A little slice

This has been a hot summer. Day after day of 90-plus temps, and it’s beginning to wear a bit. Running can become a private war on days like these. The work needs to be done, but the mind-body connection isn’t happening. By some miracle, I get outside, start moving, and hope for the best.

This morning I decided to close my mind to the art film that is constantly developing, editing, replaying, over and over and over in my head. Instead, I opened my mind to the little things, the tiny, almost imperceptible joys of running early in the morning, as the world is just awakening.

It would be easy to force the focus, to keep my eyes consciously trained on the next little thing, every bug or butterfly or bird. But that would be cheating. So I just unburdened myself. I opened my heart and my eyes and waited for something to happen, knowing that maybe nothing would happen. And in the process, I saw things I know those whizzing by on bicycles, let alone those in hermetically-sealed cars, would never see. And if I blinked or looked the other way, I’d never see them either.

I saw three male goldfinches, feathered bodies like pure sunshine, tangled in a spat in a low tree. I saw a huge black beetle, overturned and grasping at a life slipping away (should I use a stick to turn it over?) I saw a fat worm covered in an army of tiny ants, intent on some communal task. I saw a honeysuckle plant, dense with orange flutes, thriving up a light pole towering to the blue sky. I only imagined, however, the hummingbirds and butterflies.

Mile by mile, with my heart exposed, I made it through my morning run in relatively cool 83-degrees, a teaser for the 95 the mid-afternoon will see. Another day, a different perspective.

As always, I’m glad I did.


This used to be so easy

If not exactly easy, it must have been at least doable, or I wouldn’t have lasted two of the 20-plus weeks of half-marathon training I sweated through last summer.

I’m talking about running.

I’m aware that my memory is as susceptible to clouds as an average spring day. Sometimes scenarios are not exactly as I remember. It’s some sort of protective mechanism the mind has over the body’s will, like the selective memory a mother has about the physical pain of childbirth, the sleepless nights of a child’s first few years, and the “what was I thinking” reality of life with a two-year old.

And all hail! This mind/body disconnect has practically insured the survival of our species.

My brain plays a certain loop which contains multiple falsehoods. My fantasy memory every time I think about running: me, moving swiftly and effortlessly with friends on a warm, humidity-free morning. Dewdrops twinkle playfully on perfectly manicured lawns. Not a bug in sight. The air is broken only by the calling of birds and the easy laughter…yes, laughter…I share with my running partners. Oh, I should add that I’m at my ideal weight and look absolutely breathtaking in my running skirt.

Film misfeeds and catches in the projector [here]. Lightbulb burns hole in film [here].

“So, how was your run this morning, honey?” I conveniently forget the many emails and texts I send to my husband about the sheer difficulty of running and what makes me think I’m a runner and how dare I even try, blah blah blah. (He is, as ever, patient and soothing. “Running is hard. It just is,” he says.)

If running were as fun and effortless as my memory suggests, who wouldn’t want to do it?

Whatever the cause of my selective memory, I opt to remain blissfully, hopefully single-minded about running.

I’m proud that my optimistic nature keeps me engaged in a hobby that is good for my heart, bones, blood, skin, legs, toenails… (Well, maybe not toenails.) When I think about running, especially running in the spring and summer months, I smile, rather than cringe.

That fantasy loop? I’m pressing play. Again and again and again.

Run Easy sign on Flickr by Running Engelhardt


Some names have been changed to protect the innocent

School has been in session for almost a week, and my oldest son Cameron, a strapping 15 year old, comes home each day STARVING. I well remember that after-school ravenous feeling myself. But as Cam is tucking into a tuna-on-toasted multigrain, I find I’m hungry too.

Not for food, but for intel.

I need the ins and outs of his day. Who did he talk to? What embarrassments happened in English class…events that soon, very thankfully, will be pegged as “so yesterday?” What boy/girl chemistry sprouted in the biology lab?

To me, Cameron’s academics are a distant second to the larger lessons of high school -- those involving the dirty, sticky mess of the real world. It’s an education I live all over again.

Cam dishes about who fails to bring lunch each day, which garage bands have formed, which have split, which kid has the most admirers. (Yes, there's an ongoing contest about whose domain enjoys the most fluttering female eyelashes.)

The conversation comes alive when Cameron chats with a friend, both seated at our dining room table (conveniently within eye- and ear-shot of the kitchen. Oh, I do love the person who designed this house.) They speak freely.

