Tag: Bravery

5May

Rolling With It

A few weekends ago, we attended the opening of a friend’s scooter rental shop. I had done a bit of editing for his promotional flyers, and he’d promised me an afternoon on a Vespa in return. “Sounds great!” I’d said, smiling wide and hoping no one would notice the muffled strains of panic issuing from the closet where I’d bound and gagged my common sense.

I don’t do well with things that roll, see. Just about everyone I know could tell you a story of how I forgot to brake when my bicycle started down that one hill or how I did a perfect 90° flip my first (and only) time on a dirt bike or how I fell off and was subsequently run over by that mammoth handcar I’d agreed to joy-ride through our college campus. And we’re not even going to mention my “experience” with skateboards. Much like dogs and Chuck Norris, things that roll can smell fear, and I’ve only become more afraid as the wisdom of passing years has confirmed that I really should stay as far from wheeled devices as possible.

My adventurous streak wouldn’t let me pass up the chance to ride a Vespa through the Italian countryside though. Plus, the girls were practically levitating over the idea of a family scooter excursion. I could do it. Surely I could do it. Audrey Hepburn made it look so… well, possible… and I see fourteen-year-olds riding them through traffic every day. How hard could it be?

Scooter ride - empty scooters“Hello Bethany. Come and ride on us. Come and ride on us, Bethany. Forever… and ever… and ever.”

Friends, you have no idea. I don’t know which was worse: that I had Sophie on the back of my scooter or that a few dozen friends and acquaintances were watching when I made that first tentative twist to the throttle. We were still in the parking lot, and my scooter sprang—sprang, I tell you—toward a parked car. True to form, I completely forgot about the brakes and only just averted collision by skidding my feet against the pavement. Hoping that the onlookers would think I’d totally planned to do that, I gave myself a quick pep talk centered around the word “BRAKES” and turned my scooter toward the road. Another slight twist of the throttle, and we were lurching forward like a drunk cheetah. “BRAKES!” my brain told me, so I squeezed the brakes for dear life… and we promptly toppled over.

As women began shrieking and men began running over to help, I had a full second to contemplate the strong, capable, dignified image that none of those people would ever hold of me again. Neither Sophie nor I was hurt (and I avoided inspecting the scooter under the principle that ignorance is bliss), but every drop of my poise was now splattered on the pavement, a tragic afterthought. Our friends helped me pull the scooter upright, and one kind man told me not to let emotions overwhelm me, just to breathe, to keep breathing. So I did. I breathed and reminded myself that I had come here to take on a challenge. And what if it was more challenging than I’d hoped? Now that I’d already dispensed with dignity, I had nothing left to lose by trying again. (Well, other than life and/or limbs, but I was trying very earnestly not to think of that at the moment.)

Sophie, wise child that she is, declared that she would not be riding with me anymore, so I left her in the care of our friends and set out on a little practice run by myself. The scooter wobbled and weaved, but I was able to get the hang of it after a few blocks—how to pull on the throttle without giving myself whiplash, how to slow down without resorting to bodily contact with the pavement. By the time I made it back to the parking lot, Dan and Natalie had returned from their practice run, and it was time for the real deal, the family scooter excursion we’d been promising.

Sophie would only agree to go with Dan, so Natalie took one for the team and climbed up behind me. The four of us set off into the Umbrian countryside just as the afternoon began to mellow toward evening. The colors were glorious: fields of glossy green rippling to each side, pink and white buds in various state of undress on the neighboring trees, blue mountains in the distance, and a warm goldenrod sun nodding down on us all. Natalie kept a running commentary behind me as we rolled along, and I found myself in an odd state of in-between. Half of me was loving the afternoon—the beautiful setting, the rush of movement, and the fact that I was getting this experience with my precious little family. The other half of me was vibrating with tension though. I had trouble trusting that I was in control of my scooter; I was all too aware that the slightest wobble of the handlebars could send my daughter and I down a ditch, off a bridge, or into the path of an oncoming car. By the time we returned the scooters, my whole body was shaking from the discordant mix of fear and elation and self-respect and chagrin.

