Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Son Also Rises

“Hard work PAYS OFF” – Chant and Mantra of the Weaver Football Titans Senior football team, 2008

I was never a ‘real’ team-sport athlete. I think I was drawn more toward individual performance than that of a team. I ran Cross-Country and track in high school, and there certainly were team scores. But I was more keenly interested in - and aware of - the result I posted for each meet. If the team won but I’d had a bad performance, I felt no sense of victory; in some way, I didn’t feel I’d “won”, despite the points I may have contributed toward the team total.

My son Luc, however, is a different kind of animal: he is a born ‘team player’. He loves the camaraderie of a playing unit, doing his best for the greater good of his team, individual performance as a part of the machine of team competitiveness. He’s a social guy with an easy smile, sense of humor, and a fierce competitive instinct. He lives for game day. He’s one of those kids that is best when ‘it counts’. Even when he was a more junior player, I noticed a change in him on game day – a focus and determination that we in the running world refer to as ‘race day magic’. He’d get on the field and deliver. There was no joking on the sidelines. He’d sit or stand alone and intently watch the action on the field. His coaches would ask him to make a big play, he’d promise, then deliver on the promise.

He has been lucky to have been part of a youth program since the 4th grade, with talented, decent, and hard-working coaches who never confused winning on the field with winning in life. I would call the headcoach jokingly The Man with the Whistle. The coaches' job was to teach the game of football, but much more than that, they wove in lessons of teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play. You couldn’t come to practice if you hadn’t completed your homework. They often told the players to thank their parents for having driven them to the game or to practice. Their style was about guiding these young teenagers through a slice of life using the field of play as the chalkboard. At the end of each practice, the team would cluster together around the coaches for a few words, and it would end with the head coach yelling HARD WORK and boys would reply PAYS OFF! They always left each practice and game with these last words.

The team played well, had a near-perfect record, and made the playoffs as they had in years past. However this season was different – this young team won its first ever playoff game and headed into the second round. Luc had a great season and seemed – to my untrained eye – to be all over the field in every game. His competitive spirit would show up when he’d make a great tackle, cause a fumble, sack the quarterback. But he was definitely part of a bigger unit. He’d jump up after a great play and find a teammate to do a raucous chest bump or share a high five. He never celebrated alone. He cheered his teammates accomplishments with equal enthusiam. He left everything on the field, even when the scoreboard would tell a story that would say well before the final horn declared It’s over. After the one loss during the regular season to a hated rival team - known for dirty play and unsportsmanlike conduct from the coaching staff on down – I watched the team, and my son, during the post-game coaches talk. It had been a warm and humid morning, and boys who had played sat exhausted, soaked with sweat and dirt, their faces grim. Normally, these gatherings were one of uncontained teenage joy, the only kind that can be expressed by those young enough to have little to worry about beyond the next five minutes. I watched my son, his helmet off. He bit his lower lip and I saw a tear fall from his eye. He wiped it quickly away. The coaches called out the names of 3 players, recognizing their effort. Luc was the third player called. The head coach said I want you to look at him. They turned their heads. Luc never gave up. He never quit. To me, that is the highest praise given. I’d seen Luc chase down a player and tackle him just as he crossed into the end zone. He fell on the other player’s legs, knocking his own wind out. I saw him on all fours, and then try and stand upright. His knees buckled twice, but he fought to his feet. He jogged over, then fell and rolled on the ground. He got up again. He would not come out. He did not want to sit a single down. The coach’s words were small comfort to Luc. He didn’t smile or acknowledge any sense of accomplishment. He would have traded the praise and the loss for anonymity and the win in a second.

The Weaver Titans were certainly underdogs headed into the playoffs, but my son had a fervent belief they could make – and win! – the league’s Super Bowl. One day I was making him breakfast, I asked him a question. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I asked him the question: was it my own ego at play? I’d heard from so many parents and coaches – dads in particular – about what a fine player Luc was. And of course I agreed with them because I’m his mother: To me, he’s potentially the second coming. I think it was also a bit of the runner in me looking for some kind of individual performance gauge beyond the team record. Do you think you’ll make the Super Senior Bowl? This game is the league’s equivalent of the All-Star team. He leveled his eyes at me and replied – without hesitation, No. There was no disappointment in his voice. I was confused. Why not? He gave me one of his easy smiles, Because you don’t play in that game if you’re in the Super Bowl. My 14-year-old son gave me the best lesson I’ve ever had with those simple words. Not only was he unconcerned about individual accolades, it wasn’t a factor. He wanted to share in a team honor. But bigger than that, I was struck with the depth of conviction in the belief that they’d win. Despite their record and ranking and a calculated match-up of team size and strength, this did not factor. He believed the team could and would win.

