29 December 2010

Sneak Up On It

Somewhere around October, I sort of stopped running. I’d been doing a pretty good job of staying consistent until Fall Break, when we took a camping trip to Zion which ended with the whole family getting sick. It took us a while to recover. Also during that time I decided that I ran too slowly, and I told myself I needed to go faster. And so, when I was healthy enough to run again, I took it up a few notches on the treadmill. And I hated it. It was too hard. It wasn’t fun. I wasn’t getting out of my warm cozy bed in the morning, hitting snooze a million times (Forgive me, Dan, for my optimism and for believing each night that yes! Tomorrow, I will run. I will!). And then I somehow stopped going to yoga class too, not finding time due to some other obligations, but still finding time for the next episode of Deadwood and a Manhattan.

And so, by mid-December I had quit running completely. And a few more pounds snuck on, and the Christmas goodies began arriving en masse, and I didn’t like how my pants fit and, even more important, I didn’t like how I felt: soft and sluggish in mind and body, and so very weak the few times I managed to make it to yoga.

I hate feeling weak. Not that I’ve ever been incredibly strong physically, but at some point over the summer I was able to do chatarunga. And for a girl who used to struggle to do “girl push-ups” that was a true accomplishment.

Christmas Eve was a beautiful, sunny day. Short-sleeve weather, finally, after about a week of rainy, grey days that ended with an exclamation point of snow. And so, that afternoon, after the cooking was mostly done and before the festivities were to begin, I set out for a walk. Except I didn’t walk. I ran. And I ran slowly. And it didn’t feel quite right, my stride wasn’t there. It was a slog, but I kept going, stopping only a few times to catch my breath, and I did manage to run all the way up the Big Hill (capital letters intended – if you saw the Big Hill you’d agree). And while running didn’t feel quite like I remembered, it did feel kind of good. Good enough to make me run again the day after Christmas. And then, again today. I’ve managed to log only six miles so far, but that’s more than I ran in October or November.

While I run, I think. I think about the people in my life, writing, my to-do lists, future trips I want to take. Running clears my head like nothing else I’d ever done, even more so than yoga. Today while I ran, I thought of my friend Roberta, who is a runner, too. She’s also a sage, although her humility would require her to deny it.

Once I asked her how she was able to run longer and longer distances. And her advice was so simple it floored me: sneak up on it. And that’s become my new mantra, not just for running, but for writing, and for all those other goals in life that seem unattainable, unreachable: sneak up on it.

I told her a few weeks ago that I thought I should run faster, and I was really surprised when she raised her eyebrows and asked why. I didn’t really have an answer, other than a sheepish, “But I run so very, very slow.” And so – finally – I gave myself permission to just run. At my pace. And guess what? Today, as I ran, I saw it. I felt it. I snuck up on it, and I found it. My stride.

23 December 2010

On the Duties of Insects and Parents

I’ve been reading Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, which explains in much detail how this generation’s children has lost touch – through no fault of their own – with nature. And while at times Louv can be preachy and tends to over-generalize, he does have a point. Kids need time to just be. Time without beeping electronics, canned laughter from the TV, scheduled activities, and above all, without hovering parents.

We take our kids camping and hiking. They’ve explored creeks barefoot and paddled with us on lakes and rivers. Together we’ve visited more than a half-dozen national parks and many state and regional parks, and they’ve found easily more several hundred geocaches. They backpacked with us to the bottom of the Grand Canyon via a non-corridor trail before the age of ten. And they’ve even seen deer from their bedroom window, so I think that they – and we parents – are doing pretty darn well in the nature department.

But I have to confess something here. My name is Cathleen, and I hover over my children.

I think one of the most difficult decisions a parent has to make – and often on a daily (hourly?) basis – is when to step back. Way back. When to let your kids do whatever all by themselves and without parental supervision.

Now that my kids are a little older, it’s easier to let them go play outside. The potential neighborhood dangers are still there: cactus, rattlesnakes, rabid foxes, even a mountain lion. These are not things most parents worry about, I’m sure. Most parents probably worry more about dangers like child predators or access to drugs when their children play outdoors. In and near our neighborhood there really have been encounters with actual carnivores and poisonous reptiles. But those are few and far between, just like encounters with child predators and drug dealers – although the media would rather you believe that one or another lurks within every shadow.

In Last Child in the Woods, Louv gives accounts of how various creative people, including scientists, artists and writers of previous generations all convey stories of how they were allowed to play outdoors alone. In these moments when they were allowed to become absorbed in nature, they found stillness, excitement, inspiration, and a sense of connectedness to the world. He relays one anecdote about author Beatrix Potter, and how she and her brother would find dead animals in the woods near their home. They’d bring them home and boil the carcasses to release them from their bones, and then they’d reassemble the skeletons. I’m not sure Peter Rabbit would approve, and I couldn’t help but wonder if their mother did. I thought about what my reaction might be upon discovering that in my cookware. But ultimately, I decided that she must have encouraged their behavior – although a child who did that in today’s world would certainly be branded something much worse than creative.

And so, in spite of the current attitude towards children’s activities with dead animals, and thanks to Mr. Louv, I did not freak out when my daughters told me that they’d found a dead pack rat in the yard. They wanted to show it to me. They had a shovel and a rake from the garage – they’d been mucking out their imaginary horse stables – and they wanted to bury the rat.

