Counting on good

 

****************2016****************

At the end of 2016, many people couldn’t wait to move on from what felt like a disaster of a year. The election of a man who represents the antithesis of so much of what we hold most dear –equity, dignity and respect, for women, people of color, immigrants and people of all faiths—was bruising, and fresh. The campaign, full of disappointing and shocking behavior from people who were supposed to be our country’s leaders, had dragged on for months before. Many beloved public figures had died, and some of us lost our own loved ones.

But a friend posted a query in December: What was good about 2016? It’s not all darkness. Right?

This appealed to my Pollyanna nature. So here are four bright spots from my 2016. What are yours?

I got a job.

Well, I have always had a job. But now, instead of scraping together a living as an independent writer and editor, I have become a permanent, full-time writer and editor at the American Federation of Teachers. Job security. Benefits. Meaningful work. Peace of mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret one minute of the “freelance” work I did for years. The flexibility allowed me to spend more time with my kids, and later to do my errands or go for a run in the middle of the day. The variety was fun (well, mostly — it could be challenging to switch from an article about the city budget to editing a recipe for a country newspaper and then writing a piece on a high-end home renovation in Potomac, but it never got boring).

Now that I have regular hours, health care benefits and paid vacations, I realize that having to pay for my own health insurance, never knowing if I’d have enough work, and working many nights and weekends to keep things going was more stressful than I knew.

Also, I still love my work. I get to write about faculty and staff at public colleges and universities, and lift up the power of the collective voice that unions give their members. I get to work on social justice issues, because high-quality public education is meant to be the great equalizer and we work to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or zip code, has access to it.

How lucky is that?

ststephens

 I found a church home.

 After years of not attending church, I have found a place that moves me so profoundly and feels so much like home that when I recently discovered it, I cried through nearly the whole service.

I first encountered St. Stephens and the Incarnation when I slept among the pews in the sanctuary on my first-ever visit to Washington, D.C.: I was a college student attending an anti-nuke rally. And then I forgot about it. But it kept popping up in my life: a close friend told me she attended when she was a girl. My son told me he’d gone to a hip-hop youth program  there when he was a teenager (guess I wasn’t much of a helicopter parent). My honey, who is a contractor, did some renovations there.

I had been looking for a more spiritual element in my life, so I gave St. Stephens and a try, and it has to me. But it is also refreshingly updated. We pray to a female-pronoun God and Holy Spirit and sing spirituals and Spanish-language hymns along with classically-based hymns in English; we are a multi-racial congregation. There is incense and a crucifix, but we also stand in a circle for much of the service. Last Sunday, we blessed our cell phones, to indicate we were giving up our obsessive calendaring and scheduling to a higher power.

St. Stephens is the most activist congregation I have ever encountered, with a strong feeding and housing program for homeless and low-income families, political affiliations with activist organizations, and intentional connections with a diverse range of causes and people.

It gives me so many opportunities to be a better person and to appreciate the person I already am.

I discovered Audre Lorde.

Last year, my son gave me “Sister Outsider,” a book by Audre Lorde, a black feminist well-known to many but new to me. Just as I was renewing a commitment to social justice work I got to immerse myself in the thinking and perspective of this leader of the movement. I read some of it (as a book of essays, it is easy to pick up and put down, reading bits each time) and then life took over and I put it aside.

Recently Gesel Mason, a choreographer I have long admired, announced a dance performance informed by one of Lorde’s essays. I returned to the book and dove in to “Uses of the Erotic.”

Lorde uses “erotic” in an unconventional way, carrying it beyond its usual sexual connotation and giving it deeper meaning. “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered.”   Lorde gives us permission to tap into our deepest core and revel in it. Even if it is something like emotion, considered feminine and “weak” by a society dominated by men. Embrace that depth of feeling, she writes.

The work empowers me.

farmhouse

I visited my big sister on her farm.

My oldest sister and I have lived miles apart since she left home when I was 8 years old. We keep in touch by email and phone but we seldom get to visit. She’s come to my house a handful of times, but I haven’t been to her home since the 1990s.