I wasn’t planning to share this story in public, ever. In fact, I’ve been prepared to deny everything should any of the witnesses bring it up (mercifully, no one has). I found myself thinking about it this morning though in terms of our last few days of self-employment, and the analogy was so exact that I couldn’t not share it with you. See, self-employment is squarely in the category of things that roll.

Just because you’re running a business doesn’t mean that you’re in full control of it. These three years in the entrepreneurial game have included plenty of false starts and retries for us, and it often feels like we’re gripping the handlebars more to hang on for dear life than to actually steer the thing. On this side, there’s a ditch, and on that side, there’s bankruptcy, and what if one of these wobbles turns into a full careen? What if we don’t get any new clients this month? What if that quote is turned down? What if we’re already caught in the helpless sideways momentum of a crash?

Tension is only half of the experience though. The other half incorporates and validates the whys of setting out on our own: to feel the wind full on our faces instead of through the seams of a cubicle, to follow the direction of our instincts rather than of someone else’s protocols, and to experience the unfiltered joy when our bravery pays off. And it does. Over and over again, we’ve found ourselves the grateful recipients of enough, which likes to sweep through the door at the last minute to remind us that we are in the presence of miracles.

We would always have regretted not choosing this path.

I have to remind myself of that on repeat when the bank account dips dangerously low and I’m confronted by how very little control we ultimately have over our future. Weeks like this last one tend to find me white-knuckling my way through prayers and giving myself pep talks that do little to assure. I want onlookers to think that we’re old pros at this, that we’ve totally got self-employment down, but the truth is sometimes as undignified as wiping out on your Vespa in front of a crowd of people you can’t unfriend. Lord have mercy. And please also strike them all with amnesia.

But then days like today dawn, days in which a single phone call or email changes our outlook on the next few months from terror to delight. These are the days when we remember why we love the roller coaster thrill, when the adventure of it all makes us grin and clasp hands and lean into the movement as if embracing a friend. We are still shaky, you bet. Exhausted too. But despite our weariness and the worries that we know will merge back into focus soon, we’re remembering how very much fun things that roll can be when you relax enough to roll with them.

Scooter ride - Having fun.png

7Apr

Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).

Trevi

We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

10Feb

Off-The-Shirt Parenting

…And so it starts.

One of the girls began crying out of the blue yesterday about a word a playmate had used to describe her months earlier (unbeknownst to us). It was an F-word. THE F-word, the one I had been dreading having to redefine for my innocent children’s ears:

“Fat.”

Instinct rocketed an immediate protest to my lips—“You’re not fat!”—but I blocked it at the last minute. I’ve read so many wonderful articles and stories over the years about how to discuss body image with our daughters that I know better than to pick my fight with the word itself. “Fat” and “thin” can be such arbitrary descriptors, especially in a girl’s own mind. What’s more, they don’t even come close to covering the nuances of appearance, of stature, shape, skin, smile. They speak nothing of beauty, though of course we tend to associate one with beauty and one with its opposite. They’re subjective and emotionally loaded, and the last thing I want to teach my wounded little girl is to go through life relying on others to affirm her skinniness.

So I wracked my brain for tips on how to proceed in this conversation without crushing any eggshells underfoot, and I prayed a quick “Help!” and I started into every right thing I knew how to say. I told her that health matters far more than size. I talked about how each girl is born with a unique shape. I showed her this stunning photo of diverse Olympic athletes. I listed amazing things that her body is able to do. I read her passages from The Care And Keeping Of You. I assured her that she was utterly beautiful. And after a solid hour of this, we had gotten exactly… nowhere.

Someone had told her she was fat, and that one word had more weight than all of my words put together.

Finally, in desperation, I lifted my shirt to show her my stomach. This was not easy for me to do. My girls have seen my stomach plenty of times before, and we have been getting the European locker room experience for six and a half years now, but none of those times was I putting my deliciously squishable middle on display for someone to scrutinize. Besides, I haven’t worked out consistently since the marathon in October. AND CHRISTMAS HAPPENED. I was absolutely not ready for my midriff close-up.