But first, they wanted me to see its long yellow teeth. They wanted me to see how it didn’t have eyes anymore. They wanted me to smell the unmistakable odor of death that perfumed the air around this creature. And most of all, they wanted me to see how, beneath the fur, its stomach writhed and bubbled – this, above all, attracted and repulsed them simultaneously. What on earth, they wondered aloud, would make the stomach of a dead rat do that?

At that moment, a few bright white maggots emerged from the poor rat, the result of my daughters’ poking and lifting the creature. And as such, with a few explanations, their understanding of the finer points of the end (or is it the beginning?) of the life cycle became more complete, and they developed a new appreciation for the duties of insects. They buried the rat in the yard, a couple hundred yards from the house, with the intention of digging it up again in a few months to see what changes took place. I’m not sure if any of that would have happened without Louv’s message in my mind, reminding me that children have a natural curiosity about the natural world.

And, while I feel like I can pat myself on the back for not chastising them about messing around with dead critters, they did come and get me when they found it, something I’m not sure Louv would approve of, really. Honestly, I’m trying to shake my hovering habits. But I’m tempted to remind my girls that the rat’s probably still out there in the yard, and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to dig it up.

20 December 2010

Beginnings and Endings

Is it the end?
Or the beginning?

What is it that we celebrate?

The end of this?
Or the beginning of that?

One is mythical.
It looms,
hazy, mirage-like.

The other concrete.
It marches closer

But which is which?
you cleverly ask.

Ah, that depends.

The end is a sigh, an exhale;
the beginning, an intake of breath.

05 December 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

As I work on the Christmas tree, assembling the parts and fluffing the branches, my daughters open the box containing the ornaments. I think it was last year that I deemed them responsible enough for this task: unwrapping each ornament from its tissue-paper protection and laying it on a tray. When all the ornaments are ready to hang, the tree will be ready for them, too.

I listen as my daughters talk, delighting in the memories they uncover.

“This is the ornament I made in first grade.”

“Look, on the back of this one I wrote my name backwards.”

“We’d better hang this one high – it’s so very fragile.”

“Another bell. Let’s hang those low so that when Lucie runs under the tree, she’ll make the bells jingle.”

The girls continue to talk as Lucie, our cat, darts under the tree branches and then back out, again and again. The tree renews her joy, too. The pile of tissue paper grows with each ornament unwrapped. More and more ornaments line up on the trays, waiting to be hung on the tree.

Dan comes over to help with the branches, and silently we work together. I’m not sure if he’s listening, too, or if he can sense the ghosts of Christmas past entering the house and my thoughts, layered like the discarded tissue paper on the floor.

I think, astonished, at how these girls have grown, and how we share these memories now and forever. At what point did they, too, become stewards of our memories?

I think of last December, when I was fretting through multiple mammograms and ultrasounds, and then a biopsy, until just days before Christmas, I received the news that I did not have breast cancer.

I think of the Christmas when Madeleine was nine months old and how I was determined, beyond reason, that everything be just perfect. I think of Arden’s first Christmas and how I’d completely forgotten that she’d be needing a stocking to hang, too, only remembering after hanging just three on the mantle. I think of the dichotomy of my expectations between those two years.

I think of the years before Dan and I had children, when we celebrated both in Prescott and in the Valley, having two Christmas meals in the same day with each of our extended families. I think of how both of my maternal grandparents, the only grandparents I ever knew, died in December. I think of the first Christmas when my brother Colin was away, and how my mother cried after talking with him on the phone and learning that he was spending the day alone. I think of the challenges of balancing extended family expectations with new traditions, and the joys of family gatherings from my childhood and now.

And always, always in December, I think of the baby I lost, a mere week before Christmas, and how through that loss I eventually gained the two gems of daughters I am now blessed with, and how, if things would have turned out differently with that pregnancy, Madeleine and Arden would not be. And I cannot imagine how my life could be without the two of them, and how they help to shape me as much as I help to shape them. The gratitude I feel to the forces that brought the four of us together and bound us as a family is without measure. And while there were moments when I wasn’t sure I would – or even wanted to – survive the sorrow I felt during that distant Christmas, I know now that it was a part of the journey, and if I hadn’t endured that, I wouldn’t be here, listening to these girls, now.

Another ornament is unwrapped, a silly reindeer with googly eyes and a sequin placed on the side of its red nose. Arden says she loves the “twinkle” on its nose, and Madeleine points out that Great Grandma Bair made that ornament. I think of all who aren’t here this Christmas, those we won’t see, but whose presence will be felt around this tree where we gather as a family.

And all the while, I am listening, watching. Watching, and trying not to worry about the ghosts of Christmas future even as I count silently on my fingers how many more years we’ll hopefully all be together in early December, before my girls leave home and create new traditions of their own. Watching, and feeling nostalgic – already – for this holiday season. Watching, and marveling at the comfort of these ghosts of Christmas past. With each new memory, these ghosts rise up, like a mist that conceals the ordinary as it reveals the constant unpredictability that is life. And I can see that these ghosts are not burdened with chains, but are light as snowflakes, and that they alight everywhere, especially on our hearts.