“Why?” I thought. Just make this happen. So this year I drove up to her place in upstate New York (yes, that’s it above). What a treat. It was just one weekend, but we laughed and visited and reconnected in the best ways.  I am so grateful for all my sisters.

More of that, please.

at-sign

I hiked solo on the Appalachian Trail

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been backpacking, and the last time was just over ten years ago. But I’ve felt the lure of the AT since high school and I finally had some time to plan another trip. Hiking solo would give me a chance to unplug from everything and everyone, to get to know my own self, apart from all the familiar day-to-day surroundings, out in nature.

I borrowed gear (thanks, friends!) and hiked for four days just south of Harper’s Ferry. I used a campstove by myself for the first time. I learned that an 11-pound, 2-person tent is way too heavy for backpacking, and that I needed only about half the (heavy) food I brought. Also that 12 miles with 45 pounds on your back feels a lot different than a day hike. But I did it! And I loved it. And I can’t wait to get out there again.

tkpk5k-may1-2016-web

I ran a 5K

I am an enthusiastic but casual runner. It’s as much about being outdoors as it is about building endurance—I alternate between running and walking, and take the wooded path, slowing down on the dicey bits. I have no ambitions to run a marathon, and I ran a 10K just once, in the 1980s.

But Takoma Park has a great 5K that benefits Safe Routes to School, a program that encourages kids to walk to school (among other things). And 5K is not much farther than I run/walk anyway. So I signed up.

I didn’t really train. So I was pleased that I didn’t come in dead last. I liked the comradery of running in a group more than I thought I would. And I loved that this turned out to be a reach for me – I had to work at keeping up my pace. But I didn’t walk once. And that was empowering.

I hope that 2017 brings more bright notes for each of us, and that we remember to take time to notice them.

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Discovery run: SF

 

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Running up Market Street in San Francisco feels like coming home. I’ve never been to San Francisco. The street is new to me. But the morning run lines up muscle and bone in a way so familiar that, settling into my body’s rhythm, I feel as though I am returning to a place I have been a thousand times before.

I return to the morning run each time I travel, squeezing it in between business meetings, the movement grounding me at the same time it takes me to places I have never seen. It’s spare, easy. I need only a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt. The one time I forgot my running shoes, in New Orleans, I found a Payless shoe store and got a serviceable pair of fluorescent green sneakers for $20 (yep, the ones shown above). It was a fair price for a delightful tour of the Garden District.

SF-Boarding

In San Francisco I have the gift of the time change from east to west coast: I wake an hour or two early each day. On the last day of the trip I count the minutes for the fifth time, anxious to get to the airport in time, to catch the Bart, to allow for mistakes like boarding the wrong train or having to purchase a new fare card. It’s 7 a.m. and I calculate a luxurious hour for myself before I have to get on the track toward home. Luxurious, yes — though I know from past experience that the seduction of discovery will delay me and make catching that plane a close call.

This time I’ve remembered my shoes, but forgotten a sweatshirt, so I grab the hot pink pullover I’ve brought for work and pull it on over a tank top, walk through the hotel lobby feeling conspicuous among the fancy brunch-eating guests and crystal chandeliers, and escape out the side door.

Streets are quiet this early on a Sunday morning. Just a few homeless people and some stray pedestrians. I run toward the Embarcadero — the embarking place, I learned in one of the stack of tourist brochures I’d collected in the lobby. A clump of runners appears near the streetcar tracks, a single athlete stretches on the sidewalk, and I feel like a member of an elite club of the clear-minded, healthy and strong.

Here is the Ferry House, with tempting food stalls and coffee spots inside and great views of the Bay outside. Its tower is lit gayly, “50 years.” Fifty years of what? I’ll look it up later.

SF-PierPerspective

All along the run I’m tempted to hug the water line, to gulp in expansive water views. Walkways invite me closer but my time is limited. I keep the run pretty linear.

