Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Rhythm of Running.

running gearRunning doesn’t come easy for me.  The first few blocks are pure hell.  Psyching myself to go for a run is a marathon in itself.  Each new day is like starting over.  Even after 30 years, it’s still the same.

Before I run there are a few things I do first.  The Monday to Friday pre-run routine and ritual goes something like this:

1. Get up early. 5:00am at the latest. Except for the summer months, it’s dark outside and quiet inside.  The house is hushed and still in the undisturbed darkness before dawn.  Just how I like it.
2. Put on sweatpants and T-shirt or some other comfortable running attire.  These are found heaped on the floor next to the bed where I left them the night before. I prepare ahead.
3. Grope my way through the hallway to the kitchen where I put on the kettle. Sometimes I hit the bathroom first and take a pee.
4. Head to my office where I check emails and cruise through Facebook while the kettle boils.  Sometimes I read a Cowbird story.
5. Make a cup of Tetley’s Orange Pekoe tea. I like how the round bags fit perfectly int the bottom of the Vegas mug D gave me.
6. Practice yoga for an hour.  Because I’m so spiritual I do this in front of the TV.  Depending on my mood it’s either Steven & Chris or CMT. Until January it was CNN but I stopped that because it was counter productive and stressed me out.
7. Make the bed and tidy my office. I hate clutter and can’t get into an unmade bed.  Just one of my many quirks.
8. Make my lunch for work.  This is usually a salad and some kind of protein.  I don’t really care what I eat for lunch just as long as it’s reasonably healthy and doesn’t make me sleepy by two.
9. Boil the kettle again.  Make a cup of coffee spiked with cinnamon. I like to live dangerously.  I also add cream, which is completely over-the-top and edgy.
10. Head back to my office, pull out my latest Hilroy notebook, a blue Bic pen and write my daily letter to God.  This is private.  But possibly some of my best writing.
11. Sip my creamy cinnamon coffee and say my prayers.  I don’t get down on my knees.  This hurts too much.  God knows and doesn’t expect it of me.  We’re pretty tight.
12. If it’s cold out, I throw on my big old grey hoodie with the bleach splatters and pills under the arms.  If it’s warm than the T-shirt is all I need.  I don’t wear a bra.  I like to flop when I run.
13. Head downstairs and lace up my sneakers.  Nothing fancy here.  Nor expensive.  If they aren’t on sale I don’t buy them. One of my best pair of runners came from Zellers. This was before Target took over.
14. Check the clock next to the back door.  I don’t know why I do this. I never check it when I return and I don’t time my runs.  I really don’t care how long it takes.
15. Walk around to the side of the house, past the Camellia tree, the bamboo and the old rose bush that scares the shit out of me.
16. Open the front gate, take a deep breath, hesitate momentarily, mumble ‘what the fuck’ under my breath and hit the streets.

I start to run immediately.  It’s uphill right out of the gate. Brutal. Punishing.  Grueling.  My legs are already tired and I feel the burn.  It’s killing me and I haven’t even gone a block.  All I can think about is how lousy I feel.

But just when I think I can’t run another step, the sidewalk slopes downward and I coast along for the next bit. This is where grace and mercy come into play.

It’s during this little stretch that I set the pace. This is different every day.  It all depends on how I feel that morning.  Not just physically but emotionally.  One day I could be the hare. The next, the tortoise.  Sometimes I feel like a freebird.  Other days, a slug.  There are mornings where I feel like I could run forever.  Or at least a mile or two.  Maybe even ten.  Then there are days – many, many days – where I ask myself, ‘what the hell are you doing?’  I just want to roll over onto the boulevard and curl up like a wood bug.  Go to sleep. For a long time. Like Rip Van Winkle.  Some days, my youth is renewed like the eagles.  Others, I’m an old wizened woman.  Gnarled.  Weather-beaten.

The difference between a good day and a bad one usually comes down to rhythm.  I don’t plug in while I run.  No iTunes. No playlists. No music. No motivational talks.  No podcasts.  None of that.

I listen to my soul.  My heartbeat.  My inner cadence.

I hear the sound of my breathing.  My footsteps on the concrete. Crows squawking on the telephone lines.  The voices of the squirrels.  Leaves rustling.  Wind howling. Gentle breezes calling. Dogs barking. Cars racing.  Doors slamming.  All the early morning reverberations.

I hear the silence.  And the pauses between the clamor. I hear God whispering my name.