I also had no idea what to say once I had my shirt raised. What was I even trying to convey with this? That my daughter should feel better because her stomach isn’t as big as mine? Or that the way to deal with insecurity is to become an exhibitionist? Gah, and again I say gah. I felt like an idiot and quickly put my shirt down… only to see that my girl had lifted hers and was examining her own lovely tummy with delight. When she went to bed a few minutes later, her feelings were still hurt, but she no longer seemed to be taking the F-word to heart.

Once again, I’m amazed by the power of vulnerability to heal. The stories and songs and works of art that have touched my life the most over the years have always been the ones that cost their creators dearly—the tender, raw, unpolished truth of themselves that they were brave enough to share. I’m forever grateful to authors like Maya Angelou (the first memoirist I ever read) and Glennon Melton (the most recent) for daring to hold their experiences up to the light, inviting us to look and touch and brim over with Me too!s. Artists like Frida Kahlo, songwriters like Fiona Apple, friends who whisper their hearts out over kitchen tables or email servers… their bravery makes me brave. It never fails.

In light of that, I can understand why a minute of pretending I was Gwen Stefani worked when an hour of impersonal truth-reciting didn’t. My girl needed to see a little of my skin to help her look kindly at hers, not in comparison but in recognition. I’m not sure exactly what she saw in my cookie-sculpted abs (do I want to know??), but helping her make peace with herself was well worth my momentary discomfort.

(Annnnnd as of today, I’m back to working out! You never know when the F-word will rear its fire-breathing head again, and a mama wants to be prepared.)

3Nov

Pulling a Pheidippides

I’ve never quite been able to forget that the first person to run a marathon, the Greek hero Pheidippides on whom the modern day race was founded, DIED FROM IT. This fact has concerned me on more than one occasion, but never did it seem more relevant to my life than last Sunday afternoon as I lurched over the final bridge of the Venice Marathon and stumble-sprinted toward the finish line. I was more than exhausted, my muscles already pushed a full hour beyond their former limits. All four limbs and the top of my head were tingling as if ice shavings had replaced the blood in my veins. My heart was beating so quickly that it finally achieved liftoff and flew ahead without me, and at a mere two hundred meters from the end, one thought crystalized in my mind: I was about to pull a Pheidippides.

They say that completing a marathon is largely a mental effort, and in retrospect, I think that my finish-line-death-sprint experience had more to do with the sensory overload of the day than it did with physical strain. You can only dig your nails into your mind with excitement and awareness for so long before reality starts to blur around the edges. I’ve already admitted that calm-and-collected isn’t my jam when it comes to running, so I have no additional dignity to lose by confessing that the second our 5:55 wakeup call came on Sunday morning, I jumped into carpe diem hyperdrive. Let me tell you, no one has ever put on athletic socks as fervently as I did that day.

Every minute pre-race was duly seized and catalogued in my mind as wonder. The fog outside our hotel as we walked to the bus station primed my imagination so that even our cramped forty-minute ride to the starting line, during which I was repeatedly stepped on and elbowed in the face, felt like the beginning of some epic adventure. Once we arrived, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among all 8,000 runners made even standing in line for the porta-potties an engaging activity (and made the pee-gauntlet of men who didn’t bother with the porta-potties an object of understanding laughter… though later, after I’d spent an hour waiting in the start canal guzzling Gatorade, my laughter had developed urgently jealous undertones). I paid attention to the pearly cast of the sky, the mismatched shoes of the guy stretching behind me, and the exact position of my armband; everything mattered in the larger context of Marathon Day, and I wasn’t about to let any of it slip my notice.

Marathon - D and B

Getting one last marital hug in before the starting gun.

The race began around 9:30, though it took several minutes more for those of us in the nosebleed section to make our way up to the starting line. Once we were there, however, it was as if a tidal wave rolled up underneath our running shoes and lifted us all in a cresting rush of energy and direction onto the road. I’ve never felt anything quite like that communal forward momentum, and I didn’t encounter it again during the race. Almost immediately, the marathon changed for me from a group exercise to an individual challenge. I found my stride within the first kilometer, and my focus narrowed to a small bubble around my own head. I concentrated on breathing evenly, navigating the road (which hugged the plentiful curves of the Brenta River for the first 17 kilometers/10½ miles or so), and maintaining appropriate levels of shock and awe that I WAS RUNNING A MARATHON.