They played the second playoff game and lost. If one could boil it down to the one thing, that one card they had that we didn’t, it was speed that we couldn’t match: If you can’t catch the guy, you pretty much can’t stop him. Our team fought valiently, they never gave up. Luc never, ever quit. Even when their top threat went sprinting toward the end zone, Luc was the last guy to chase him down and threw himself at him at the 4 or 5 yard line in a desperate - and ultimately unsuccessful - attempt to keep him from the end zone. The team kept trying. On their last possession, on 4th and something, it was the last shot. They were down 12 points and needed a score, and then some luck with an onside kick. They needed some last minute heroics. They believed. We – in the stands – cheered our boys on. The Titans QB shouted the cadence. The ball was snapped, and something happened. I’m not sure if it was a bad snap or a missed count or what, but the play never got off; it was over before it even started. And like that, the season was over, and my son’s elementary and middle school football seasons were behind him.

At the final post-game team debriefing, the boys each took a knee on the field. They were so quiet. I looked at the group and couldn’t find Luc, although I knew he was there. An official from the league’s governing body stepped up and offered words of encouragement, praise in the blunt, tough voice of football to which I’ve come to expect. I know you’re disappointed. But tomorrow will come and it will be a day of opportunity. Take that feeling with you to next season. I’m not sure his words registered with any of the players. He then called the numbers of those players who’d been selected for the Super Senior Bowl. Luc’s was not one of them. Again, the individual athlete in me ached for my son, but my face and demeanor did not change. The This is not about me or my expectations was the Yin to the This is what can happen when anything but the clock is the judge Yang. A second later a father who was behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Luc had a great game. I smiled, Thanks. I don’t know if he felt my disappointment for my son, or my own ego. I was trying to anticipate my son’s face. I looked in the clot of purple jerseys and still couldn’t find him. Each coach spoke; many of them wept. They hurt for the boys, but I think they couldn't believe that the fun - the season - was over. The bond between these players and these coaches was nothing short of magic. And in the 5 years my son was lucky enough to be coached by these men, I was coached too. I learned how to take a step back, how to let my son play, to take my own ideas out of the mix and have faith in this wonderful group of dedicated volunteers. I watched as they gave these boys the well-earned confidence to play each game with enthusiasm and passion. I felt such sadness that their roles in my son's life had come to an end. They offered a some final words of encouragement then gathered the team in a tight mass. The head coach - the man with the whistle - yelled HARD WORK and they answered in unison and without hesitation PAYS OFF! and the meeting broke up.

My son walked over to me; he was sobbing. His disappointment was overwhelming, his grief palpable. I hugged my boy who is a full head taller than I. I could hardly get my arms around his padded shoulders. I kissed his sweaty face. Luc, I’m so sorry. I’m so proud of you. He buried his face in my neck and let me hug him for a moment, then pushed away, inconsolable. He did not seek out his teammates. My tough son who never quit was now working through the agonizing math of shattering disappointment. He invested heavily in hope and was living the hard side of the equation of a sporting contest.

I thought about how much courage it takes to do that, to believe that fervently and put so much hope and stock in that belief. To put so much emotional capital on the line. The disappointment can be crippling, and there are some who can somehow put it in context and move on, to dare to do great things with equal persistance, and those who retreat to the safety of banality and – to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt – prefer the gray twilight and know neither victory nor defeat. I knew in some sense what he was feeling, and I thought long and hard about how he individually mourned his team’s defeat. But in some small way, I thought he was also mourning the end of the season, the end of this team and how he’d move on next year beyond the safety net of the players and coaches he knew and loved.

