We run together.

I took a slightly different route on my run yesterday morning, cutting down 40th Street. Moving past the unfamiliar houses, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful deja vu. Looking around trying to figure out what triggered it, I realized: this is the route I took with Holly when were training for our first marathon (read about mine here). It was during the year my marriage was ending. We began training in the summer – June July August September. My husband moved out in early September, I ran the marathon in early November, and filed for divorce about two weeks later. Through the turmoil, Holly was beside me, logging the miles. Sometimes I would talk about it, but mostly I didn’t.  She knew there was something wrong, but also knew when to ask questions and when to simply be quiet. Our running, and the friendship that she and I developed, was a light for me.

So during my run yesterday, I was thinking abut that – about the friendships that form when you run with someone. I’ve written about this before, as I think it’s a great allegory,  and because the friendships I have with my running partners are the most profound I have ever known. When you run with someone, you see their everything. You see their very best, their greatest potential, and you see the dark spots that they probably don’t reveal readily. Maybe it’s because of all those endorphins we release, making us a little bit drunk and helping us drop our barriers, to lose our “mute” buttons. Once somebody becomes a running partner, they’re a friend for life, and occupy a place in your heart that is quite different from where we keep other friends, no matter how dear. I know this isn’t true only for running; it’s true for all sports, but the mine is the only sport I can speak to.

A few weeks ago, someone named Lisa Harris spoke at an event for Back on My Feet, a group that utilizes the sport of running to transform the lives of people coping with homelessness. It’s hard to describe the emotion in the room as she spoke about the program, and the participants who have chosen to dedicate themselves to changing their lives. Back on My Feet has volunteers who commit to running with the program participants multiple times per month, every month, always with the same group, and you know what happens? Amazing, powerful friendships are born. The homeless man who last year was lying, unwashed and unkempt, beside a dumpster in an alley – the man your eyes might settle on for a moment but who you would quickly look away from – blossoms. There’s a video here that illustrates how truly remarkable this is, and another here that features participants describing the program, and what it meant to them. The common theme for all of us is Never Give Up. We don’t give up on each other, and we don’t give up on ourselves. We keep our promises, and if we tell our running partner that we will meet them on the corner at 5:45am, we will be there, no excuses. Why? Because, as Lisa said when talking about BOMF and the Boston Marathon, we run together. We, all of us, are a team; we’re on this path together. Last year, the bombings at the Boston Marathon traumatized everybody involved, and this year, many of them went back to finish their race. As runners, we all ran with them, shedding tears and sharing their triumph when they crossed the finish line. And what I have grown to realize is this: that every running partner I have ever had is STILL running with me. Holly was with me yesterday, Tara is with me every time I go south on the Towpath or when my legs find their stride and I feel effortless joy, and Des is with me…well, pretty much always (she and I are currently training for the Chicago Marathon this year).

Ask me again why I run. And then come, and I will show you.

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Contracts

I have been thinking about contracts: the agreements that we have with friends, family members, lovers – those “understandings” about how we engage with each other. Some contracts are formal, but most are not; they’re unwritten, and often unspoken. For example, if my mom discovers that she is sick, she will email my sister and me all the pertinent details, and then my sister and I will call her to discuss. None of us have ever spelled this out, and we don’t need to. It’s just the way we do things, and it works for us.

However, often contracts are built on assumptions, which is shaky ground. I assume that you understand my motivations, or you assume that I understand your intentions, and suddenly we find ourselves hurt, or angry. This was made very clear to me last week, when I accidentally hurt someone I care deeply for. Simply, I didn’t realize how she felt about a man, and I over-engaged with him. I was not flirting, or trying to get in between them, and I had no idea that I excluded her in any way. I was oblivious, and she thought I was being callous. We got in a fight and when we talked about it the next day, the conversation was short: “I had no idea”, and “How could you not?”. Well, simple: I didn’t because we had never talked about it. She and I hashed it out and made a plan, so we can avoid this particular conflict in the future; we have a new contract.

The most complicated contracts are the romantic ones, though, aren’t they? All those feelings and hormones get so tangled up with expectations and past hurts and future hopes and…well, it’s not pretty. Honestly, we’ve all been there. I’ve had a complicated time with one specific man, and it’s always because of that same silly reason: assumptions. I make them, he makes them, and we have never once defined our expectations. Recently, I was angry and accused him of game playing and dishonesty (actually, my words were “mammoth amounts of bullshit”, but why split hairs), and he argued. In his view, he’s been transparent with me, and more honest than he’s ever been with anyone. So how can we both be right? Because we both are.

