Maybe, Another Way

The mail truck is parked at the foot of the front walk. I hurry over and discover, relieved, that it’s our favorite mail guy.

“Do you have a heavy package for us today?” I ask.

“Uh, YEAH,” he says. “What IS that?”

I talk about ordering five-gallon tubs of dish detergent and laundry soap, and he gets very interested. He tells me he’s been working on ways to save money, and one of them is by ordering in bulk.

“I know,” he says, “this’ll sound crazy, but I bought a case of deodorant. It doesn’t go bad, and hey: I saved twenty dollars.”

I explain about our plastic fast; he gets really interested in that, too. He talks about the floating plastic dump in the ocean. I tell him about our misadventures in homemade dish soap, and our compromise by buying the biggest containers of commercial product we can find.

While we talk, he hefts the box off the truck and manhandles it up the steps and to the door, which Jim swings open.

“I’ll just put that inside for you,” the mail guy says. He looks at the box he’s just delivered.

“Amazon?” he says. “You got it from Amazon?”

I confirm that, and he rubs his chin, thoughtfully.

“Something to think about,” he says. “I tell my kids—they’re in college now—that there are ways to save money. They think I’m nuts, but I figure they’ll come around.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “Wait till they’re on their own, paying for apartments…they might decide dad’s a little smarter than they realized. There’s got to be a different way to live.”

He gives me the thumb’s up and we thank him again, warning him that the laundry detergent vat is arriving the next day.

“No worries,” he yells as he starts up the truck. “I’m off on Wednesdays!”

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

Last Tuesday, I finally added another 500 steps to Connie the Fitbit’s daily log. I had been avoiding it, eking out my daily steps in short walks here and there throughout the day. Some nights I came home from class and had to take a walk around the block at 8:30 to get my steps in.

I was making my goal, but it was kind outside the point; I should be taking long, stretching walks—good for me in so many ways. But I avoided that thought and let my step goal linger at an uninspiring, mediocre level, until finally, the thought caught up with me. I got up that Tuesday morning and decided I’d take my walk BEFORE I made my coffee. I tapped the boosted goal into my phone’s Fitbit app and took off.

Birds were raucously celebrating the bright, chill morning, and a brisk little breeze riffled the daffodils, rampant throughout the neighborhood. I felt good walking, and I decided, that morning, to make it a real walk. I doubled my usual route, and discovered I felt fine.

The next morning, I stretched it even further, circling around to the mail box and dropping off some letters before heading out to my longer route. That day, having walked and shopped and vacuumed, I hit my step goal early, before mid-afternoon.

I was surprised at how good that felt.

The long, early morning walk quickly became part of my morning routine, and I found I was not stretching to meet my step goal. Instead, every day, I was besting it without effort by at least 500 steps.

And in the late afternoon, when the day’s obligations were wrapping up, the time when I’d often check my email, I would find that sadness waited for me. It was the time when I used to read Terri’s emails and fire off long replies.

Instead of opening emails then, I’d take myself off for another walk. And in that week, spring unfolded. First, nubbins of buds, just nudging out. Then tiny green fists, waiting to punch the air. Finally, on the scrubby, hardscrabble trees by the rocky trail down into the gulley, impossibly green infant leaves. And the flowering trees budded and bloomed, all in the course of three days—snowy white and magenta and pale, delicate pink.

The sadness, of course, lingers. Terri loved the growing things; how impossible it is to think she’s not here to see this spring.

I walk a slender path, balanced between beauty and sorrow, and I think about the gift that life is, and how we tend to squander that gift, asleep and ignorant, unmindful of our time and place.

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

We went to a library book sale in Newark this weekend. We paid five bucks for a sturdy paper bag and thought, among the three of us, we could manage to make it worth our while, to put enough books in that bag to satisfy our reading needs for a month or two. We split up to shop our own particular aisles, and after five minutes, the first bag was almost filled, and I went back and bought another.

We filled them both and celebrated with a nice pub lunch and came home and sorted and stacked our wonderful finds. I finalized my TBR stack, and I swore nothing would sway me from that reading.

And then I took James to the library so he could return and refresh his DVD loans. And I just LOOKED at the new books—just looked to see what was there.

I brought home Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Despite the promises I made to my stack of books, I read Inheritance this week.

It is a compelling story. At age 54, kind of on a lark, Shapiro gets her DNA analyzed. And, in the results, she sees a shocking truth: the father she adored was not her father at all.