SF-EmbarcaderoLineA line of glossy square stones set in the walkway line up one after another ad infinitum,  pulling me along. Piers punctuate the route, some swallowed up by chic restaurants, others still functional, vast warehouses waiting for ships to offload. Pier 1, Pier 1-1/2, Pier 16. What if I keep running? How far can I go?

SF-BarbedWireW'houseI pass the Exploratorium museum at Pier 15 –where a shop window calls out to me, “come back for this kitchen science book your niece would love!” Pier 27 is set up for cruise ships, and I stop to admire cleats big enough for four people to sit on and enormous rubber fenders hanging over the sea wall waiting for city-sized ships to bump against them as they dock.

SF-Pier27Dock

I look at my watch: 7:30. If I allow myself 20 more minutes, I’ll be back by 8:10, in time to change and have coffee. I keep going.

Then I see sailboats, their masts like a collection of pick-up sticks bobbling in a marina I had no idea would be here. I discover the USA 76, from the elite America’s Cup races–and a sign that says you can go sailing on her! If you have the time. And here is a sailboat strung with colored Christmas lights. I wonder whether there is a live-aboard community here.

SF-AmericasCupJust beyond the docks, I see what I am guessing is Fisherman’s Wharf. Excellent! I didn’t think I’d get that far! I should take a look. So I press on.

I find a touristy collection of “gourmet” hot dog stands, souvenir shops, signs for whale watching and a banner about the annual return of the seals. That’s something I’d love to see, but I’m not sure where that would be, and besides, I’m running out of time. I pass the berth for a tourist ferry to Alcatraz. Then there is a dock, a great place for a photo of the fog over — wait, what? That IS Alcatraz! Right here! And the locks fastened to the fence? I like to think they are tokens of love for the prisoners once locked up across the water, but more likely they are from young lovers pledging their hearts right here on the mainland.

SF-AlcatrazManTime is getting tight. I turn back toward the hotel. Then I hear something that could be seals. Yes! I get to see Alcatraz and the America’s Cup, and now I’ve heard the seals! Where are they? I am this close, how can I not take a minute to investigate? I can skip showering. Get coffee at the airport. What’s the worst that could happen? I could miss my flight.

Maybe down this dock.

And there they are. At least a hundred of them, not 50 yards away, covering an entire floating dock. Like so many oversized bean bags, schlumped all over one another in an enormous pile. Sleeping. Except for the ones barking, reared up like slugs standing on end, one long muscle of a neck wrestling against another. Splash! One falls off the dock. Surprise! Another pops up out of the water as if propelled by some unseen force.

They are so loud and so comical and I am so delighted at having stumbled upon them, I stand there on the dock, all by myself, laughing. “What are you doing?” I ask them. “This is amazing,” I say. They are too far away for a good photo, so I take a moment to mentally lock the image away, sure I will never forget it.

SF-CitySkylineFinally I turn around and head back to the business district, running past Pier 27, Pier 23, Pier 1, counting until I am back at the hotel. I make the train. I make the flight. And I think again about how lucky I am to have this ticket to adventure.

Morning run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because we can

DerailleurThe grace period between when you notice your bike tire is a little softer than usual, when you begin to pump it every morning before the ride to work, and when you have to admit it needs patching or replacing ran out today. So I email the boss–“flat tire” — to buy some time to fix it.

I am no longer a college student, or a 20-something scraping to get by. I am a pretty well established person with a steady income. I could pay someone to fix this flat.  Like the friendly mechanics at Takoma Bicycle shop. But I believe everyone should be able to change her own flat, perhaps especially those of us tempted to outsource our chores. It’s my attempt to stay grounded: Walk the dog. Mow the lawn. Rake the leaves. And since I haven’t done it in quite a while — relying instead on my more bike-saavy son — I know it is time to fix the tire myself.

Bike Hero

Be your own bike hero.

Patch kit: found. Tube: removed. Hole: pinpointed, sanded, patched. Tube and tire replaced.