I bell went off in my head. He is the way he is, and I cannot expect him to change; that’s unfair, and choosing to engage with him means accepting him the way he is. If I agree to engage with him, then it essentially means that I accept the terms of his contract. And there’s the rub: I don’t. I don’t reject him, I simply reject his offer. He has the right to live his life in any way he chooses, and I have the right to decide that doesn’t work for me. Seeing our relationship like this gave me a clarity that I have never had before. This time, I’m not angry, simply resigned. This time, instead of slamming the door shut in a fit of rage, I’m shutting it softly, with love, and no regret.

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Enormous apples

I signed my divorce papers on Valentine’s Day three years ago. “I just signed”, was the text I sent to a friend. “Meet me. 7p. Wine”, was her immediate response. That evening, as she and I sat in a cozy bar surrounded by happy touchy couples, I thought about my future. I was 40 years old, had two little girls, and no job: I was petrified. I was also excited, and very hopeful…after all, when there’s no turning back, all you can do is keep moving forward.

I have moved forward. Those first few months were total crap, but I got through them. I bought a house, got a job, my girls and I planted a flower garden. I tried to date, and found it excruciating. I ran another marathon, and then another after that, started to enjoy my job and eventually even became good at it. I learned to surf, and started to ski again, too.

I remembered who I am, realized who I’m not, and stopped apologizing for either.

One day I was having a conversation with a friend and she told me that it was time for me to take a bigger bite out of the apple. But here’s the thing: I don’t just want a bite of the apple: I want the whole thing. That night three years ago feels like ages ago now; I am a different person, and grateful for it. I am also grateful to the friends who stuck by me during some dark periods, and who steered me clear of danger when I made poor choices. I am grateful for my daughters, who are now nine and ten years old, and who wear me out and fill my life with joy and perspective. I’m grateful for this second chance, and for finally knowing how sweet that apple can be.

Happy Valentine’s Day, with love.

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Posted in commitment, divorce, Kisses, love, relationships, starting over, Valentine's Day

Fitting It In

At this time of year, we are pulled in so many different directions. No matter how badly we’d like to go to the party, or meet a girlfriend for shopping, or bake a treat for a dinner, we just can’t. Usually I run myself ragged trying to do it all and make everyone happy, but not this year; this year, I am saying no. As much as I’d like to go visit friends in other states, I’m not. As much as I’d like to have a party and invite my nearest and dearest, I’m not. I have no plans for the entire last week of the year, and I couldn’t be happier about it. In fact, I’m considering taking vacation days and not even leaving my house. Okay, in reality, I will likely end up taking a day trip or two to ski, and hope to spend a couple of days with someone who I don’t see enough, but the point is, I’m scheduling myself a break. I’m putting no pressure on myself, and using the week that my kids are out of town to simply do exactly what want to do, when I want to do it. By the time they get home for New Year’s Eve, I’m going to be rested. I’m going to have my clarity and intention firmly in place just in time for 2014, and be ready to made the big decisions which I know are on the horizon.

The winter holidays are tough for many people, myself included. This time three years ago, I was in the middle of a divorce, and felt hopeless, drowning in heartbreak. I doubted every choice I made, and no matter who I was with, I always felt at least a little bit lonely. I fumbled often, and made a mess of a lot; I was lost, and trying to be found. And while I still don’t think I’m “there” quite yet, I do know I’m a heck if a lot closer than I was then, and most certainly on the right track. I have hope. Once upon a time, I filled my life with busy because I was so afraid of quiet and being alone. Now, I am trying to simplify, avoid drama, and seek out quiet…and I think that’s a very good indication of how far I have come. And so, I am fitting in time for myself, and great big glorious week full of the decadence of an empty calendar.

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This Thin Skin

“I like this thin skin”.