Shapiro embarks on a journey of research and self-discovery; she finds her biological father and she grapples with home truths, with feelings of loss, with the thought she’s been betrayed by the people she trusted most. Her husband and son sustain her, and so does her strong belief in things spiritual. She mentions the three big questions—questions she probably thought she had already wrestled with to define her hard-won answers.

Now, she had to examine those answers and recalibrate.

The questions, she said, were these:

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How am I to live my life?

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

How am I to live my life?

I think about that as I walk, about living blindly and by rote and about the alternative. The earth warms into life, and I feel something stirring in response.

It is time to fully appreciate, time to be alive.

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

Yesterday two pounds of freshly roasted decaf beans arrived in the mail, express delivery from Yeah Me Too in Clintonville. Our favorite mail guy walked the package to the house, and he held it up to his nose and breathed in the aroma before he handed it to me.

“It smells so good in the truck,” he says, “driving that package around.” I gather up that package, and a smaller one addressed to Jim, and the magazines and envelopes he proffers.

Before I can thank him, he says, “Hey, I ordered myself five-gallons of dish detergent. I think I probably saved fifty bucks! It’ll last me all year, I bet, me being alone. And I like thinking I’m not putting all that plastic into the landfill.”

I tell him that’s great, and he gives me a thumbs up.

“I think you’re right,” he says. “There maybe IS another way to live.”

I take the mail inside to the table, and I roll that thought around, and I vow, again, to do my best to stay awake and aware, to appreciate the gifts of today, to keep the question always centered: How am I to live my life?

I need, I know, to turn down the volume on the outside voices and attend to my inner voice. I unpack the coffee beans; I open a bag, and hold it to my nose, and I breathe that rich and smoky goodness. Then I lace on my sneakers and go for a walk, and I listen.

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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.

Kind of Like a Duck Walk

We sat on the steps of the old farmhouse, Shayne and I, the first ones up at a family gathering, on a soft and sunny summer morning. It was less than a year since her dad, my brother, had died. I was telling her about the butterflies I kept seeing. They hovered. They lighted. They flew, over and over, onto the windshield of my moving car.

“I have decided to take them as a message, as a token,” I said. “I’ve decided they mean that Dennis is all right.”

Shayne sighed in the gentle sun of a sunny summer morning.

“I wish I’d get a message,” she said.

And in that moment, a butterfly: hovering just in front of her, long enough to be seen, to demand her full attention.

And, “One turned to two,” says Shayne,  “and two turned into…dozens.”

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

Huh. Probably, you know, just a big year for butterflies.

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

As we headed down the hill for our nightly constitutional Mark asked me about a friend who, post-retirement, is not always in town. A story she shared not long ago popped immediately into my head, and so I, in turn, shared it with Mark.

My friend’s daughter and her family live in a southward state; my friend splits her time between that state and this one. One day her daughter was explaining to her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, that Grandmother was at her Ohio home that week.

Little Will considered this news about his grandmother solemnly, my friend said, and then he made a  pronouncement.

“Her,” he stated, “has two houses. Her is a lucky duck.”

Something about that story just tickled me, and it seemed to tickle Mark too.

“A lucky duck, is her?” he said, and we rambled, on a night of cool breezes, down the hill, under a cloud-scudded sky.

We turned at the corner of Normandy and began marching up Englewood.

“Well, hey,” said Mark. “Lookie there.”  On the dashboard of a shiny new Mustang, there was a large mallard duck bobble-head.

“Hey,” I said, “SPEAKING of ducks…”

 **********************************

Just like that our evening stroll became a duck walk. Go figure.

And what are the odds that, wandering through a land-bound neighborhood, we’d come upon a park-like stretch of long green grass, long enough to ripple in the wind, and wide enough that the duck sitting contentedly in the center looked tiny indeed?

“What???!!!” we both said, and I joggled my phone out of my pocket. By the time I pulled up the camera app, the duck was on to me; he was waddling away as fast as his flat webbed feet would take him. I snapped the picture anyway; his back was to me, and his back was far away, but still: documentation of our duck walk.

Duck

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

And then, the next night, I took young James to Kohl’s to buy a new vacuum, and on the way out of the parking lot, we had to stop for a family of ducks. The mama didn’t look much older than a teenager herself, slight and still a little downy, and her six fuzzy little charges–well, they were all over the place, on the curb, in the street, veering and waddling. Mama was beside herself. She was back and forth, across the street, up on the curb, flapping and quacking; she was back in the street and herding.

The car approaching us stopped. We stopped. The cars behind both of us stopped. And then the baby ducks disappeared. We peered over and around the hood of the car, but they were just gone. Gone UNDER the car? In front of it? Mama bobbed and weaved and quacked, and there we were, a line of frozen cars, wondering what happened to those fuzzy little ducks.