I saw him walk off the field with his dad – we had come in separate cars for logistical reasons – and I wondered what that car ride home would be like. Teenage boys naturally gravitate to their fathers, and I envied not being the ‘go to’ person like I’d been when Luc was a young child. My heart ached for my son. I knew this was a necessary part of life, a key ingredient to the foundation of character: to face disappointment, to manage the process, to find the meaningful lesson. And most importantly, to move on to the next pursuit wiser, but with no less enthusiasm or fearlessness. I hoped he’d find the courage to believe again; I was certain he would. Like all parents, I prayed that one day he’d be on the winning end of the equation, and feel the uncontained joy of living the dream. But at the moment, I was Luc's mother; I just wanted my boy to be happy.

I arrived home and he came down the stairs a few minutes later, freshly showered. His face was no longer a study in grief. Are you hungry? He smiled a bit, No just really thirsty. Can I have a Gatorade? I got my son his drink and put a frozen pizza in the oven, certain that his appetite would arrive soon after he quenched his thirst. He went into the family room and turned on the television. His sister came home from a babysitting job, and after hearing about the loss, she went to join him.

The next day, he needed to run an errand, something for school. It was a rare opportunity for me to spend some ‘alone’ time with him; for me it was a blessing it came the day after this game. I didn’t mention the previous evening, just chatted about his homework project and what else he was planning to do with his day. There was a lull in the conversation, and he said quietly I’m still bummed we lost. I can’t believe football is over. I can’t believe I won’t be playing for Weaver anymore. I sat for a second more, waiting for him to express disappointment over not making the Super Senior Bowl. But he said nothing else. I told him a story of my biggest disappointment in high school track. It was so disappointing, Luc. All those miles of training, and my relay team was passed with a hundred meters to go… and then I told him how you move on, find the lesson. And that he should look not at the last loss, but all he’d gained from his years with his wonderful friends and coaches, how he learned respect, and fair play, and to “pursue victory with honor” – another cornerstone of the program. And how the hated rival may win, but in the long run he will have gained infinitly more. He nodded his head. He didn’t seem sad, but I could tell he was still working through the regret of the previous evening.

We walked in the house, and within an hour two of his buddies were at the door - one a teammate, the other a neighbor. They'd been to a video game store and had bought Luc a game – a belated birthday gift. I went upstairs to fold laundry. As I walked up the stairs, I heard them chatting in the patois of teenage boys, sentances heavily peppered with the word Dude. I didn’t hear what they were saying and continued my ascent. And as I reached the landing, I heard the sweet, healing music of their laughter.

For you, Luc, and the men with the whistles.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Alchemy of Bronze

The Olympic Games. One of the more compelling races was in Track & Field, the men’s 400 meter final. The world’s eyes were on LaShawn Merrit – the upstart – and Jerimy Wariner, the world champion and reigning Olympic gold medalist. The upstart had outrun the champ at the trials, but the champ ran flawless, fast, and nearly effortless heats. It was down to the finals. The two had been in a season-long battle, is has been a fierce and unfriendly rivalry, and were each 2-2 against the other. You sensed perhaps grudging respect - at best - between the two. Then there was the question given less attention: Who would win the bronze?

The Bronze. Let’s face it: most Olympic aficionado’s can name a particular sport’s Gold medalist. But silver? doubtful. Don’t even ask about Bronze. Bronze is the red-headed step child among the noble metals. You hear the term “Golden Boy”, and “Sterling argument” – but bronze? It’s the mongrel among the purebreds, the alloy among its precious cousins. In the Games, Gold reigns supreme.

As each competitor stands in his starting blocks during the athletes’ introduction, I can't help but notice their faces: they are certainly happy and excited to be there, but for whatever reason, feel the need to contain the smile. Their faces twitch, like they want to smile, like the kid in church who wants to laugh but knows the penance that awaits is not worth the momentary loss of control. These athlets want to yell, to scream “LOOK AT ME, I’M IN THE OLYMPICS!!!”, but gamesmanship or concentration suppresses it: “I’m icy cool, calm.” There’s a part of me that sees the high school athlete playing it cool, casual. I get the impression that during the pre-race intros and warm-up the goal is to be expressionless, to show nothing. I can understand the need for focus, calm, the need to bring one’s attention to a single point on the track, not spread it out among the thousands of spectators. But I can't help but wonder how much energy it costs to contain it.