Refreshment tables, many of them accompanied by live bands and cheering spectators, were set up every five kilometers, so the race naturally subdivided itself into half-hour increments for me. Just about the time my strength started to lag, I would round a bend into Partyville—cups upon cups of Gatorade, cookies and bananas given out by the handful, little kids waiting to give high fives, the occasional bystander adventurous enough to try pronouncing my name. The encouragement of strangers made more of a difference than I would ever have thought. Each new chorus of “Brava!” drew me out of the intensity of my own headspace and reminded me that I wasn’t alone on the road. You could almost see the change in atmosphere where crowds gathered to cheer; every single runner on the road picked up speed. Weary athletes who I had seen slump into a walk only seconds earlier caught a second wind. Grimaces turned into smiles… or at least grimaces with a facelift. Even rubberneckers who had clearly shown up to watch out of curiosity with a generous side of WTH?! provided boosts of incentive to do what we had come to do and run.

Marathon - First 5K

Stay tuned for my exciting new e-course on taking cell phone pictures through your armband while running AND looking like an off-balance penguin while doing it!

The race got very real for me around kilometer 32/mile 20. That was the farthest I had ever gone in my training runs, so I had no empirical evidence to suggest that I might be capable of doing more. Until that point in the marathon, my mind had been able to kick up its feet with the assurance that my body could handle its task. Now, however, with each new step marking the farthest I had ever run in my life, the race became as grueling psychologically as it was physically. And this was when the bridges started—17 of them, the second being the 2½-mile-long (read: interminable) Ponte della Libertà taking us over open water to the islands of Venice.

My carpe diem drive went into desperate mode once my feet reached the cobblestones alongside Venetian canals. This was it: the last stretch, the true test of my endurance, the magic of running through a floating Medieval city coupled with the pain of pushing my body beyond its limits. My focus shifted constantly with my mind scrambling behind trying to keep it in line. My mental dialogue during the final 5 kilometers/3 miles went something like this: Ow ow ow can’t do this anymore CANNOT, hey look at that basilica! Wow, I’m in Venice, this is horrible, must remember all the encouraging comments and emails people have sent me; they think I can finish, so I must be able to. Oh God, another bridge. I can do this, I can’t do this, I CAN do this, look at me passing three semi-ripped men in a row, I hate existence, no I don’t, I’m carpe-ing the *expletive* out of this diem right now, I’m going to die. What a pretty canal!

My favorite thing about that last insane stretch was a fat old Venetian woman leaning out of her window and shouting, “Come on, what are you wimps slowing down for? You’re basically at the end by now!” At that point in the race, I was in no mood for live music or high fives any more; the thought of lifting more limbs than absolutely necessary had become unthinkable, and I was pretty sure I hated everyone in the world who wasn’t struggling up those bridges with me. However, that old lady’s crusty pep talk was just the kick in the pants I needed to keep running. Plus, it got me smiling just long enough for the photography team to catch me looking [inaccurately] like a congenial and capable human being as I crossed the Canal Grande into the final kilometer of the race.

Bethany's first marathon

Yay! I hate you all!

It wasn’t until I crested the seventeenth *double-expletive* bridge and saw the finish line straight ahead that I lost whatever psychological control I had been using to hold myself intact. My veins flooded with icy tingles, my heart left my body, my vision began swarming with tiny Disney bluebirds, and my mind shrugged helplessly and said, “I got nothin’.” I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be thinking about. I definitely couldn’t remember why I had signed up for this. I was about to faint and/or die right there in front of the Doge’s Palace, but I didn’t really mind too much because at least then I could stop running.

Something about this line of reasoning tugged at me though, and I slowly realized that I was so eager to stop running because… [and you might want to brace yourself for the profundity of this statement]… I was currently running. Without any conscious input from my brain, my legs were still moving forward. Some instinct had taken over when energy and intention had crashed and was keeping me in motion. Frivolities like discernible heartbeats and motor control were no longer part of the picture; there was only the pure, inexplicable reality of me, running.