So James opened up the car door to see if he could spot them for me, gingerly putting one foot down on the blacktop. That was all they needed. An explosion of ducklings ran across the street, little wings flapping, raucously yelling, WOK!WOK!WOK! They clustered around the little mama, and, in a scrum, they headed over the grassy hill to safety.

I imagine them years hence, telling the story: “And then this giant MAN put his foot down on the hard top and we RAN out from under the car…”

What a week it was. What an adventure of ducks. Why did it feel so poignant?

Why did I feel so sad?

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

An old, old memory came back to me–a memory of writing, for Mrs. Halsey in second grade, my first research paper. We had drawn slips to get our topics, and mine said, in Mrs. Halsey’s spikey, perfect, Catholic school script, “The mallard duck.”

I carried that paper home like a treasure or a sign. This, after all, was REAL homework! This was, finally, the big kid times.

I remembered the dull old encyclopedia, red cloth cover faded to rose, and the wonder of finding the article about mallards within. I remembered my mother patiently telling me how to take notes; I remembered her showing me how to record where I got my information. Because it was cheating, she informed me, to learn from someone else but to claim that knowledge as always having been our own. I nodded, serious and alert, and I carefully wrote the title of the article and the name of the encyclopedia at the very bottom of the page.  (That may have been the moment my fate as English teacher was sealed.)

I learned about downy feathers that lined ducks’ nests and the oil that gave the ducks their buoyancy and protected them from frigid waters. I learned about habitat and migration, about eggs and natural predators. I drew a square on my lined yellow page and inside it, I copied the encyclopedia photo of a nesting duck. I copied it in pencil; the picture was black and white. I drew a shiny glint spot in the eye, but, not being able to envision the colors, I did not  get my crayons.

When I was done, my mother told me I’d done well. “Well, this is what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll just write papers all my life.”

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

Ducks, I remember. And research.

And why not a little research now? I think.

So I pull my iPad toward me, touch the Safari app, and pull up Yahoo. “Ducks,” I type, “symbolism.”

I get thousands of hits, and pick a promising one.

If a duck has waddled across my path, spiritanimals.com suggests, I should take note of my surroundings; a new opportunity is being offered. “You will have to move forward swiftly,” the page’s author advises, “so your new ideas can take flight.”

I like the sound of that and I read on. “Alternatively,” reads the text, “Duck may be reminding you that today is a day you should spend exploring your emotions.”

And just like that another memory surfaces, of being at Mark’s parents when Stephen and Patty come in, drenched and dripping from the rain.

“How are you?” someone demands, and they laugh together and say the words that were their mantra: “Just ducky.

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

Ever after, when I asked Patty how she was, she would tell me she was just ducky. She said it the first time she beat cancer back. She said it when it returned seventeen years later, and she beat it back again.

But cancer is vile and clever and invidious, and it was waiting; it was working out a way around her strength. “We’ve got to be stealthy and quick to conquer this one,” it must have said. It must have, for Patty to be up and doing laundry of a Monday, and dead at cancer’s hand that Sunday, surrounded by her family, on that ironic Mother’s Day.

It struck so quickly she didn’t have time to fight it off, to be just ducky again.

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

When a dear one who lives far away dies, you can pretend there’s nothing wrong. There’s no big gap in your everyday life. You tamp down that sadness, and you pretend it’s just not there. You plunge into the whirlwind of daily routine, of Things That Must Be Done, and you deny, deny, deny.

I’m not listening, you say, and you plug your ears against the persistent whispers.

But the hurt of Patty’s death was there with me, waiting to be acknowledged.

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

Some folks believe that when God or Nature or Spirit has a message for you, it will get through. It will come in a dream that carries through to daytime awareness. It will emerge in a passage from a book that speaks so clearly, so strongly, it must be acknowledged. A horoscope, read just for fun, will have sudden, deep-seated meaning.

Or it may come as a symbol, showing up over and over until it cannot be ignored.

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

Despite the feyness of my Celtic roots, I’m a smart, sophisticated, educated, objective woman. I know that God has much, much better things to do with Her time than to send us image after image after image, to meet us at every corner, to suggest to us in certain terms that, although Patty may be gone, she is all right.

No, the ducks were just a coincidence. The ducks were what I call the ‘New Car Phenomenon’: I get a new car, and suddenly, I see that make and model all over the darned place.

I had my duck lenses on.

And so, I saw ducks.