My girls and I spent a week with my parents in Connecticut this summer, as we always do, and this year leaving was especially hard. As the driver pulled away from their house, all three of us were crying, and the tears continued as the little car passed all the familiar landmarks: the gas station, that makes the best BLT in the world; the white clapboard library; the stone walls; the orchards. We each shared our favorite memories of the week, laughing and crying and talking over one another. The driver sat quiet, listening to us, and smiling. After a bit, in that dry New England way, he cleared his throat and muttered “I like this thin skin”. He did not elaborate, and did not have to. I like this thin skin, too, and am grateful to have finally sloughed off some of my protective layers so I can feel the pain of leaving people I love. Through my sadness, I was grateful.
Last month, it happened again. My father came from South Africa to visit us in Indiana. Now, my relationship with my father has been very difficult for a very long time, and I wasn’t certain he was coming until about a week before he arrived; I expected him to cancel. When I saw him at the airport, it took me a minute to recognize him: he’s gotten old. The first few days together were a repeat of all of our old predictable patterns: false assumptions, hurt feelings, grandstanding. Then, we went out for dinner one night, and something shifted inside of me. As the waiter asked about his funny South African accent, and my dad explained that he’d come out to see me and his grand daughters, I thought, “my God…he did.” This 67 year old man flew to the other side of the planet to spend 9 days with us. That’s love. My dad loves us, and all the noise in my head and all the noise between us is just that – noise. When my father left, I was very, very sad. Sad that he was going, and sad for all the years wasted with misunderstandings. When he hugged me at the airport, I realized I was hugging him back, and didn’t want to let go.
I spent so many years trying to be someone I wasn’t, even though I didn’t know who I was trying to be. I bit my tongue, and would then berate myself for being a doormat. I was miserable, and more than that: I was disingenuous. I put so much energy into my facade that I lost my roots, and lost myself, becoming a shell of a human. Perhaps that kept the tender spots safe, but it was lonely in that shell; if you don’t let in some hurt, you can’t let in any happiness either. And so here I am now, learning how it feels to be sad, and trying to embrace that sadness. I have lost my mute button, and that’s pretty terrifying, but exhilarating as well. My emotions have gotten loud and raw and honest, and I’m not sorry. I like getting angry, and I love to forgive. I want to look into your eyes and see you, and know that you see me, too. Yes, I like this thin skin.

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Trying to be Brave

I just did something terrifying: I clicked the “send” button. It was the last step of submitting something I wrote for a magazine, and the assigned theme was “Brave”. My mom, who is a talented and published writer, encouraged me to enter the contest, and without her prodding, I never would have had the courage. I only recently began sharing any of my writing with her, because I always felt that it wouldn’t be good enough; not because she’s overly critical, but because I am, of myself.

The essay was the most difficult piece I have ever written. While I hope I win, the process alone was extraordinary, and triggered a self-examination that I have only touched on in this blog. It’s taken weeks, and is why I haven’t posted anything in a long while – I was exhausted. In a nutshell, it’s about realizing the role I played in my failed relationships, and taking responsibility for hurt that I have caused people I care about. It’s a public accountability, and there’s no turning back now.

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And so it flows

evening paddle
Kayaking last night, my friend and I were paddling quietly, chatting softly, enjoying a beautiful summer evening on the river. We talked about all the things that were new, and all of the things that were exactly the same, and all of the things that feel like they’re on the cusp of changing into something else. I thought about the first summer she and I were friends, each of us just recently out of significant relationships; each of us trying to find our way as newly single people in a world full of couples. It’s a reinvention that has to take place, and it’s a tender and tricky thing to navigate. I thought about how people move in and out of our lives: strangers become friends; friends become lovers; lovers become friends, or strangers. Lovers drift away, and sometimes they drift back, and sometimes they stay. We move along, doing the best we can, trying to honor ourselves and our own needs while also respecting those of others. Over the last two years, I have changed in many different ways, but the change I am most proud of is that I have learned that I can’t control everything (or even most things), and that worrying serves no useful purpose at all. You can ruminate until the cows come home, but it won’t change a thing. If there’s something you don’t like, change it, or change the way you think about it. Do something, do anything, but don’t worry…worry is only a burden. Keep your chin up and eyes on the horizon, because that’s where we’re heading – onwards.

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It’s never too late

Sometimes I put off doing something I’d rather not do, telling myself “it’s too late anyway”. Well, that’s a lie, a flimsy excuse: it’s never too late.

I have written before about my childhood, in Happy New Years and in This story will have a happy ending. While many things about it were idyllic on the surface, the reality was that it was often really tough, and I developed some strong defensive mechanisms along with what are probably pretty good coping skills; it takes a lot to rock my boat. As an adult, one of my great challenges has been allowing real intimacy, and allowing myself to be vulnerable…I am always afraid of being hurt, and of being disappointed, and therefore opt out before that can happen. I’ve spent a lot of time working on this, as I really want to fall in love in a huge tumbling kind of way, and realize that will never happen if I continue to be so closed off emotionally to men. But, I like a good challenge, and so last week, I challenged myself. I told my father (the one in South Africa) that I am not going to take my girls out for a visit. It’s too violent there, and I am too scared, and won’t do it. This was huge for me, as I have spent my entire life trying to please him, and my hands were sweaty on the phone as I forced the words out. And you know what happened? He told me that he understood, and that he and my step-mom would simply come to visit us here….no big deal.

