through one of those phases–when the threads are gray and black and purple, when the uplift of those vibrant colors are needed most.

What a gift, those friends.

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

It’s a day with an overwhelming bounty of gifts, a cornucopia of gifts…some a little sweeter smelling than others. I should, I think, write a thank you note, and I begin to compose it in my mind.

Dear Universe, (I’ll write) thanks so much for this day’s gifts…for the strength and health to walk and to see, and for the front-yard tree that keeps me in touch with the world outdoors. Thank you for words that last, and for friends that last, and that both those things continue to inspire. Thank you for the love that arrives unexpectedly in the mail, and for reminders, as I light the candle or lift the cookies from their tray, of people I cherish, both near and far.

Thank you for this gift of time and place, even when my knees ache and my energy flags.

And thank you…thank you, thank you…on this Day of the Skunk, that this time, it’s not my dog getting the tomato juice bath.

What an instructive and joy-filled set of gifts you’ve given me today. Thank you. I treasure them all.

Of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Patina of a By-Gone Era…

Used furniture 1
Today is a Murphy’s Oil Soap day. Today I am cleaning some brand-new used furniture.

This is how we came to buy it.

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

“Solid oak table,” says the posting on Facebook. “Three leaves. Top shows mild wear. $25.00.”

It is exactly what I want for my dining room renovation project. I’ve been prowling on-line second hand sites, wandering through local stores–antique emporiums, junk shops, and re-purposers’ paradises. I’ve gotten lots of great ideas, but nothing has been the bargain I’m seeking.

I want a sturdy round table that can be extended for parties and holidays. I do NOT want the chairs that go with it–my vision mandates three pairs of chairs, different styles, maybe even different colors. One set will have arms and be, when the table is at its full length, anchors at the head and foot. The others, strong and comfortable, but in some yet-to-be-discovered funky, fun design, will slide up to the sides.

And I want it all, of course, for next to nothing.

Nothing too matchy-matchy, I tell Mark bossily. I do NOT want to go out and buy a ponderous dining room suite. I want something unique, something we assemble. I want something we can spin in our own special style, but something that, put together in a new grouping, has not just a history, but a future, of its own.

Mark rolls his eyes. (He has been known to ask, a little plaintively, “Do you think, someday, we could have bedroom furniture that matches?”) He is intrigued by the idea of the mismatched chairs, though, if we could just find the right pedestal table to anchor them.

And then the ad pops up on my FaceBook feed.

“What do you think?” I ask him. “Should we go and look?”

“Why not?” he says. I message the seller.

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

We thought we were so organized. We took both cars. We’d cleaned out the trunks and folded some soft, old blankets into them. Mark carefully selected tools he might need for dis-assembly, and we were off, convoying to a set of storage lockers thirty miles away. Young James rode along with his dad to provide extra muscle.

The seller–we’ll call him Tom–was waiting for us. He was a big, bearish, youngish man with a broad, open face, glazed in sweat; he’d been moving furniture on that hot summer afternoon. The table was at the entrance to the storage pod; we inspected the pedestal and the top and the three leaves that would extend it. We looked at each other.

“Yes?” said Mark.

“Perfect.”

Money changed hands. We opened both trunks; Jim and I carried the leaves and slid them into mine. Mark removed the pedestal from the tabletop and angled it carefully into his back seat. Then he and Jim rolled the top itself to his trunk–his trunk being broader and deeper–and hefted it up to slide inside.

There was no way. They slid it back down and got the measuring tape. They looked at back seats and measured them. They rummaged in the toolbox.

Meanwhile, I was talking to Tom in the storage pod.

“I got to get rid of a lot of stuff by Wednesday,” he told me on that Monday afternoon. “I got a sale in Columbus, and I’m gonna need the room. Is there anything else you need? I got a nice dresser back there.”

Part of my dining room vision was repurposing an old dresser,–painting it, adding fun hardware, and then hanging shelves above it for plates–kind of, I thought, a home-assembled china cabinet effect. But the ‘dresser’ Tom referred to was, actually, a china cabinet. It had a glass door and three shelves and a drawer. Swirly bulls-eyes marched down the sides, and the carving was in mint condition: not a flaw or a chip.

It was gritty and dusty, but it was the perfect shape and the perfect size for the space I had in mind. I hesitated.

“Fifty bucks?” he said.

I thought of badly damaged cabinets I had seen in stores and on-line with tags that read, “Solid wood! $300. Great project!”

I bent to open the drawer, and Tom said swiftly, “Oh, that don’t open.”

But it did, revealing plastic place-mats printed with pictures of wine glasses, a deck of playing cards, and a child’s toy, unopened in its plastic bubble.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Tom, and he quickly scooped out all that treasure. He nodded at the cabinet.

“You want it?” he asked.

“I’ll talk to Mark,” I said.

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

But Mark and Jim had determined, meantime, that there was no way the tabletop would fit into any area of either car, and that dis-assembly was beyond the tools and inclination Mark had brought along. Tom rolled the top back into the pod, and we drove off to reconnoiter at a Wendy’s we had seen down the street–to make a plan to get that tabletop moved and to talk about the cabinet.

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

Friends are a wonderful gift. Sitting in the blast of air conditioning at Wendy’s, I texted Terry, and I asked if there was any way her patient husband Paul would have time to drive his truck and Mark out to those storage pods the next day. And Terry messaged back almost immediately: Sure. What time?