I’m much too objective to think that we were getting a cosmic message, but I am glad, anyway, that those ducks were my catalyst to awareness. I can hear a message even if they weren’t sent especially to carry one.

Here’s the message I hear:

Remember (the ducks remind me) the blithe and blessed spirit that was Patty.

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.

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.

The Everyday Animals on Normandy Drive

Sunday supper was cleared away, the dishes and the table put to rights, and it was a golden night–clear blue sky, small breeze, soft sunshine.  A perfect night for a walk through the gardens, suggested Mark, and I agreed. He went outside with his book, to sit on the brick front step and read until I was ready.

I found him there with Max the cat, sitting in almost identical poses, heads thrust forward to survey the street.  He had just come out and sat down, Mark said, when he heard it–the yorrow-yowl of Maxie’s voice, the sound the cat makes when there’s something very important he needs to relate.  Max padded over from across the street–from where he’d been curled up on another neighbor’s cushioned porch chair. Max doesn’t live with that neighbor, either, but never mind–he’s an agent of the world who regards us all as his well-meaning, addlepated minions.

Mark is well-trained.  While I was washing up, he went inside and grabbed some shreds of frozen turkey from the freezer and brought them to the cat.  Max took them, Mark said, but he wasn’t thrilled.  He batted the meat around on the bricks, scowling up at Mark, narrating his disgust in a long feline warble, and then he sighed and ate the shreds.  When I came ’round the house and found the two of them surveying the street, Maxie looked at me suspiciously.

Mark got up and stretched, and Max’s suspicions were confirmed.

“Taking my feedwagon, are you?” he mrowled at me. He shook his head–Humans!  So boringly predictable!–and leapt nimbly from the steps to head to yet another neighbor’s house. Shirley probably had water and kibble waiting for him. And maybe there’d be a bunny or a squirrel to terrorize.

We set off in the other direction, rounding the curve by the old folks home, setting off the barking chain as we went.  The terriers at Sandi’s house yipped frantically as we went by.  I’m pretty sure they were saying,  Are you going for a WALK?  Without a DOG???   The regal gray parrot in its cage by the window started trilling along to the dogs’ cacophony.  As we walked by Phyllis’s house, Ace, beautiful long hair floating as he jumped up, barking at us questioningly.

We crossed the street, walked across the broad driveway, opened the gate and headed down the stairs.  Into the gardens. The noise disappeared; another world enveloped us as we walked down the stone steps to the first pond.

The tumbling rocks, the fountain and pond, made me think of the book I was reading, the second installment of Lady Trent’s ‘memoirs’, The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan.  I thought about the dragons in the book, so weirdly formed, so intriguing and so dangerous.  They had, the narrator told us, hazardous breath.  Lady Trent learns a lot about those dragons’ secret lives by traversing a waterfall that tumbles down a rockway that I see, in my minds’ eye, as much like this one–only magnified a hundred times or so.

We lingered by the fountain for a bit, soaking in the sound of the crashing water and making the transition to this secret world, hidden within the backyards and alleyways of our city neighborhood. And then we turned and went deeper into the gardens.  The hosta were pushing up blooms, and, nestled under trees, all shapes and sizes and color combinations of the plant vied to get their blossoms out there first.

After a week’s rain, everything was green and glossy, the grass thick and smooth.  There was a LOT of rain this week; swampy puddles lingered.  We were glad of the new pavers the gardeners had thoughtfully placed in our path.

We rounded the first turn, and there, in the gentle evening sunlight, was a woman in lacy, fulsome, bridal white, and a photographer posing her in front of dramatic blooms.  All alone on a Sunday evening, the bride turned and twisted, smiled and glowed.

We waved at her.

“The wedding’s NEXT week,” she called.  “We wanted to grab the sunshine while we had it!”

Another curve, a gentle slope, and we reached the rustic tea house, with its built-in log seats.  Those seats are commanding; we always stop, even if we don’t need a rest or the shade–clearly, the benches are built for sitters, so visitors: please sit.  The fountain’s plash was a gentle murmur here; we could just hear the muffled crash of the waterfall ahead and the muted sounds of people in cars going about everyday business on streets hidden from view by screens of green. For a moment we just sat, soaking in the natural sounds, letting go the manufactured ones.

Then Mark said, “Look.”

Not forty feet away, nimbling out of a leafy copse, were deer triplets, their spots still white against shiny red coats.  Daintily, they stepped forward, all legs and ears and twitching noses. I must have moved a bit; three heads swiveled in unison, and the babies locked eyes with us.

“Hello, beauties,” I murmured, and they stepped toward us.