The next week was Father’s Day, and so I called him. Nothing extraordinary about that, except that I usually don’t; it’s so petty, and I have been so angry. But Buddah said that holding onto anger is like holding a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned – you’re only hurting yourself. And I am so tired of this particular hurt that I am letting it go, and want a new start. If I am going to heal myself, I need to begin at the beginning and heal my relationship with him, and that begins with me. So I called him, and he was at dinner with friends, and I heard the joy in his voice when he heard mine, and he sounded like he was about to cry. He thanked me over and over again, and all I could think was about how such a small thing was actually such a big thing…a fresh beginning.

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The little children.

My favorite run is beside the Central Canal Towpath. I love knowing it it all its’ different ways – the steamy smelly moist heat of summer, then the crisp colorful edge of autumn as the leaves turn the water to fire, followed by the crunchy cold starkness of winter, when ice crystals form on the crushed limestone path. The wildlife is amazing, especially considering that the trail meanders between and through very urban areas, ending in an industrial area in downtown Indianapolis. I’ve seen foxes, blue herons, birds of prey…each run is a surprise, and filled with creatures; a reminder of our coexistence, and puniness in this big world of ours. The first real sign of spring is the turtles. There are hundreds of them, sunning on the rocks, and then suddenly, they have their babies and there are thousands. Soon, the goslings and duckings arrive, and the woods and water are filled with new families; proud and protective parents, keeping a watchful eye. I love seeing this, and am always struck but how like us these creatures are. The adult geese are totally obnoxious when they see me coming, hissing and flapping they wings in a terrifying way. And you know what? I get it. I’m a mom, too, and hiss and flap just as aggressively when I feel that my children are in harms way. My motherhood dictates my entire life, and every choice I make is tied to my daughters; I can’t be any other way.

My older daughter broke down in tears a couple of nights ago, saying she didn’t feel safe anymore. The girls and their dad have had an awful few weeks: a pipe burst in his house, causing massive damage, and they had to move out. My girls’ basement playroom flooded, and we still don’t know how much, if any, of their toys can be saved. Many of the things they lost were sentimental, like a coloring book that my dad brought back from a trip to San Francisco, and a bookshelf that my older daughter’s preschool class made. Their bedroom had to be boxed up, the floors refinished, the walls repainted. But it’s the main living area of the house that’s the worst. The plaster walls and ceiling had to be removed, taken down to the studs. The windows are covered with cardboard to protect the leaded glass, and tarps hang everywhere; it’s dark, and smells bad, and it isn’t close to being finished. The girls were with me most of last month, but stayed in a hotel with their dad for a few days so he could have some time with them. Now, they are all back in the house, and the house…well, the house is a mess.

So, the tears. She told me that everything they thought was forever has been lost. Their dad’s big solid house is broken, and will never be the same. He wants to change some of the paint colors, and is having to replace many of the light fixtures, too. She told me she wants the house back to the way it was when I lived there; she wants it to still look like it’s still my house, too. She also told me she doesn’t want to use her bathroom anymore, because that’s where the leak started, and has instead been using the bathroom in her dad’s room. She blames her bathroom for destroying her home, and – here’s the kicker – she blames me for not being there to stop it. She told me that if I hadn’t moved out, I would have found the leak and turned off the water. She told me that if I hadn’t have divorced their dad, her life would still be the way she remembers it was: perfect.

It wasn’t perfect. I was depressed, and often angry. There were many days that I was barely functional, but of course she was little and didn’t see that. She just remembers how much easier it was when her dad and I were in the same house, and there was none of this back and forth stuff, and all of the complications that come with divorce. Over the past two years, I have grown so much, and am so much happier, and stronger, and so much more content, too. Because I am doing better, my relationship with my children is better, and richer than it could have been had I stayed; a depressed person simply doesn’t make a good parent. They can’t. I know in my gut  this is true, and that I made the right choice, for all of us. I am a better parent now; much more engaged, and genuine. If you ask my girls, that’s exactly what they’ll tell you, but it doesn’t make it any easier for them. I would do anything in the world for my children, but the one thing they wanted the most, I simply could not do, because I had to find happiness. I know that one day they will understand that. For now, all I can do is keep hugging them tight, and keeping them safe, and loving them as fiercely as I always have.

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