Monday, April 15
I. A gem this friend wrote the other day, even by his lofty norms. Of shortcomings, real and perceived. Of loss; of vulnerability; asking others to fill the gaps. It reamed my insides out, his honesty, and I wondered how he felt, so exposed. I couldn't even find the words to tell him how brave he was.
II. This morning, his words still fresh, she and I received word from another friend. Her baby, only days old, under the operating knife this morning. An inability to imagine, an unwillingness to understand - these do not placate grief or worry. Motherhood is vulnerability writ large, I suspect.
III. Today's the anniversary of my love's father's quite premature passing. Words fail. So, too, do other tokens, though hugs - simply holding the stitches of memory together - less so.
IV. A student on Thursday relates her trip to Mexico; in the span of a month she's lost two cousins, an uncle, risks losing yet another in the hospital. Her mother's bailing on chemo regularly, doesn't see the point of fighting poison with poison. So the student works - thirty-five hours a week and sixteen credits beside, supporting her ailing family. And I'm to ask her how classes are going, how we can help her succeed?
V. Monday morning of only the third week of ten and already the quarter feels raw, split, exposed. All these seams and curtains glaring, even if I ought look politely away. "Everything happens for a reason," someone posts on Bookface, and well that's horseshit of the ripest variety. My tolerance for fraudulence falls daily; a friend makes a snarky aside against Hitchens and I'm ready to war him. Reminder of a camp counselor I worked with once, who'd the same unoriginal explanation for all things ugly: "Original sin." Fear is the opposite of logic, I think, but reason somehow still scares most more.
But: April's here in earnest. We start a run in the sun, and spend as much of it in snow and hail as we do in the clear. "A lion in lamb's clothing," I remember, this weather. The balsamroots thrive despite the season's neuroses, but other wildflowers are faring less well thus far.
We're moving on, interviewing students this week, last week, next week - trying to fill next year's slots. One kid just got busted, drinking in the middle of a leadership conference. We try not to think of the walls we're butting against; I've a co-worker that fakes martyrdom, but does the least work. We're all far more sinner than saint, anyways, and even at our bests we're simply undercaffeinated.
Outside work, we're both worn down, she and I, run down after all the running up. The way these joints ache after the descents, the way this weather lays siege to our sense of decency and appropriate dress. This won't be one of those seasons that whimpers out, I don't think, not even at school. Maybe a trumpet blast at spring's end, the disorder ceasing only once the classroom's closed once more.
I'm not so sour as I'll sound. The physical fatigue of these miles, of long weekends in the mountains, feels comfortable, and holds the emotional wear as a blanket. We split a beer last night, after two beers each one night last week gave us both wicked hangovers. In some sense, perhaps we've outlived that first poison. In another, we're simply getting old.
But, truly: we're satiated in our depths, at least temporarily, by the quiet and lonely sanctuary of a steep and seemingly desolate ridge. Burned nearly twenty years past, still charred trees scatter the way. Near the top of the steepest descent we found a butterfly, its wings damaged by the hail. She cupped it in her hands, and down we continued. Even in the broken, beauty. All told, we gave four or five hours to pursue broken beauty, running and hiking and bearing the weather's frantic temperaments. Even so, a slice of fifteen minutes unadulterated sun I caught, a slice of heaven clear through the clouds to my side, firmly planted by a Ponderosa sapling.
Supplication: we asked the sky for blessing. It gave us rain and sleet and hail and snow and wind, yes, but also sun. We ran down the length of the sky, and our knees ached for days, falling as we did with gravity through the earth. This thing's holy now. We'd been to the mountaintop, and found our god, this sacristy of aches. Anything's holy now. We're tired by our weaknesses, tied together by our vulnerabilities. This thing, anything, everything's holy now.
Sunday, January 20
I pace. Phone to my ear. Trembling with cold, sure, but more with nerves - I grew up here, in this Wisconsin chill; the sun's shining, the temperature at least twenty, my breath barely a puff beside me - and of course he jokes: "What if I say no?"
We talk. It's Christmas, both literally and metaphorically. He gives his blessing, and my worries previous, in hindsight, feel silly. He knows how happy she is.
For her, for me: the question is itself the answer. We've come to this together; my question is not a surprise, and yet, pleasantly, it is. I ask and ask and ask again, each day this being our choice - each other, now and onward; to infinity and beyond - and this is a life together we build. Day by day and yes by yes.
The trip stretches before us, surrounds us, a microcosm of trips before and trips to come. Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin: down. Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington: yet ahead. Hours in the car, hours to ourselves; hours of quiet company and the endless horizon and the big winter sky. It's like last year's spring trip, like last summer's vacation, like no trip before: winter is different, and now we're engaged. The car feels exactly the same, and somehow that's significant.