My fingers are black with bike grease, though somehow I have kept it from smearing on my work clothes. I am nearly finished (an embarrassingly long 20 minutes later) when I get snagged on how to route the chain around the rear deraileur. The chain hangs loose — so clearly I’ve missed something. The clock ticks on, and finally I abandon the project and walk to Metro.

A friend, riding his bike, stops to chat and I scrutinize his chain — running in front of that funny lower sprocket, then back.

Two days later I recall that configuration, reroute my chain, replace my wheel, finish pumping the tires and ride to Metro, triumphant.

Why would I go to a bike shop to change a flat tire? Because I can?

Why would I fix my own flat?

Because I can.

Risky business

JacksonAve

Jackson Avenue in the snow

The snow was still coming down when I went walking yesterday. Fat flakes blanketed streets and cars, a cushion of snow encased tree branches and everything seemed about 20 decibels quieter than usual. It felt adventurous to be out in such weather – even though I was hardly alone. My friends were just returning from cross country skiing in Sligo Creek Park, where I also saw people hiking the wooded paths and walking their dogs along the paved path.

The real adventurer came rolling down Jackson Avenue, a steep neighborhood street that leads into the park. The road was mostly unplowed, still thick with snow and slush. He was on a bicycle.

He had a light. And snowpants. His tires were wide, I think, wider than my commuter bike tires – though it was hard to tell through the snow that coated them. He looked prepared. But really, who rides a bike in 3 inches of snow?

My first thought was for his safety. If he made it home with no major spills or injuries, he would feel like a hero, admired for his grit, determination and sense of adventure. If he was hurt, say, sliding down Jackson and onto Sligo Creek Parkway, where there might be a car driving by, or slipping off one of the bridges that span the creek and into the icy water, the story would be different. Admiration would quickly turn to disdain for poor judgment.

How quickly we go from brave to reckless.

The thrill of risk is what drives me to try things that could be considered either. My risks are not really life-threatening – leaping from a 40-foot cliff into the ocean is about as dangerous as it gets, and I jumped only after watching a line of people do it before me. I climbed onto a ski lift one night, even though I wondered where the rest of the skiers had gone, and found myself alone at the top of a dark, icy, black-diamond ski slope, dodging blasts for snowmaking equipment — but I made it down the crusty edge of the slope safely. And the one time I went rock-climbing, that first belay brought my heart to my throat, but I was in a climbing gym – hardly 127 Hours, the movie where a climber gets stuck in a crevasse for days.

I’ve had a couple of adventures on bikes, as well. Riding along the Mount Vernon Trail after a night at Alexandria’s Hard Times Cafe, my old biking buddy and I would hold our breath pedaling along the wooden boardwalk that took us through the spooky swamp along the Potomac River. Who might be hiding around the next curve? And why didn’t we have bike lights? I can’t remember. And there was the afternoon my honey and I rode along the Northwest Branch Trail to Franklin’s Brewery, where it got dark before we’d finished dinner. On the way home we wound up stranded on an unfamiliar stretch of highway in a sketchy neighborhood, then unsure which direction to take along the dark trail through the park. This time, we had one bike light between the two of us, and I followed its beam, every muscle tensed, until we made it out of the woods and home.

It was sort of thrilling. But mostly uncomfortable, and certainly not high adventure.

Still, these experiences flip the adrenaline switch, goosing me with an electrical surge that knocks me out of the everyday and into new possibilities. They make me feel invincible. I can use that sort of boost.

I will never climb Mt. Everest. But don’t be surprised if you see my biking down Jackson Avenue in the next snowstorm.

Incidental beauty

SligoCk

Sligo Creek in the rain

I had an epiphany a couple of years ago. No surprise, I was at the beach, where epiphanies come easily to me. Here it is: I can go to the ocean, and simply being there makes me feel grateful, more whole, more a part of the universe. I don’t have to hit a particular heart rate, or nail a dance combination, make a certain distance on a run or even run until the endorphins kick in. There is something about sea air that shifts the molecules in my body, and all I have to do is be there and breathe.

Incidental beauty.