Granted, the victory of crossing the finish line was tempered by the fact that I was basically a decapitated rooster at that point. However, my mental faculties returned once my legs stopped moving, and I realized what I had just accomplished about the time someone hung a medal around my neck. I had done something that, up until that very moment, I had never believed myself capable of doing. I had run 42.195 kilometers without stopping, giving up, or pulling a Pheidippides after all. My final time of 4 hours and 38 minutes wasn’t too shabby either, especially for a new runner. I wasn’t merely a runner anymore though; I was a marathoner. 

Marathon - Finisher

Yay! I love you all!

A friend asked me the following day to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how inclined I was to run another marathon in the future. I had difficulty nailing down an answer. If you had asked me during the first hour and a half of the race, I would have ranked my willingness at a 10; during the final hour and a half of the race, I would probably have answered something like negative infinity. Even in the thrill and buzz immediately following the finish line, I don’t think I would have given you more than a 2, and when my friend asked me the next day, I finally settled on an uncertain 4. A week later, however, my post-race aches and pains have dissipated, and the memory of accomplishment has far outstripped the memory of effort. For various reasons, I haven’t been able to go running since the marathon, and I find myself antsy to lace up my shoes and hit the track again. I’m not planning any long runs for the immediate future, but there is a part of me that wants to see what I could do with this challenge in the future, knowing as I do now that I am strong enough. I’m not ready to stop surprising myself yet, and given how very much the marathon asked of me in the end, maybe the biggest surprise would be deciding to do it again.

We’ll see. I’m only now at a 6 on the would-I-do-it-again scale, and other challenges have caught my attention for the time being. Still, the value this experience held for me seems only to be increasing with time, and if you asked me to rank from 1 to 10 how glad I am to have done this first marathon, I would have to go with something in the neighborhood of, oh, say, 42.195.

11Oct

The Biggest Tiny Rebellion Of My Life

It feels like a confession, something to be whispered from behind a screen amid pleas for absolution. In fact, I’ve visibly shrunk each of the three or four times I’ve managed to say the words aloud so far; nervous laughter and a wild urge to hide under the table always follow. This is an admission I never thought I’d be in a position to make, but here we are in the final three weeks of Before, and it’s time I finally owned up to it. Kindly disregard my nervous laughter and crazy eyes while I put this out in the open: I’ve been training… [pause]… for a marathon.

Now, you might think this an unnecessary level of drama for an activity that ordinary people all over the world do on a regular basis FOR FUN, but I am no ordinary person. One might even call me extraordinary… as in, She spends an extraordinary amount of time sitting, or She is extraordinarily bad at [fill in your sport of choice]. It’s okay; I laugh at my drunken-squid volleyball serve too. I came to terms long ago with my lack of athletic prowess, and it’s always presented a good excuse to bow out of team sports and workout regimens. “Sorry but I’m allergic to any physical activity more grueling than mopping the floor. Actually, that too. If you care to discuss this further, you can join me at my wondrously be-pillowed computer chair where I will be spending the foreseeable future.”

However, I had the foresight [or lack thereof?] to marry an optimist, and in my very active and very motivated husband’s opinion, couchpotatoitis is not a valid condition. I beg to differ, of course, but Dan can be eerily persuasive, which is how I found myself panting on the track below our house in $20 running shoes and complete anguish of body and soul three years ago. It was… not fun. Running felt a little like going for a spin in the dryer and a little like stuffing decorative pillows down my trachea, but not quite as pleasant as either. I managed three minutes that first day before melting down, clawing at the smoking goo where my face had been like a good Indiana Jones villain.

It’s hard to say why I went back. Maybe I didn’t want the previous day’s horror scene to be the final impression I’d leave on the world of sports. More probably, I didn’t want my sacrifice of dignity to have been in vain. Almost certainly, Dan’s infectious enthusiasm had altered a sliver of my mind into believing that I could improve my health and energy and self-esteem by making this a habit, and I must have hoped against all personal logic that running would get easier with practice.