She drives and drives and drives, and we plan what already we've planned, what already we've known, what some part of us knew before even we ever met, what we've known intuitively. We'll marry on a lake, in the mountains, in the company of few. Chosen family will marry us, and chosen family will support us, and this community that comes together perpetually astounds us. We're surrounded by love - and the reminders of this are the best part of such a trip. This trip, especially: five thousand miles and thirteen states and fifteen days and fifty thousand smiles and our hearts breaking again, anew, with all this love. All these smiles and laughter and love.
I fall ill on the return. Spend my first conscious moments in Wyoming vomiting. It doesn't matter; we're together and we've each other and we've this family that just keeps growing, love and love and love.
In Minnesota we share boots and laughter and tears of joy, chosen family being chosen family and celebration's of love a given when we come together. In Wisconsin we share quiet company and simple, brilliant meals, find ourselves restored and rested. In Iowa we re-coffee over eggs and talk of miles behind, always looking to miles ahead. We're in the heartland, and our hearts ring full, spill over, touch the sky.
Then, Nebraska. The sun blazes for hours on the far horizon, the western half of the state one continuous field of old frozen snow, glaring. When finally the copper penny sinks behind the purple bruised plains and settles into night, a single star shoots across the sky. I'm feverish - bad relish in Omaha, we think - but a star she sees and a star I see and together were home in a full car speeding west across Nebraska's vast empty. Full with love, so full, and this trip'd already lasted forever and yet the better trip'd just begun.
Wyoming. Into Wyoming in the cold black night after a detour into Colorado; in the first rest stop I vomit. "In sickness and in health," she reminds me. In Utah I sneeze and sneeze and sneeze, cough and hack and gasp. Still, she answers with hesitation: "Yes." Again and again, yes.
By Idaho she's cold and I'm cold and our feet soak up the ice, pavement in the soles of our shoes and the air chilled ice, but I ask anyways, with this joy that still makes me nervous even as it's delicious - Will you marry me? - and she again beams, as sure of it as her name. Of course, yes.
She's known all along, I think. Melville's whale, she proclaimed, when yet this thing was unspoken, a wee sapling, an idea I'd avoid and she'd coax out. I've needed coaching, being previously better acquainted with doubt than hopeful belief. But I've her help. I'm forgetting my own bad histories and worse ideas; slowly I've learned to live in the present. Her heart she gave freely: without qualm, fearlessly, admittedly vulnerable. Much have I learned, and much more yet will I. Love? Yes. Of course, yes.
In Oregon her best friend stuck me full with needles, these sinai of mine in need of draining. Kerr'd her own share of needles; Cayly, seeing the two of us so stuck: "The two of you have such positive energy." I'd be so stuck any day. And hope to everyday, for the rest of my life.
Understatements, these are, so I'll close with this: good things are happening, very good things, and I couldn't be happier. Neither, I think, could she. This story's still writing.
We're home now. Back on our trails, in our mountains. So starts the next chapter, the next story, the next verse, the next trip. I've a good feeling about this, is what I'm saying. Yes, yes, yesses in our future.
Sunday, September 23
Flotsam: Red lines running into each other. Crowding. Bumping elbows, odors. Overlapping on maps. So much fire - Inciweb updates, and photos of the alien invasion. Air updates - ten times the particulate deemed Hazardous - and forever we're bathing in campfire. Wonder how long the thought of S'mores will induce nausea.
Boxes somewhere live in their attic, boxes affixed with my name. I think of this as emotionally preparing myself for the possibility we'll soon be hosing down the house. Somewhere up there: remnants of a move now three moves back. Probably tracing histories further. Buried in their pasts now too.
"This is probably the healthiest relationship I've ever had," I tell her. It's tremendous, the understatement. Still we're stumbling over pieces of the past, mostly my incapacities for letting go. More so, though, there's the present. We crashed into each other, plans canceled by others, into happenstance. The happiest of accidents.
Jetsam: Protect the homes. They water vacation cabins as if they were a desert crop; Klone - the hardest and yet maybe best part of Plain, I hear - burns. Slopes and slopes aflame and peaks glowing red, but those frames are safe. We've different priorities. I think of Abbey.
Wonder where I've kept what. In which move I've lost what. Which address fits when, and how priorities shift between time zones and area codes. This identity check I recently failed, not recalling a street upon which I'd once lived. Still don't know what street I was supposed to recognize. The homes of the past slide away beneath the ember of the present.
Friends culled. Histories I slowly teach myself to forget. Resolve to move on and forward, to mine the archives less. Remember there is no gold in them thar hills of the best forgotten.
Lagan: fire reclaims her lands, an angry mother to her children. I tell myself: this is the natural order. This is the natural order. This is the natural order. All of it is smoke; I think of the land and want to cry cry cry. My eyes are too dried out.