“Doesn’t it seem like all the kids who went to [a neighboring middle school] have speech impediments?”
“Yeah! What’s up with that?”

This sparks a collaborative list of maybe 15 kids and what exactly they have trouble saying. Rs and Ss are at the core of most of these, but there’s an odd one thrown in here or there, like the inability to say “red ribbons” or “gym locker.”

I can’t quite tell if the issue is with the speakers, or the listeners. No matter. I’m learning that whatever a teenager perceives, incredible or quirky, becomes reality, plain and simple.

For at least 30 seconds. Or until next week, which is the same as forever.

“I hear in swimming class Aaron Simpson thrashes in the water. He never seems to get anywhere. It’s hilarious. How does that even work?”
“Dude! I know it. He was in my class. I had to count his laps and it was pretty slow going. Painful.”
“I heard that on the first day, Harrison jumped in the pool and then started to drown, so the teacher had to jump in to save him. Fully dressed!”

This one I know is true. I’m relieved that the teacher was on his game. Pools plus teenagers can equal some pretty disastrous results.

Pretty soon, a portly man walks down the sidewalk, passing by our dining room window. The boys take notice.

“Hey, doesn’t that look just like Mr. Akin, the science teacher?”
“Oooooh, yeah. Except Akin’s more ripped.”
“Yeah. He and Mr. Stewart run to the gym after class and curl one-hundreds every day.”

I giggle a little at this. I don’t know these men, but the image in my mind is vivid. Men with big bellies, puffing under the weights while chatting casually about photosynthesis.

It’s delicious to be on this side of high school, peering in. I envy the experience of growing up, yet shiver at the thought of doing it all over again. My son’s chatter reminds me that high school is a testing ground – a time to fertilize connections between tiny buds of life and the grander scheme of things.

Having just poked up from the firm, comforting earth of early childhood when family is life’s only reference, high school attacks like harsh sunlight, drenching rain and threatening wind, all at once. Life-giving, but scary too.

And once that blossom opens to the sky, rooted but growing upward every single minute, high school becomes a time to recognize the foibles of others, comparing them to our own. Those we can control (like jumping into a pool), and those we can’t (like spraying spit when we say “fish and chips”). That’s the extracurricular education that grows naturally from boys beginning to take notice of their world.

Thankfully, this gentle ribbing is as far as it goes for Cameron and his friend. At least while I’m listening.

I know that all too soon, Cameron and his pals will be off in college, living their lives, and I’ll have precious few chances to hear their conversations. But for now, my ears are open, and I’m listening for all I’m worth. You never know what I might learn.


a common thread

Christmas is over for another year, and as I type, I’m in the car en route from Chicago back home to Detroit. I’m always happy to return home after spending a few days with family, then a couple of nights in a hotel in the city.

This is the time, in the waning days of year, my husband and I hash through the happenings of the previous 12 months, usually marveling at the swift passage of time. It’s also the time we share our dreams, plans and resolutions for the coming year.

Sometimes when I think back over time, I find a common theme for the year, like a silver thread in a tapestry that stands out among the more mundane daily threads. This reminds me of the silver hairs I’m noticing more and more in my hair – yet another startling reminder of the passage of time. Notice how I say “silver” rather than gray – it’s a more regal word.

A few months ago, my dear friend Cindy shared with me some exciting news. She and her husband, who own a beautiful and unique home here in the Detroit area, bought another beautiful and unique home to which they plan to transition over the next few years as they move into the next chapter of their lives.

The new home is on the western side of Michigan, very near Lake Michigan and close to Chicago where their son now lives. My nickname for their new home is “Frank’s House” because this special home was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect whose work I have always admired, but, until now, had not known much about. Cindy has her own name for her new home, based on her experiences of becoming acquainted with the home – much to her surprise. Make sure you read what she has written about her path of discovery to her new home.

A few months later, my friend Gigi and I were sharing book recommendations and she suggested I read “Loving Frank,” a fictional account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s real-life affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a very early American feminist who lived with her husband and children in one of his designs in Oak Park, Illinois. Told from Mamah’s perspective, the novel is wonderful and surprising – a must read. And the best part is the glimpse into the private life of a man touched by genius. If you plan to read the book, I encourage you to abstain from learning much about Wright’s life while you are reading. The end of the book is very dramatic and you’ll be happier if you remain ignorant of the real-life happenings.