So I kept at it little by little, a few hard-won kilometers a week, and finally last year, I was able to run five kilometers all at once. Granted, I ran just slightly faster than might an asthmatic penguin, and I was certain of keeling over dead every one of my last thousand steps, but I did it. I, a woman who feels about exercise the way some people feel about spinal taps, had just done the impossible. I came home and informed my husband of the fact; he suggested in turn that I consider running the Venice Marathon with him.

To understand what happened next, you need to know that I have a tiny but decidedly weird rebellious streak. It springs on me out of thin air and prompts me to do things that are wildly against my nature just to prove to myself that I can. It’s why, when I was seventeen, I speared my fork into that pot of grubs in South Africa and ate a bite, convulsing with horror all the while. (The memory, still! Gah.) It’s why, a few weeks into my freshman year at university, I let a group of guys I barely knew smear electric blue dye onto my hair. And it’s why this past spring, after weeks of wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth, I agreed to let Dan sign me up for a couch potato’s worst nightmare.

Truly, something insane had taken over my brain. There was no evidence at all to suggest that I might be capable of running 42.2 kilometers straight at any point in my life, ever. In fact, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, not the least of which was my shortness of breath and inclination to faint while Dan filled out the registration forms. The whole idea was absurd. But then, there was that compelling, delicious thrill at the idea of doing something absurd. I wanted to throw logic to the wind and see what would happen. The tang of adventure was unmistakable.

There was more to my decision than pure spontaneity though, and this deeper reason has stayed with me on those long training runs that leave everything impetuous and smug about me trampled in the dirt.

So often as an adult, and especially as a stay-at-home mom, I get lulled into a static sense of identity. Daily routines ripple by until my eyes glaze over and I stop expecting anything more of myself. It becomes an insidious lullaby, this subtle internal chant of This is who I am and always will be. I’ve heard people say that our personalities are fully formed by the time we turn twenty and then stick there for good; implied in that, I think, is that our habits and preferences and modi operandi are likewise preserved in concrete once we hit adulthood.

I don’t believe it though, at least not for myself. I am utterly unwilling to accept that my personal growth was designed to stop when I became a legal adult (or a wife, or a mother, or a desperate housewife of Expatria). I see how it could easily happen, how I could just settle into my skin and shrug away my discomfort with parts that fit poorly. After all, I don’t have the time I once did to spend on identity development. However, I’m not content to accept stagnation as a normal part of aging. I’ve met too many delightful tattooed grannies to believe that we’re stuck in our own stereotypes of ourselves. Change is always possible, forward motion is always possible, and it’s vital to my peace of mind that I be able to surprise myself every now and then.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m hitting the track three or four times and week and surprising the hell out of myself with amount of sweat I can generate, the number of kilometers I can go past my limits, and the sheer force of determination roused like some hidden dormant beast previously unknown to science. Make no mistake, running is still hard hard hard for me. There is nothing easy or graceful or inspirational-footwear-commercial about this experience of mine. I in no way feel like the same breed of human as the lanky runners who pass me on the path, chatting easily with each other as their perfectly defined legs leave mine wobbling in their wake. I haven’t mustered the guts yet to call myself A Runner.

But I should. Because no matter how fraudulent I may feel among long-term athletes, the fact remains that I am there, with splatters of mud tickling my calves and sweat dripping down my sports bra and lungs pulling deeply at the air and muscles taut, active, alive, running. This is my personal rebellion against stasis. I am proving to myself, over and over again, that I am not set in stone, that I am still capable of surprises.

The biggest surprise still remains to be seen. The marathon will be a full ten kilometers farther than my longest training run; that’s an extra hour of pushing myself, and there are no guarantees that I will be able to finish. Now that I’m at the end, my five months of training seem hopelessly short, so unconvincing in their results. If you can believe it, though—and be aware that I can hardly believe it myself—I’m thrumming with excitement over the challenge. Three years to the day after writing my first [uncomplimentary] post about running, I’m going to wake up in Venice, take a train to the starting line, and wage the biggest tiny rebellion of my life so far. And maybe then, with my shadow keeping time on the cobblestones beside me, I’ll summon the courage to stop shrinking and nervous-laughing the worth of this risk away.