This happens near home, too. On the trails of Sligo Creek Park trees tower over me, loamy earth cushions my step, the sound of burbling water cascades down my spine like a caress. Every day I am there, even for a few moments, these gifts register beauty in my bones.

Cumulative beauty.

Put yourself in the way of beauty. It is around us all the time. Even when we are not looking.

Age-old aging

GreatFalls2

No matter how old you are, this view of the Potomac, near Billy Goat Trail, is worth the hike.

When I was about six years old, I had a best friend named Cathy who told me her mother’s birthday was coming up. Like any six-year-old, I loved birthdays, so this was exciting news. Yay! Will there be cake?  I was also very interested in ages – being younger than most of my friends, numbers were important to me. How old would her mom be?

Cathy told me Mom was turning 21.

Hmmmmm.

Even at age six, I could do the math: my own mother was 40, my oldest sister just a few years short of 21 herself. I told Cathy she must be wrong, but she insisted, hands on hips, indignant with six-year-old confidence, that her mother would be 21. I left her more than a little confused.

Now I am older than everyone in this story. Now, I get it.

I still love birthdays, and celebrated mine with gusto this week. Hooray! Another year! It’s all about me!

But not everyone feels this way. I have one friend who marked a significant decade in his life earlier this year, and didn’t want it discussed at all. Not even over cake! He wants to “youth” instead of “age,” so when he turned 50, he started counting backwards. I am beginning to understand why.

While I have always pooh-poohed women who lie about their age for reasons of vanity (people, I imagine, like Cathy’s mom), there are other reasons to play with our concept of age.

Imagining myself a decade younger makes me feel younger. Me at age 23 feels more energetic and open to fun, new possibilities. Me at 23 helps me forget that packing in too many activities in one day is impractical, baking cookies at 11 p.m. is indulgent, staying up late at night listening to a live blues band will make me tired in the morning. Who cares? Just do it! It’ll be fine!

Thinking about myself as young, sashaying down city streets with a spring in my step while at the same time thinking about how great it is to be 53 (yes, my real age), with all the knowledge and life experience that implies – that’s the best of both worlds.

Let’s remove those harnesses of practicality and habit that somehow attach themselves to middle aged people. Aging people of the world unite! Break out of your ruts! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Actually, I am surrounded by people of all ages doing all kinds of creative and engaging things with their lives. I have lots of models to emulate. But there is still this pesky pull toward inertia. Thinking about my youthful self helps me get up off the couch and resist it.

A couple of weeks ago I was inspired by Cheryl Strayed, whose book “Wild,” about her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, was recently released as a movie. I love hiking! I could do that! I started to consider a trip of my own along the Appalachian Trail – and remembered a friend who celebrated her 65th birthday with a weeks-long trek in the mountains of Italy. Then, instead of hiking my usual trails in Sligo Creek Park, just down the street from my house, I drove a half hour to hit the Billy Goat Trail, a more rugged and often stunning stretch of woods and rock outcroppings along the Potomac River. “Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Strayed wrote. So I did.

Because I am young.

Gearing up for winter

Mama-TheBuffalo11-1-2014

Making the best of an early snowfall, hiking on Nov. 1 in Floyd County. Actually, it was beautiful!

I am not someone who loves winter. I chalk this up to having grown up in sunny Florida, but I suspect there are people who grew up in New Hampshire, or Maine, or Canada –  maybe even Scandinavia!— who feel the same way. I mean, really: the days get SO MUCH shorter in winter. It’s dark at 5:00!!! (I’m not even going to talk about Finland, where they have just four to six hours of light in the winter. Kill me now.) And going out the door is an ordeal – forget about breezing through barefoot, in shorts, a la south off the border. No, it’s sweater season! And jacket, hat, scarf and gloves! Boots! Heavy socks! Does it ever end?

But here’s the thing: I find that if I force myself to go out there, I actually like it. It can be, well, refreshing.

It’s all about the gear. So, long underwear: good. I have the silky kind from LL Bean. Warm socks: important. A hat – always! I used to know the percentage – but now I only know that a LARGE percentage of your body heat goes out the top of your head. Cover your noggin! And wear a scarf. I had a boyfriend who was all about the scarf, as long as his neck was covered he could be wearing shorts. About this one thing he was right.