My husband knew of my growing interest with Frank Lloyd Wright and took the chance to book tickets for a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio during our Christmastime visit to Chicago. Since our children were with us, he chose a special “design detectives” tour especially for kids AND led by a couple of young teenagers.

A freak December rainstorm didn’t dampen our excitement for the tour and the guides didn’t disappoint. They had their own opinions about Wright’s work and actively encouraged questions and comments along the way.

We learned about Wright’s influences and how he incorporated them into his designs. We looked carefully for signs of nature, Froebel gifts and Japanese influences in Wright’s home. We counted fireplaces and marveled at the beauty of the windows – carefully obscured by Wright’s trademark leaded glass designs and positioned high on the walls to allow maximum exposure of surrounding nature, yet minimum views of neighboring homes Wright considered to be highly unattractive.

After our tour, as we walked down Forest Avenue, we counted several Wright homes, and on Lake Street, the famous Unity Temple in Oak Park, all beautiful in their own ways, and we felt a little closer to the genius mind that created them.

I love how Frank Lloyd Wright has offered me a welcome distraction from the difficult year 2008 has been. His enduring and widespread designs remind me that with time, most hard situations can be overcome. Since he built his home in 1890, our country has seen two World Wars, numerous other conflicts political and economic, and somehow we are still here. And we can still appreciate beauty.


saving my feet

Children's feet

Runners know that strong, healthy feet are critical to a positive running practice. We hear and read about thighs, backs, hamstrings and knees, knees, knees, yet no one talks much about feet.

Until there’s a problem. And I have a problem.

I have inherited an inefficient mechanical system in my feet. Simply put, my feet don’t work the way they are supposed to. This problem, coupled with the complete lack of arch to varying degrees in each foot, has brought bunions into my life. Hard, bony knobs that protrude from the joint of my big toe. That alone would be a problem – shoes don’t fit and any pressure causes a lot of pain – but the bone has caused my big toe to angle uncomfortably toward my smaller toes. It’s a problem I’ve seen coming for decades.

I know what adopting a “wait and see” attitude would bring: toes that eventually cross over or under each other in an attempt to find space while the bony bump grows larger and larger. Would I be able to fit into shoes in my 80s? Would I be able to walk? Would arthritis cripple me?

Four years ago I had surgery to correct the most aggressive of my two feet. It was long and hard. Eight weeks in a cast to my knee, followed by weeks of gradual recovery. I shudder when I think about it.

I wasn’t a runner then, so my recovery was more of an inconvenience than a life-changing event. I do know that my foot was stronger when I recovered. It saw me through hundreds of logged miles when I eventually did start running.

After I completed the Detroit Marathon relay in October, I had my second bunion surgery. People asked “You did it again?” I have two feet, I answer, with a chuckle. Thankfully, this foot was less deformed, and my swifter recovery is proof. Two weeks in a foot-only cast, followed by a month or so of non-weight bearing exercise to strengthen and heal before I can run again.

I guess it’s not strictly correct to say that I still have bunions. But to me, because my feet still work the same way as they always have, I risk regrowth. I don’t know how long that could take, but I’m willing to consider myself a “recovering bunion-oholic.” Like an alcoholic, I’ll never be truly free of the risk of relapse.

Now, well into my recovery, I feel wistful when I see a runner brave the Detroit December elements. I say “Oh! There’s a runner!” and my children pat my hand, as if to say “It’s OK, Mom.”

I’m discovering how much I depend on running to balance my life, soothe my mental health. A potentially devastating downturn in the economy crowds my thoughts, and when I’m not in motion, patiently allowing the thoughts to do their work and then leave my brain, scattered on the sidewalk like dried leaves behind my running feet, the thoughts linger. And grow larger.

Because the economy is affecting my working life, I find I’m struggling to figure out who I am and where I fit, as a stay-at-home mother whose children are at school all day, and a writer whose assignments have all but dried up.

Running for me is so much more than physical exercise. And I’m only now beginning to understand this. Running keeps me sane. So, for the last four weeks, I’ve been just under the sane radar. And it hurts.

Thankfully, the year is coming to an end. And so is my recovery. I feel a burst of something good and positive coming toward me, by way of my own internal control. Slowly, carefully, I’ll start running again.

And it will be like the first time.

I can’t wait.