Update: How Marathon Day went down.

4Oct

A Daily Dose of Truffles

I lost my voice in Texas two months ago. Within 24 hours of stepping out of DFW International into my sister’s arms, my laugh had developed a smoky rasp. Another day, and I was passing myself off as Keith Richards on the phone. By Day 5, I could only do a bullfrog’s rendition of a whisper, and I had to eat throat lozenges like M&Ms for the next few days in order to [audibly] deliver the toast at my sister’s wedding. It was awesome. Between grown-up slumber parties with my sister, long drives with my cousin, dinners out with friends, shopping marathons with my mom, and game nights with my brothers, I was in good conversational company for about 21 hours a day. (Related: Sleep, schmeep.)

This trip back to my hometown marked the first time I’ve really gotten to know many* of my siblings as adults, and every one of the eleven days I spent with them was a spadeful of sand unburying treasure. My voice box was simply the conduit for years’ and years’ worth of conversations delayed by age gaps, stage-of-life gaps, and geographical gaps. Goodnights took two hours and a shared tub of ice cream to finish saying.

* There are eight of us, plus assorted spouses, kids (mine), and dogs (everybody else’s). 

And then there were the sales clerks—women with ready Texas smiles, men with hilarious anecdotes at the ready—and I talked with all of them. I chatted with the gas station attendant, the intern behind the front desk at the Y, the mom whose toddler ran over my foot with a tricycle. It was such a thrill to be speaking American English, to be using terms like “the Y” and “fixin’ to.” I wondered if they could tell that I was from those parts (which I am) or if I came across as a foreign species visiting from distant lands (which is equally true). I reserved my secret life in Italy for my family, who I’m sure loved having me point out a new cultural difference every five minutes. (“Whoa, I’d forgotten that you can actually pay at the pump in the U.S.! LOL. Things are so different where I live, haha. Oh, and have I ever told you about speedometers in Italy…?”)

Returning to that secret expat life, however, I found my throat blocked by a lump the size of the jalapeños on my honky-tonk nachos. I’d never really experienced homesickness before, so I couldn’t be sure that’s what it was. It was something, though, and that something propelled me to the corner of our house farthest from the front door. I sent Dan to the store for milk. I let the phone ring itself hoarse. I lay in bed with my mind ping-ponging between jetlag and insomnia and my mouth tightly closed.

It’s just so hard here. Can I say that? Can I tell you honestly that this beautiful life I’ve been given with its ancient cathedrals and its bowls of pasta and these two little bilingual daughters traipsing across castle grounds on a Saturday morning can be too heavy for me sometimes?

I feel like an ingrate for it, but at least I can be an honest ingrate. Here it is: Every interaction in Italy, no matter how small, requires more than I ever feel comfortable offering up. An acceptance of lost dignity is the main prerequisite, and I cannot think of a sensation more exactly opposite of the thrill I felt speaking Texan among Texans. Any time I open my mouth here, I advertise the fact that I am a foreigner (aptly, the term is “stranger” in Italian), and even though the person I’m speaking to has already seen my freckles and knows I am not a local, speaking aloud feels like zipping up a sore thumb costume and launching into a set of jumping jacks on the street corner.

So, there is the psychological effort of un-belonging, and then there is the mental effort of the language itself. The words still come to me slowly, like doddering old men reluctant to leave their rooms, and the worst part is and always shall be choosing the correct subject-verb endings to accessorize the things. Italian is a language that must be spoken with confidence and spice, completely unlike the gently sloshing Spanish I studied growing up, and I regularly trip over my false teeth trying to infuse my words with Mediterranean spirit.

In fairness to my Italian friends, I need to make clear that no one ever disparages me for speaking imperfectly. All of this drama takes place within the confines of my own head. Still, my head is a rather significant part of my life, so “ciao” is never just “ciao” for me; it’s emotional and mental strain followed by a very special like-it-or-not brand of humility.