Merritt is all brash and braggadocio. And he is incredibly talented and fast. He’s the man, will win, the champ, anointed. HE BELIEVES. I believe him to be all these things, but also wholly lacking in humility. However, he’s in those starting blocks, not I. It’s his game. He's paid the price to be there.

Wariner is hiding behind his shades: they are his trademark. They are an odd prop, big and mirrored and really don’t fit his face. When he takes them off, he seems almost a bit cross-eyed, out of his element; the deer in the headlights. Perhaps the shades keep his competitors from seeing his eyes, from those precious, telling “wells of the soul”. The man is tough and talented; but why shades? Is he like a thoroughbred in need of “blinkers”, is he that distractible? Do his eyes show his fear and make him vulnerable? I don’t know. All I know is they just look plain goofy.

But here they are, these fast man-boys on center stage of planet Earth. The gun fires. And they run. They run fast. Really, really fast. The last 100 meters they are digging for any nugget of strength and speed. At the finish line, the brash upstart is ahead by – in sprint terms – a mile, and the champ comes in second. Following them is a pack: who will grab the bronze? It is David Neville, the “other” American, who dives –literally- across the finish line, belly-flopping after the finish to grab the final spot on the podium.

Merritt is ecstatic. He boastfully proclaims that he is not surprised, that he did what he set out to do. His fierce rival, Wariner, it devastated. He buries his face in the American flag, there must be tears; the regret as thick as the air in Beijing. This is the price of unfettered arrogance and gamesmenship.

The medal ceremony is the moment of reckoning. Merritt is cool, smiling but clearly contained. I think that he's trying to maintain some kind of image. It pains me to think that here he is, at the pinnacle of his sport, and he can't just let go. The official hangs the medal on his neck, shakes his hand. Wariner is grim, you can sense how unhappy he is to be on the lower podium, the discomfort and humiliation of being unseated by his rival, to have to settle for second. And then there is the bronze medalist, the afterthought of this race. He is the one that captures my attention. To get to the lowest rung of Olympic royalty he has literally thrown himself across the line onto the ground of the field of play. He has given every inch of his being to be there. The annoucement of the national anthem is given over the PA. In this race, it is the anthem of all 3 medalists. Merritt – who has barely cracked a smile - puts his hand over his chest momentarily, then re-thinks the gesture and lowers it. I think “What's this? Are you truly that arrogant? Is it too humbling to think that you are not a product of one, but that of all you inhabit, including your country? Is it too much to ask that while this is an individual achievement, you do so as a representative of your your nation? Would your golden cool somehow be tarnished by showing a bit of sentimentality?” Call me a nationalistic zealot if you will, but who has not watched those medal ceremonies and smiled, cheered, wept because of what - and who - these athletes represent? They represent us, and we can only wonder how incomparable that moment must be like to live. Wariner is stone-faced; his diappointment is palpable and he looks to be doing all he can do avoid weeping on the stand and showing the world what is painfully obvious to the world: he was not the strongest, fastest man on this day. And oh, how he wishes he were.

Then there is Neville. In a few weeks time, I bet 99% of us won’t be able to answer the question “Who won the bronze medal in the 400?”, or “Who is David Neville?” but I really, truly don’t think he cares. He stands tall on the podium, hand over his chest, belting the anthem, a smile a quarter mile wide. Despite his being the 2nd runner-up, he is the one that captures the spirit of the games, the one which represents the Olympic ideal. The gold medalist is too smug, the silver medalist too disappointed, but it is the bronze medalist - the third place afterthought - who stands so tall on this steamy summer evening. He understands with all clarity how precious and rare it is to be right there, right then. With his effort, determination, and uncontained joy in that singular moment, he’d morphed from a sprinter to an alchemist and discovered the secret of transforming bronze into gold.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Running on Empty

The price of so many things has gone through the roof. Gallons of everything, from milk to gasoline are at record highs. My weekly grocery bill is the same as the GNP of some small developing nations. It’s mid-summer, and cucumbers are over $1. EACH. I can almost hear my mother clucking her disapproval and saying "Highway robbery." It is becoming more and more difficult and costly to fill our tanks both mechanical and physical.