Mark and I discussed the china cabinet all that night; by morning, we had decided to buy it. So we messaged Paul that the load had just gotten a little heavier.

Tom was available at 3:30; Mark came home from work and changed, and Paul picked him up. James went along, too, which meant that Mark scrunched into the bumper seat behind the driver.

He had only twenties in his wallet, Mark did, and Tom did not have change. In the dickerings for the china cabinet, poor Paul, who was already donating his time and gas and resources, had to loan the boy ten dollars.

I was off that day on a wonderful road trip that is another story in itself. When I came home, the tabletop was leaning against the dining room wall and the china cabinet was perched in front of the fireplace. Mark was grilling chicken, and he and Jim were pretty pleased with how the whole day had worked out.

I’m not quite sure how Paul felt about everything.

 

Used furniture 2

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

So this morning, I will get to know the newest members of our furniture family. I’ll fill a plastic bucket with hot water and sloosh in a glop of Murphy’s, sudsing it around with my fingers until it melts completely. I’ll take my little hand vac and clean out the china cabinet, suck the loose grit out of nooks and crannies of the table, and then I’ll wipe everything down. And then I’ll dip a soft, white cloth into the bucket of suds, and I’ll begin the long, slow, exploratory process of getting to know my new china cabinet and table.

I’ll work from the inside out, shoving the rag into the smallest corners and nooks, making sure any dirt and residue is washed away. We’ll talk to each other, those wooden fixtures and I, while I scrub and massage and polish.

The treasure Tom scooped out of the drawer already lends me some clues to the china cabinet’s past–that the folks who owned it were practical types who liked a place-mat they could wipe down instead of laundering and ironing; that there was a special child worthy of a new toy (I imagine a grandma seeing a little something she knew the five-year old would just love at the dollar store, bringing that gift home triumphantly, putting it in the drawer, and maybe, forgetting it was there–the right time never quite arriving to give that treasure to the little guy.)

That pack of cards had been well-used; I imagine the china cabinet overseeing long games of euchre at the dining room table.

Washing the cabinet will tell me more–the soap may draw up and wash away layers of tobacco gunk, for instance, and I’ll think of a home like my parents’, blue with cigarette smoke and loud with jokes and laughter. I will imagine card games and jokes and laughter, smoke-free, in this cabinet’s future.

The wear on the top of the table will tell its own tale, about meals and other projects. Did a woman drag out her portable sewing machine and load it onto this table, shoving the corded foot pedal underneath, mending knees of jeans and sewing curtains for the Florida room and whipping up a special dress for her sister’s youngest’s wedding?  Are there marks and indentations from years of kids wielding sharpened pencils, intensely doing homework or drawing epic scenes of imagined historic battles?

I’ll imagine someone’s joy in getting this piece of furniture new, a long awaited purchase made possible by her hard work at a weekend job. I’ll think of the china cabinet coming into, maybe, a young couple’s home, a gift from his parents, a gift that had stood for many long years in his beloved, and now-deceased, grandmother’s dining room. I’ll imagine that cabinet settling in and watching the young couple become parents, the children growing, and the years passing–passing into a time when the cabinet, loved but no longer needed, gets passed away itself into strangers’ hands.

And I will sluice away the grit and residue of recent postings. If these pieces were kept in dank basements or spider-filled barns, moved about from pod to pod–THAT, I don’t particularly want to know. I want to bow my head to the rich history the pieces exemplify. I want to wash away any storage unit past.

I love used furniture–love it, of course for its bargain-rightness (I do believe that, somewhere out there, just the piece I need is being sold at a fraction of its ‘new self’ price; my challenge is to track it down and bring it back to  vibrant life.) I love it for its workmanship–for the careful joinings, for instance, so different from the glue and staples of discount buys. I love it for the use it’s had and the care someone has taken and for the future it offers us in its new home. I love it for its environmental responsibility, for the re-use of a resource that will not have to be harvested and stripped for my vision to take fruit.

There’s a patina and there’s a promise to the right piece of used furniture, lovingly restored.

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

Oh, we have projects. Before I buy the paint for the dining room, I need to finish up the details on the almost-painted car port, and then we need to get the drop-cloth curtains hung and the tables covered and the chairs arranged, and invite dear friends, and celebrate.

Before the painters come to start the house, we need to paint the garage and the long fence that delineates the way back part of our backyard. We need to cut back rambling neglected bushes. We need to root suckers from the lilac tree and buy some hydrangeas and sink them into sad, neglected garden spaces so that, in a year or three or five, there will be, henceforth from that time, an annual bloom of exuberant flowers.

There is a lot to do. But in there, in the near-enough-to touch future, we will be cleaning,  spackling, and prepping the dining room; we will be rolling on bold new paint color. We’ll be repainting the existing low boy. We’ll be treating the venerable wood floor, and we’ll be beating the dust from the heavy carpet.

And then I’ll be moving in the new pieces–new to us, but seasoned in their experience of dining rooms, bringing years of service to this new story we’ll unfold. New story for us, but new chapter for these venerable pieces, lovingly cared for, lovingly restored.

Used furniture–the right used furniture–brings with it a sense of past, a comfortable present, and a promise for the future.

And it brings a smile to my frugal face.

Walking Out the Kinks

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

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

I blame it all on Wendy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, at least two nights a week.

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

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

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

We walked.

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

We found that our paces matched pretty well.

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

But, oh, my big toes were hurting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I had to admit, the shoes felt better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loolie’s Latest Monkey Business

 Monkey 1