And so my post-Texas self clammed up for a while, the difficulty of interaction here contrasting too sharply against all my fresh memories of hometown and kin. I wanted to get right back on an airplane to the States and savor the easy cascade of words for another few weeks. My goodness, but I wanted to greet a friend without having to button up my courage first. I found myself grieving, honest-to-goodness grieving, over this gorgeous adventure of an expat life.

I know the world’s tiniest violin is playing right now in mock sympathy for my plight (“Privileged Woman Chooses Fairytale Life, Whines That It Is Hard”), but this is real life, compliments of the real brain in my real head, and I believe that we allow grace to exhale pure ambient relief around us when we’re real with each other. Plus, I found a way out of my clamshell, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love while running a few weeks ago, and though I had previously read the book and watched the film (and re-read and re-watched and then re-re-watched if we’re going for full disclosure here; I do love a good spiritual/travel/gelato-themed memoir), and though I thought all of the relevant parts had already made their impressions on me, something new jumped out:

“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me… The words made me laugh in delight.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, referring to Italian, and once living in Rome, she actually drops out of language school so she can have more time to enjoy trying her vocabulary out on shopkeepers, seat mates on trains, postal clerks, soccer fans… basically everyone I most dread having to speak to when I go out.

My mind immediately drifted away from the book, and between the usual mental soliloquies that take over while I’m running (“Ow.” “Hate. “Why.” etc.), I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of language learning as delight. It was hard at first. I’ve lived here for six years now, and my perspectives have become worn to the point of shabbiness with daily use. There is nothing particularly glamorous about daily life, after all. Take out the trash, walk the girls to school, do a few linguistic slapstick routines while saying hi to the other parents. This is no Julia Roberts flick.

But consciously relishing each word as it leaves my mouth is something I can do without the least disruption to my routine. I don’t have to do anything different, in fact, except remember to enjoy my free daily language practice. My daily dose of truffles. It’s incredible how something as insubstantial as the concept of delight can reshape the mind’s topography, turn canyons into playgrounds, turn long afternoons at the pediatric allergy clinic into extended word games. It’s changing so much for me, not necessarily for the easier but certainly for the happier. I even picked up my old grammar book the other day and read a few verb conjugations out loud just to feel them melt on my tongue. Voglio, vuoi, vuole, vogliamo, volete, vogliono. Like chocolates, like throat lozenges, cures for a lost voice.

21May

Swim Lessons

Natalie windmills through the water, her arms smooth as oars. She flutters her feet like mermaid fins and relaxes on the cushion of the water with an ease so unfamiliar to me. I didn’t take well to swimming as a child, and I still tense up in the water, trapping wisps of air in lungs squeezed too small, beating back the deep with panicky chops. Not my impossibly long eight-year-old though. She trusts the four feet of chlorinated blue beneath her and the tenor of her swim instructor’s voice. She breathes easily, my calm girl.

On the other side of the pool, Sophie laps up distance like a puppy, her hands pawing the water enthusiastically, a big grin visible just above the surface. Four months ago, she was afraid of getting water in her eyes; now, her confident splashes lead a pack of five-year-olds up the lane. I remember whispering to her about bravery last summer at the pond. We had stood barefoot on the grass staring down its rippling green, both of us trying to ignore the silvered flashes of fish through storm clouds of silt at the bottom, and I had whispered in her ear about how being scared is the first half of bravery; the other half is jumping in anyway. She jumps easily now, my brave girl.

I perch on a clear plastic stool and watch them through the glass like a mother hawk. I feel such tenderness toward those little bodies in motion below me and such fierceness toward potential threats, including that of the water surrounding them. My mind slips briefly toward Oklahoma and those children huddling around their teachers while the sky bludgeoned their school around them, but I can’t dwell there right now. I just can’t. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe when I’m not watching a poolful of little ones in the earnest upswing of learning.

For now, just this—calmness and bravery, and a childlike trust that we’ll be held in all that deep beyond our control.

© Copyright 2015, all rights reserved.
Site powered by Training Lot.
Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.