Then there is our psychic tank. Running has always served me as the proper fuel, a way to recharge my flagging internal battery, lift my spirits, and provide an outlet for my stress, anxiety, and temperamental moods. When I started running a few years ago, I used to joke that I did it so I wouldn’t be relegated to the scourge of dumpy soccer moms everywhere: the dreaded pleated jeans. My vanity led me to discover the more substantive rewards the sport offers beyond wearing the cool pair of Lucky Brand jeans hanging in my closet. Some runs were not geared for anything more than to “bleed the pipes”. I’d start out angry or sad or pissed off at some offense - real or imagined - and feel reborn by turning up the volume on the iPod and running as hard as I could. It was almost always fun, the simple fun I remember from running down empty school halls without some monitor demanding my pass and telling me to slow down. It rarely failed to put a smile on my face.

I don’t think I ever took running for granted. I’d had enough injuries that put me on the sidelines and I was all too aware of what I was missing. Recently, my running has been a challenge in so many ways. My slowly degenerating thyroid - under attack by my own body – isn’t functioning as it should, and I frequently feel tired, my heart rate measurably higher, and my muscles feeling shot. What used to be an easy recovery run 8 weeks ago now feels like the last 5 miles of a marathon. My legs are heavy from nearly the start, there is little or no spring in my step. My heart rate starts to rise quickly and steadily, 140, 150, 160…and within a mile and a half is nearing 170, a number I usually see after repeated hard half-mile intervals, a tempo run at 10k race pace, or a long steep hill climb. The effort is palpable. But I’m going slow – 2 full minutes slower than my “hard run” days, topography chosen to deliberately avoid inclines. These days, the velocity of my heart is tied inversely to my spirits: they ride the same see-saw with one rising, the other falling in perfect tandem. Everyday is a struggle. Running is no longer fun.

I still keep running and try and find some grander purpose or lesson (“this will be great mental training for the last 10k of the next marathon – I’ll be so mentally tough!”) but even that has an element of looking forward to when I feel better, and I have no clue when that will be. It is yet another reminder of how hard these days are. In some ways, my body has become a lover who has abandoned me; I feel oddly betrayed. I have no idea when these days will be behind me, and for now I’m left without that which makes me feel better spiritually. Running has become a double agent, sabotaging my happiness and giving secrets to the enemy: It is a source of stress. I’ve taken to inserting walk breaks when my heart rate spikes, and while I’m trying to mentally coax my heart beat down – watching and cheering the falling numbers on my monitor – another inner voice chides this; walking just feels like surrender.

I find myself envying my kids. I watch my sons cut through the water during a swim meet race, overflowing with energy and the ability to recover in the time it takes to chug a Gatorade. I look at them and think “I wish…” But I’ve also learned enough in this life to understand the danger of spending too much time looking backward, pressing some mental rewind button because the fact is there are no do-overs in this life when it comes to the days ticking off the calendar. I have only the here and now and there are no guaranteed tomorrows. In five or ten years I hope to be able to reflect on this time, and don’t want to say “I wish… if only I’d…” I only hope I can be strong enough today – right now – to mitigate if not wholly prevent regret tomorrow. I need to do my best to live ‘in the moment’. I’ll have hope that in the future my body responds quickly to the medication. That the overworked muscle in my chest will be humming efficiently, my muscles and spirits will follow suit, and I can look to the sky and say “Thank you for this day” and really mean it.

When I used to feel my motivation flagging, I’d think of a fall race: the smell of autumn leaves mixed with Ben Gay, the current of anticipation at the starting line, the rush of possibility. I could get addicted to the feeling of crossing the line after a great race. Today, I miss that. But I miss more the simple feeling of being able to crank out a last fast mile on a training run, to climb a hill and whisper “I own you”, to race Father Time and feel he’s outgunned, to run and not need to look to the past for inspiration, but to find it right there, in that moment.

My mission, my goal has become much more humble. On the days where my physical and mental tanks – which are so interdependent – are approaching “E”, I’ll summon all my discipline to look neither backward nor too far ahead. I’ll focus solely on the challenge of that moment. And I’ll hope - with every beat of my heart - that it’ll be enough.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Cruelest Month

"April is the Cruelest Month" - T. S. Elliot

If you'd asked me about this quote 7 years ago, I would have agreed with Mr. Elliot. I grew up in the Northeast and April was the month I often begged for spring, warmth, and sunshine but was more often than not dished up a meal of cold and grey with a random side dish of lake effect snow.