Think of books in long rows in my parents' basement still. Knowledge runs in the same cycles, I think, more lost than ever at a single time contained. Neti, Neti. So many pages written in our respective histories. I am the me I am still meeting. We all are. Everything is.
Another history, the longest ago of romances, a friendship both before and after. (So rare.) A note she sent not so long ago: This is who you were. This, I think, is not who I am. This is who I were, who I was, who I am no longer. This? Could be that again - but only in her memory. Every day we're starting fresh. I'm just jaded enough to believe in such things again.
Derelict: Those first nights we watched. Slopes burnt, lost, hopes of triumphantly unscathed trails withering by the hour. Month and a half we lost to the foolhardly laws of gravity and moving too quickly, and now longer we'll likely lose to the combined ravages of fire. Everything's dried out, cracking, smokestained - sky included. We'll find our feet - and voices, and sight, and smell - again, I think... but maybe not anytime soon.
Remember the bags we earmarked weeks ago for Goodwill. Think of those other words. Of other files, other cares, those other students. Those things to which I ought return. So many forgettings. Amnesia's a gift in this family. There are detriments to such a power, I'm sure - but I can't think of them.
Family can be who you're raised, or it can be the company you'll make, or it can be somewhere lost in between. Contradictions aren't inherent in creedos, but in communities, maybe. So deeply flawed, aren't we all? The sea can claim us. Some histories are better sunk. The present floats on.
Swim until you can't see land
Are you a man or you a bag of sand?
Thursday, August 30
Years warp themselves in memory, long lines of condensation running down a cool glass and pooling at the bottom in mucky thoughts. Patterns long held: remember other homes even as making another; wonder how easily the feeling of both belonging and being out of sorts, out of place transfers. Movement: one apartment to another; one state to another; one job to the next, never more than year anywhere. One lover to another, even, in the worst sorts of fugue. Those years seem forever, a lifetime - and yet just a swift breeze, an afternoon storm, nothing.
Remembering now. Seems those years hung transitory on the stick figure I was, made a loose shirt. How often I felt as if I were drowning, had faded out of being and self, a skeleton incapable of regaining flesh. All churning limbs and memories - looking back so much easier than ahead - and questions. I ran on a diet of forgetting and whiskey and insomniac scribbler nights until I wouldn't burn any longer or rage any further. Hair fell in chunks in the shower, numbers on a scale, dinner parties thrown for the sake of unwanted company - I know these things happened, and yet don't quite remember them either, a narrative I can't quite recall. Thankfully.
Somewhere between then and now I stopped feeling. Or felt to progressively shallower depths, anyways. Bled less, somehow. And it was better, to have outgrown some of this. The passion of youth is wasted, foolish, and perfect because it's foolish. Watching students, I could not be more glad to see it behind me. To be free of it. To love again - but tempered, reasonably.
Moderation. I'm no longer young enough to ignore such a thing; this body won't allow me denial any longer. So I learn, not by habit but by necessity. Only once in the past four weeks have I run. Only once - and that around a campfire with friends, sky rich with shadowy conifers and the promise of stars to come - have I found drunkenness. I no longer care that I've only story to tell, I suppose is another way of saying it.
It's a happy story, I think, even absent the rite of miles. Mornings feel more like fall than summer, and we're settling in to them and this new place. School's started, or is about to start. "Without a bed, you sleep as if you're camping," she says. In some ways, I think, we are - as if I inherently need some last vestige of transience in my life. As if that'll suffice until I grow up enough to accept stillness, maybe even find it as calming as the repetition of legs turning over: left, right; left, right; left, right.
I question, naturally. Think it's too good to be true, mostly. My favorite sermons were always about Thomas: I'm more comfortable with doubt than faith, the latter in my mind a product of delusion and the former a protection against deceit. With so much good around me, I routinely expect to awake elsewhere; my dreams, in turn, have become absurd. Just the other morning I awoke by falling off the greatest canyon's rim. As if, as lives go, we can only contain so much, and I'd spilled over in my sleep.
I don't know why I question contentment, only that I always have. More so when I'm not running. I lose perspective when I can't disappear into the miles and the sky. When I can't ground myself against the mountainous horizon and rediscover my sense of place from atop the world. So the theory goes.
September's rolling again, as it does every year. This September's different, though. I'm nesting, maybe. I don't know the story here; nor likely do you. Still, I like where it seems to be headed.
Tuesday, August 14
Some weeks ago we'd found this race. "The toughest course in the Pacific Northwest," we were told. I wasn't sure I'd be in competitive shape; she wasn't sure about the combined distance and vertical. Still wanting an excuse to play, we volunteered our aid station prowess, figuring we'd run some miles the day after; with a six-thousand foot climb in the first nine or ten miles, it'd offer a good fitness check for upcoming fall races. Of course, then I went and broke myself.