“Are you out for your Sunday night walk?” I asked. “Just like we are?”

They ventured forward a few more steps, and then some kind of communication passed between them.  Their ears stopped radar-ing, and they put their little heads down and nibbled at the sweet grass.

“Mama must be close by,” murmured Mark. We watched the babies graze for a bit, and then stood up and stretched.  The fawns froze and cocked their heads; from the copse, we heard a guttural “KEKK!” and they sprang away, back into the green cover, and we walked on.

Deeper into the gardens we went, and, very close to where the path emerges into a crossroads, we met General Gruffy, the sad old Scottie dog who patrols the place.  He used to have a Scottie dog companion; that friend has been gone for two summers now.

General Gruffy has a name; I know I’ve heard it, but it never sticks; it flies off the walls of my mind as if they are Teflon-coated.  The dog reminds me of a character my godson and I created, oh yea, these many years ago, General Gruffy O’Grump, with bristling eyebrows, a brushy ‘stache, and gray, gray, gray, fur all over.

The General came to see us.  He is old, he told us silently, and weary; he misses his lifelong companion.  But until that trumpets calls for him, he will inhabit and oversee these gardens.

He’s lonely, though–with gentle dignity, he accepted our head scratches, suffered our chatter.  Then he wandered off on his way, sending us on ours.

We emerged into the sunny cut-through, followed the path through splendid backyards (I could not live here, where my backyard backed onto the garden path; I’d have to keep the space so pristine.  It just would never work.) Four squirrels danced and darted in the yard to our right–two gray, one black.  The last one, the smallest, had an ebony body and a tail that was a brassy brownish-red–a story there, I think, of species relations–diversity ambassadors in the Squirrel World.

To the left, a little girl in PJ’s sat at a picnic table with a rapt couple who must surely be Grandma and Grandpa. They waved to us, grinning, as little miss, brandishing a crayon, held forth with a never-ending stream of thought.

“We don’t think they ever let her talk at home,” Granddad called to Mark, and Mark replied, “That child clearly has important things to say!”

We crunched over the gravel, through the gates to the evergreen gardens, down the hill to our destination.  We had the Big Pond all to ourselves; we settled in on one of the comfortable, sturdy benches, and we watched the water spill down the slope and send ripples into the peaceful mirror.  Things stirred gently underneath the lily pads.  Gossamer-winged bugs skimmed the surface of the glassy water.  Children’s distant voices rose and faded.  Sunday night peace settled.

And the sun slid lower as we sat; dusk was falling.  We shook ourselves, and we wandered back the way we came: the grandparents and the little one had disappeared inside, an open coloring book on the picnic table the only evidence of their evening chat. We didn’t see the deer; General Gruffy had apparently called it a night. Even the squirrels were done, I guess, though the birds were battering the airwaves with their staccato evening talk. And a lone bunny, gaunt and twitchy, nibbled clover in the shadows.

By the time we emerged, out onto the driveway, out into the street, the fireflies were out, their flicker and response happening all around us.  The dusk deepened and their lights intensified–the magical twinkling of an Ohio summer. We walked home through that shifting light show.

The screen door slapped behind us as we headed inside.  We were greeted by our own little dog, whose head was cocked accusingly.  “You went out again?  Without me?

Mark took her outside for a last turn around the yard; she jumped into my lap when she came in, interrupting my knitting.  I watched Call the Midwife with a fine, silky, small dog’s head beneath my hand.  She sighed and settled in to my lap.

And the day was over, and the house was settled and silent; Jim came downstairs to say goodnight, and Mark read a book in a quiet corner.  I gathered up my dragon book, too, and, dog at my heels, headed upstairs to read for twenty minutes before sleep claimed me.

I read Brennan’s story about an imaginary but very believable rain forest, the Green Hell, and the imaginary, but very believable dragons, dun colored with slender-skinned wings, that fiercely inhabit it.  And I thought that our ordinary creatures are no less incredible: the talking cat, the curious fawns, the squirrels whose cultures have become so intermingled.  The loyal, weary, worried dogs who require only a head scratch or a kind word.  The bugs that send a flashing light out into the summer dusk. The birds that flutter and flourish, then still themselves for the night.

I love my fiction fixes, but truth, really, maybe IS stranger, and the wildly wondrous is, really, pretty close to home, so familiar that we, of course, have to take it for granted. I fell asleep with images of queen dragons swimming through murky water; I fell asleep to the sound of the little dog, sighing in her sleep, on the carpet next to my bed.

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

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

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

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

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down, again, went Driver Man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deer at the Hendleys

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

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

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

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

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

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