Now comfortably situated in Virginia, I'd argue against his theory and say that February - not April, is the cruelest month. It's dark, it's cold, and well into a winter we often wish was over. The warmth and congeniality of Christmas and New Year's are but a memory, and Easter is a long, long way off. Days are short; the patience for spring is shorter. This February was particularly cruel for me, the runner: it was the month I was rudely awakened from my dream of running this April's Boston Marathon. Running a marathon is often as much about conquering the distance as it is conquering the limits of the human body. But this also assumes that you can actually get to the starting line. In January, as I ramped up my training, the hamstring I so gingerly pampered in the Autumn again reminded me to not think too far ahead, to not be overly presumptuous. Various scans and medical visits confirmed my fears: if I were to be in Boston on Patriots' Weekend, it would be as a spectator.

I committed half-heatedly to my physical therapy and the realization that I was a goal-oriented runner. Without some noble goal, I couldn't seem to drag myself out of bed for the cold, dark morning runs. These runs, for so long, were my own beacon of light in my day: they provided energy, clarity, and a route to focus. But without some greater goal, I was laid bare and felt the basest of hypocrites: did I not love running for running itself? Was my ego and sense of accomplishment too closely tied to a finishers medal? Maybe. Possibly. Maybe I was like so many who preferred to hibernate in the cozy comfort of flannel sheets on the cold winter mornings. Or maybe I was just tired.

I sought for some kind of meaning out of my predicament, but found myself irritable and often times needing to pout. So often in my blogs I speak of relativity and gratitude; I wish I was as ardent a practitioner as a preacher. Like so many very members of this oh-so-human race, my words are easier to write than actually do. Hypocrisy: thy name is mine.

February is the cruelest month.

As a child, I welcomed the month - this month, February, the month of my birth. As an adult, I'm much more aware that this day is really one that parents celebrate. And if we raise our children right, they may eventually think not of themselves, but of those who put them on this earth. On my 46th birthday, I ran and thought so often of my mother and father, and threw out thanks and gratitude to them for their love, patience (LOTS of patience), and the gift of their example. The road I ran was one they had paved for me so many years ago. But as I get older, I find myself not so much dreading as minimizing the date the milestone represents. I joke about now being in "the back 9 of my 40's" and feeling caught somewhere in the purgatory that is youth and old age: I feel far too vibrant to say I'm 'old', but see all too well the history and it's footprint in my face and body to know I'm several years removed from the pinnacle of youth. And if my rational brain doesn't convince me of that, my body is happy to remind me that the fountain of youth is not even close to Richmond, Virginia.

If February has a color, it is red. Despite the darkness and cold and seasonal association with sacrifice and lent, there is still the mid-month celebration of love. I see the representations of the holiday: red roses, red boxes of chocolate, red lips, red hearts. I wonder about those newly twinned with love and the pressure this holiday evokes. I wonder about those whose love has become ambivalent and how the holiday was once something to be revered and treasured but has - somehow - evolved into another item on the 'To Do' list.

I found myself in an airport on February 13th, trying to get to Boston for work. The weather in the northeast caused delays, and I sat on a bar stool with an hour to kill, the battery on my laptop long since depleted. I chatted with a young lady in her 20's. She was from Toronto and was full of the energy and promise I remembered possessing at that age. When I heard the first call for my flight, I asked the waitress for my bill, and offered to pay for hers in a spirit of camaraderie that stranded and delayed travelers so often feel. As I reached for my credit card, I saw a man in army fatigues, and as I handed the card over to the waitress, said I'll pay my tab and hers.... and tipping my head in the direction of the soldier and his. He looked at me, and smiled weakly. Thanks a lot. I appreciate that. The glass of wine had made me magnanimous but there was something in his quiet answer that gave me pause. I thanked him for his service and asked him where he was headed. Paris, he answered. I jumped on his answer It's a beautiful city! How long will you be there? He looked at his beer, then answered quietly, Not too long. It's just a layover until I catch the flight to Iraq. I'll be there 2 months, and then I'm done. I didn't know how to respond; I knew there was nothing I could say that would ease his concern. I asked him where he was from, where his family was. Well, I'm from Tennessee, but my family... well, I don't have any family now. All of a sudden those roses and red hearts ceased to have meaning. His sadness was palpable. Stay safe. It was the only thing I could weakly muster. His quiet, humble way just made me re-think my own frustration at a delayed flight, bad weather. I thought that even if he did make it safely home in 2 months, to what kind of home would he return? I shook his hand, then left. I said a quiet prayer for his safety and peace of spirit. I never learned his name.