A few days after our enchanted adventure, the thirty-thousand feet of vertical gain that week tempted me into thinking I was ready for anything. The loop beckoned: me, these legs vs the mountain trails I know best. I'd this idea that fast I'd run, faster than ever I'd run, faster maybe than any before me: these are the trails I know best, think of most, call my own when no one's around to correct me otherwise. Being more mountain goat than man, stronger and tougher than others of our constitution, I'd a particular connection to these particular high places. So I ran - and I ran hard. Lightheaded and yet lighter afoot I ran; breath gasped hard and fast and how these legs ached with a fire that raged on into the sky. Into the heavens I ascended; five thousand feet gained in the first eight or nine miles and views for miles and miles and miles, all the peaks out before. Glacier Peak was an island unto herself, and so was I atop this sea of rocks.
I'd climbed into the sun in less than two hours and already knew (barring injury) a personal best was almost assured. By the time I reached the last of the enchanted lakes I knew a record was within reach. By the last of the lakes, the record was guaranteed, the only question remaining 'by how much?' Into the last switchbacking descent I flew, faster and faster and faster, more and more of this speed in the hands of gravity and gravity alone. One last switchback... and I found myself sprawled across the ground. Too wide I'd taken the corner, too fast, too little controlled; through the air I'd hurtled, onto my knee, my elbow, my wrist. Hobbled I the last hundred and fifty meters to the bridge, to the watch's stop, to the record: I'd my time, and plenty of blood to show for it too.
That was near two weeks ago now; I haven't run since. Ice and ibuprofen and a leg propped up on the couch have been my constants, all these strangely empty hours. Six-to-eight weeks seems to be the most common timetable, and that just to running again on smooth flats. Fall races for which I'd trained and planned are out; a twelve-hour race isn't realistic when I'd be ahead of schedule were I able to run a (pain-free) flat twelve-miler by then. I'm cranky, she says, without those miles to center me. Yes, yes I am. I need to run, and right now I can't. Some things don't change.
But: aid station volunteering. I needed to see the sun, needed fresh mountain air. It'd hurt, I knew, but my mountain craving? I needed the fix more. Three miles we hiked in, near enough seven hours of aid offering, followed by the hike back out. Views for miles - craggy ridgelines, wooded slopes, a creek rushing easily a thousand feet below. "Misery loves company," he told us, "and my misery's all alone." Were my knee not buckling intermittently simply hobbling around the aid station, I'd have offered to join him then and there; it was envy I felt, not sympathy. A bit of perspective, though: other volunteers brought three children (dust bunnies their chasing companions the whole day through) and their bulldog, Charlie; of us all, Charlie the best sense, rousing himself for food or the occasional distraction, but otherwise enjoying bits of shade and the sweet summer breeze, a day spent perfectly relaxed, lounging. I may yet learn such easy satisfaction - and to ignore this sadly twinging knee.
It's true, there's never a good time for an injury. While early summer would still probably have been worse - I'd not have had any true alpine play time this year, were that so - it's only in the last few weeks that the highest trails have completely opened. The longest, hardest runs I'd planned for this summer were all planned for August and September. Add in that we're in the little of moving - tangentially, do you have any idea how impossible packing and moving boxes is with one good leg, one bad leg, and a pissed-off lower back is? - and I'm quite certain this is the worst possible time for an injury. I've been sorely tempted to just spend the day on the couch with a bottle of whiskey on more than one occasion, is what I'm saying.
Some things don't change: I'll probably always prefer to push the pace than enjoy the view; I'll likely never be much good at moderation or restraint; I'll probably always need to run. But other things do change. This might be the first injury I ever successfully let heal before running on it, the first injury I don't make worse by trying to come back too soon. This is almost certainly the first injury that hasn't led to a marked increase in alcohol consumption, or to a dramatic decrease in the quality of my diet, or to terrible insomnia... or any of the other checkboxes, the ways I usually fall apart when I can't run. I've extra time, sure, but I'm filling the hours with packing and icing and reading, and with two weeks down, I can only hope there's only four to six weeks ahead. My knee's already buckling less when walking, so there are some signs of progress, even if the last few days of packing and moving have been a bit of a setback.
We'll run that toughest course next year, probably... and if we don't, I bet our feet'll still find a way to learn those trails. We've big plans and bigger ambitions, and this summer isn't our only. I'll heal; she'll continue getting stronger. This isn't the life I ever imagined when I was younger - and for that, I'm grateful. Even without the running, it's so much better. And it only keeps getting better. "I am... the most contented I have ever been," a friend wrote. "Does it just keep getting better or do we all age into plateaus?" The sky's the limit, I think, and as much as I like being in high places, it's the climbing I love most.
(I'm pretty sure I can take a few more minutes off that record next summer, besides.)
Life is good, is what I'm saying. Hope it's the same for you.