I ran 22 miles this weekend, the last big, long run before I start to taper. It's been a long, busy week and after some time at the playground in the morning, the run was feeling like a have-to. I was tired, a little irritable, and not at all excited about heading out for a 3.5 hour run.
I sought counsel in my 7 year old, saying "I don't want to do this. What do you think I should do?" His sweet voice rang back, "Well, if you do this, won't it make you faster?" and "I do things I don't want to do all the time. Will you feel proud when you're done? What do you have to look forward to after it's over?" In his words, I heard my own. (Which is so much better, as a mom, then hearing him say something like, "I've had it." to his little brother. That has also happened.) I set off, and blocks into the run, I remembered: I am pretty darn great at turning the have-tos into want-tos.
Because there was a time when it was all have-to. Have to get out of bed. Have to shower. (Maybe.) Have to walk the dog. Have to eat. Have to breathe. Have to cry. Have to go to work. Have to listen. Have to write it all down, in case I can't remember. Have to. Have to. Have to.
Less than two weeks after my mom was murdered, I was trying to teach myself joy again. I remember it. I remember looking at things that I knew were beautiful - knew that I would have thought that they were beautiful, once, commanding myself to stare at them, really look at them until I could feel their beauty. When I shared the eulogy I wrote about my Mom (more about that another day) with friends, I also shared the excerpt below from Barbara Kingsolver's "High Tide in Tucson."
For each of us – furred, feathered, or skinned alive – the whole earth balances on the single precarious point of our own survival. In the best of times, I hold in mind the need to care for things beyond the self: poetry, humanity, grace. In other times, when it seems difficult merely to survive and be happy about it, the condition of my thought tastes as simple as this: let me be a good animal today. I’ve spent months at a stretch, even years, with that taste in my mouth, and have found that it serves. . .
Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it’s impossible to think at first how this all will be possible. Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.
In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.
It’s not such a wide gulf to cross, then, from survival to poetry. We hold fast to the old passions of endurance that buckle and creak beneath us, dovetailed, tight as a good wooden boat to carry us onward. And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another – that is surely the basic instinct. Baser even then hate, the thing with teeth, which can be stilled by a tone of voice or stunned by beauty. If the whole world of the living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope. The thing with feathers.
When I read that back, years later, it seems absurd. What business did I have even contemplating joy in those weeks? But, there I was. Hungering for it, and trying desperately to re-learn it before it slipped away for good.
I was fortunate; my engrained optimism was one of the first things to return, when systems started turning back on months later. The magic of the present was there for me, in a different way, maybe, but there just the same. And the best part in having had to re-learn joy is that you know you can do it.
When it all began again, with the indictment we'd stopped waiting for, I had to hunker back down, commit to spending time in the darkness. Be present without being in control of (or even that significant to) the process. There were pre-trial motions hearings every month for more than a year. And for nearly every one, I got in my car in the morning, traveled out to VA, and spent the day in that place.
And so on April 23, 2015, I sat in a hearing room. It was my son's 6th birthday. It was a particularly grueling day. The judge was considering severing my mom's case from the other two. One of the reasons I wanted to be there was to be a physical reminder that, though the case was cold, there were living, breathing people who were desperate for its outcome. I spent the day in the company of a serial killer who had outburst after outburst. And I heard for the first time the sick, twisted writings which would be an important part of the case.
I cried in the parking lot. But then, just like those colorless days spent staring hard at bright, red cardinals, I needed to get home. To have pizza and cake and presents with a very excited kindergartner who was getting his very own two wheel bike, and was anxious to learn how to ride it. We headed out right after dinner and, to be honest, it was kind of a tantrum factory. I think he thought he'd just be able to get right on and ride. But, on and on we went, even when it was hard. Up and down the hill. Around the block. And every time I said, "enough for today?" I heard, "I want to stick with it until I get it." And so we continued. Eventually (though not that day), he did get it.
Day in, day out, so have I. I get the sadness and the anger and the grief. And I get the joy. I keep right on going, wheels turning, pedals pumping, connecting trauma to love to presence to playgrounds to that beautiful cardinal in the woods today. No, not every step of this 22 mile run was bliss. Not even close. But I know it is possible and that it will come, if I put one foot in front of another. Today, like all the other days, I stuck with it until I got it, just like my sweet boy.
Joy, running, grief - just like riding a bike. Right?