I made my way to the plane and boarded with the hope of a quiet flight and 90 minutes to read or sleep. I found my seat on the aisle. There was a woman on the window seat; I guessed her age somewhere between mine and 10 years older. She was very blond, a few pounds overweight, and nervously chatty. Her clothing was a bit rumpled and baggy, very 'Earth Mother'. She was reading a book I knew my daughter had read and we had polite conversation about it. The flight took off and I dove into my own book.

About 15 minutes before we were to land I set aside my book, and my row companion struck up a conversation. I don't know how it started. I remember complementing her on some her jewelry: it was interesting but I'll admit I didn't look too closely at it. She said Yes, I have on all my Pagan stuff today. I blinked and thought OK, this is a little weird. I'll admit it: I wasn't being exactly tolerant. Chalk it up to fatigue. I changed the subject, What brings you to Boston? This is usually the safest of questions, the answer almost always Business or Vacation or Family. She looked at me, then looked at her lap and replied I'm here to scatter my son's ashes. I'm a mother and at that moment a giant hand wrapped around my throat. For the second time that day, I knew there was nothing I could say that would help the wound heal. I'm so sorry. I'm a mother too, I'm so so sorry... I looked her in the eyes and saw nothing but the deepest regret. He died 14 months ago. He was 22... I was raised to not ask too many questions in situations like this, and she didn't offer an others with respect to her son's death. She did talk about her 2 daughters who both lived in Texas. She didn't mention a spouse, so I concluded there wasn't one. There were tears in her eyes. I reached over and held her hand I know there is nothing I can say. I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope that this trip helps you in some way... my voice trailed off. Thanks, she quietly said. I've been dreading this trip but I know it'll help. She stopped, then laughed and said I have his ashes in my carry-on bag. I was ready to put up a fight if they gave me a hard time at the security screening... She smiled and I weakly smiled back. We sat in silence and I held her hand until the plane landed. As I got off the plane, I turned to her and said Take care, be well. I thought that was the last I'd see of her. But I ran into her at Baggage Claim. She seemed hyper and a bit wired; I think she realized she was that much closer to letting go of her boy. She chatted on and I grabbed my bag to go. She looked at me, and I put my bag down and hugged her, one mother to another. She held on to me tightly and I whispered to her I know you'll never forget him. I let go of her. She looked at me and said Thanks. When I tell most people about his death, they change the subject. I smiled and said the same thing I'd said to the soldier: Stay safe.

I walked out of Logan Airport toward the Rental Car Courtesy Shuttle, and couldn't shake the last couple of hours, what I had seen in the eyes of these people whose paths randomly crossed mine. I thought about the nasty weather and travel delays and my griping about a hamstring and a missed race and balanced them against the soldier and this woman. The scales were most definitely tipped and not in their favor. I was the lucky one. My worries were nothing that wouldn't pass with time. In a couple of hourse I'd have forgotten about the hassles of travel. In a few months, I'd be ready to try and qualify for Boston. It would all be gone, forgotten. The soldier, however: would he return? I'll never know and I hope I remember him and the payment exacted from him for his service. And this mother, travelling to Boston to let go of her son on Valentine's day, the day of love. For her, it was, I imagine, a day of limitless sorrow. I sat in the dim light of the courtesy shuttle and thought how providence can shine one day and be absent the next, and we could never be certain what is around the next corner. I thought about the next day and the significance of the holiday. There would be people celebrating love. For these two people, they would be perhaps regretting it, missing it; They would have their memories and little else. I looked at my hands and turned them over - they'd shaken the hand of the soldier and held the mother of a dead son. They looked very small.