So, when I force myself to go outside for a walk or a run, right into the teeth of winter (I like to phrase it exactly that way in my head, where I also think, ‘what a hero I am for braving the cold!’), I gird myself against the weather, layering with an UnderArmour insulating shirt (do they call that long underwear? I don’t know, I picked it up at the local thrift shop, Value Village, and there was no tag to tell me), then a cotton long-sleeved t-shirt, then the old wool sweater I bought on my bike trip through England two decades ago (this is the sweater that was so authentic it left slicks of lanolin, that waterproof substance much like Vaseline that protects sheep from moisture, on the insides of my elbows for a year before I broke it in). Add a windbreaker, scarf, hat and mittens and I’m ready to go. Hmmm, maybe I should invest in some more current gear? Like, a lightweight, warm jacket that would keep me from having to wear four layers? Santa, are you listening?

But here’s the curious thing: Once I begin to run, I warm right up, and it all comes off, piece by piece. The hat. The gloves. The scarf which is by now choking me. The sweater. I tie it all around my waist and tuck in the bits that won’t tie – hat, gloves – so that by the time I am headed back to the house, I have a collection of fabric around my middle, but my arms are bare because I’ve also pushed up my long sleeves.

I am generating my own heat.

I am still getting used to this concept – that I can go out into fearsome cold, hating the goosebumps and shivers it gives me, thinking black thoughts,  wearing a deep, dark frown and thinking I’ll never be warm again, then 20 minutes later triumphing over it all. And thus the winter becomes endurable – even magical. Transformational.

It won’t touch a sunny summer day at the beach. But it definitely has its own kind of magic.

Feather-light

I went running in Sligo Creek Park today. There I was, at the edge of winter, a time when the days are still getting shorter and Iate afternoon means nearly dark, when I heard a rustling commotion above me. Thinking it was one of the many deer that frequent these woods, I looked up the incline beside the hiking path, but there was nothing. Instead, directly above my head I saw a falcon, swooping up to a tree branch, and beside it a small bird, maybe a wren, wings going every which way, grace no longer within reach. It looked as though the two birds were flying side by side, but of course they weren’t. Tiny down feathers floated down toward me like autumn leaves, and I caught several, so soft and light it felt as though I was holding nothing at all.

Up in the tree, the falcon sat serenely on a branch. There was no motion beside it—no wren that I could see. I thought maybe the small bird had escaped, and felt disappointed for the hawk, relieved for the wren. I stood watching, maybe five minutes, then the falcon glided through the branches to another tree, just a bit further from me. The adventure was over. On to the next hunt.

I turned and ran a few more yards to a spot where I like to stretch before heading back home. I took my time, luxuriating in a Sunday afternoon with no pressure to be anywhere at any particular time. Then I headed back, and looked up to see if the falcon was still there.

Perched high above me, it was absorbed in pulling apart the wren, which it had captured after all. Feathers floated down in small clouds, too far away now to catch. The light was fading, so the falcon was a silhouette on the branch, holding down a barely distinguishable shape with its talons, pulling up strings of meat with its beak, allowing the occasional wing to unfold from the pile of flesh and feathers, then collapse again.

I was transfixed. And, like a fairy tale –the Narnia chronicles, or Where the Wild Things Are, when a child visits a magical kingdom and thinks perhaps he’s dreamed it, until he finds some evidence in the waking world that proves it was real – I tucked those first few feathers into my shirt. Here they are, this really happened, right here in Sligo Creek, just a mile from the border of Washington, D.C.

We run or bike through this park every day, we drive our cars along the highway beside the creek, we go to work and come home and make dinner and all the while, the natural world carries on, swooping to catch prey and tear it apart high above where we live our lives. Glimpsing this magical realm gives me hope: The world’s rhythms are far steadier than anything we could ever conjure ourselves, and reach far deeper than we might imagine.