February is the cruelest month. But not for me, at least not this year.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne

Every year at New Year, I face the same demon, staring me in the face. No, not ‘I WILL LOSE that extra weight’, or ‘I WILL get in shape’, or ‘I SWEAR, this is the YEAR I get organized.’ No, this is the time when I feel the need to shed all my excess ‘stuff’. When the ball drops on New Year’s Eve ushering a new January 1st, we always hear “Auld Lang Syne.” My particular favorite version of this song is by James Taylor. I listen to the words and frankly, have no clue what they mean. “Auld Lang Syne”: what does this MEAN? No clue. So I looked it up. It’s translation from old whatever-it-is means “Old Long Time Ago”. Not unlike my closet. It’s the perfect seague: from toasting champagne to getting rid of all that stuff I haven’t used.

On my runs, I’ve been thinking about why I feel the need to “shed” at the new year. I guess I’m no different than all those other resolutionists, trying to shed weight, bad health, or destructive habits. I just shed old stuff, lighten my load, get rid of stuff that’s dated, old, no longer useful, or appealing. This year I’m also shedding the easy running of the fall, the sleeping in, the rehabbing from injury. I’ve 95% committed to running Boston again, which means crack-of-dawn runs, regimented training plans, attention to diet, and the limiting of – alas – my favorite evening glass of wine. During spring marathon season, Lent comes plenty early in this house. But what I most desperately want to shed is the dark.

I get restless in Januray. The 6 weeks before the New Year is constant motion, energy, things to do, deadlines to meet in both work and home life. Then the New Year comes and it’s the darkest time of year. The sun rises late and sets early, there is no festival of lights on the horizon and March seems a long way off. One of the weird little rituals I have is to look at the paper every day and see when the sun rises and sets, and each day a minute or two of daylight is added. Those hundred or so seconds a day add up to the hope of spring. I feel not unlike the caged animal waiting for the regularly scheduled meal. However, the nourishment I wait for is light. I don't like the dark. Oh, there are moments when it serves its purpose. On Christmas Eve, I ran after the sunset amid the luminaries of my neighborhood. But it wasn't the dark I embraced then, but the little points of light that lined the streets during my 5 mile jaunt.

Darkness is also a state of mind - depression, anger, hurt - that robs us of our precious energy. I'm fond of saying "It's a zero-sum game: we only have so much energy, so spend it well." I wish I could say I was an orthodox practitioner of my theory, but being part of the ever-so-human race, I often don't practice what I preach. I fret about the state of my house, my lack of organization, my anger at insignificant things outside my sphere of control... I pick my poison with seasonal punctuality. Maybe what I don't like about New Year's resolutions is that they focus on our personal failures, and at this dark time of year, this is not what I need. I like to think one can decide to make an improvement in one's life without it being dictated by the calendar. Maybe its my own need to exert as much control over my life as I can. For example, I gave up weighing myself daily years ago. In fact, I rarely step on my scale at home because I don't like to have my self-worth measured in mere pounds. I know I eat well, exercise far more than the average person, and my clothes fit me; beyond that, the number on this scale should - and does - mean nothing.

On New Year's Day, my 'Old Long Time Ago' is the previous spring, that moment when I'll step out of my house and be delightfully assaulted with the smell of the warming earth and see the dawn already in the sky.

My friend Franny and I have started the New Year with Monday track workouts, mine for marathon training, hers for fitness and to keep me company. That’s what my friends do: make meals when you’re sick, watch your kids when you’re in a bind, run insane intervals on a track before the sun rises just because. On a recent morning when we arrived at the oval at 6 am, it was still dark out. We stretched on the track and looked up at the bright constellations. “Yup, there’s the big dipper and we are a couple of big dips”, Franny sleepily cracked. Several hard intervals later we left the track, the sun on the rise, and a Starbucks latte in our very near future, our traditional hard track workout reward of choice. We both remarked that this hardest workout of the week leaves us feeling the most energized: we get out two-fold what we put in. I’m not sure it’s as much the workout as it is the companionship of good friends, the regularity of track, and the post-workout caffeine jolt. We drive home, laughing, in the best of spirits.

Maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe the New Year isn't about throwing out all that is old, but in weeding out the clutter and continuing to embrace all that is constant: love, friendship, the stars, and the seasonal challenge that makes me - in January - renew my love of the light.