It is here that I get in the groove.  Find my rhythm.  This is the sweet stuff of running. This is the meditative place. Where everything works.  My body, mind and spirit are all in tune.  Harmonious.  Peaceful.  Grounded.

I run to the rhythm of me.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Zen of Running.

IMG_3016I have a love-hate relationship with running. Going right back to that first time over 30 years ago.

Back then, I would have scoffed at the notion of running every day.  Killed myself laughing at the idea of rising in the wee hours of the morning, while my family snoozed in their warm cozy beds. Chuckled at the thought of running alone through the eery dark streets of the big city.  Looking back, it seems like the craziest decision I ever made.  And also the best.

I’ve never been horribly athletic but have always loved to walk.  Especially with Ma, my babies and my dogs.  Running was always far too vigorous and strenuous for my tastes.  During track and field season, I was one of the laggers in gym class.  I was in the group that faltered to the finish line.  There was no cheering from the sidelines.

You could say I went on that first run unintentionally.  Certainly without expectations. Or perhaps there was one. If I survived, I would never do it again.  My first, last, and only run with my ex-husband was that night.  It was his idea.  I just followed him out the door.  The things we do for love.

Flash forward a few decades and I’m still running. I use that term loosely.  I’m not sure what to call it these days. Jogging. Slow motion running.  I sometimes shuffle and drag my feet.  Many people could walk faster than I run.  Hell, on a good day I could walk faster than I run.  I’m a laggard once more.

Running is painful. Exhausting. Tiring. Grueling. Hot. Sweaty. Cold.  Achy. Smelly. Frustrating. Frightening. Punishing. And enslaving.

So why do I do it?

Because running is also satisfying. Energizing. Empowering. Relaxing. Meditative. Quiet. Solitary. Spiritual. Peaceful. Calming. Rewarding. And freeing.

Running is also a metaphor my marvelously messy life.

Seven years ago I stopped running. I didn’t want to. I had to.  Just after the Labor Day weekend I woke up to discover that my right knee was swollen.  Because it didn’t hurt, just looked fat, I carried on with my regular morning routine.  Donned my running shorts, stinky T-shirt, my Nike Frees and hit the streets.  At the time, I was experimenting with barefoot running. It was magnificent. There was a new spring in my step. I felt ten pounds lighter. Twenty years younger.  And swifter than a Cheetah.

I was a fool.

I have no idea if it was the new shoes, the misguided confidence, the delusions of renewed youth, or the dime-store vanity that was the cause of my swollen knee.  I just know that I didn’t get much past the first block before I was hobbling.  Groaning.  And limping all the way home.  The next day both of my knees were swollen.  That was it.  Over. Done like last night’s dinner. Finito Bandito Dorito.

Close to three decades of daily running. Stopped. Cold.

For the next seven years I walked my run route with a feisty Terrier in tow. Hopped on an elliptical machine every day for two years, and bored myself crazy with all the effort and movement, that essentially took me nowhere. Amped up my yoga practice, focusing on the muscles – I also use this term loosely – around my knees.  I prayed for healing and kept a watchful eye for signs of improvement.  The swelling eventually receded but my right knee is permanently pudgy. It would be cute if it were the knee of a ten-month old baby.

Occasionally I tested the waters.  Ran a block to see how the old knees were performing.  If they felt okay I’d go for a second. Sometimes a third.  Once and awhile I managed to jog the entire route.  This would go on for a few days, a few weeks even.  But eventually the stabbing pain would return and literally bring me to my knees.  It was a drag.  A drag made worse, by my weakening cardiovascular system. My lungs couldn’t hack it anymore.  I was running out of air.  (Some people may have considered this a good thing.) First knee rebellion.  Then lung unrest.  I feared a full-on body assault.  A revolution like no other.  Body parts crashing and burning.  Leaving behind a wake of rotting emotions and a decaying runner’s spirit.

After these little running forays I would return to the safety of walking the dog. One of us also had their tail between their legs.  I abandoned the elliptical with not so much as a backward glance. I practiced yoga faithfully, and continue to do so. I tried Zumba twice.  And sometimes I skipped to my Lou, my darlin’.

This has been my daily workout routine – and again I use this term loosely – for the past few years.  Until this spring.

Around the time that E was having his surgery I had an epiphany.  An awakening of sorts.  It was a regular morning.  Same old same old.  I was walking up the road with the dog and everything was copacetic.  Until I had this thought. A quivering notion. Flight of fancy. The quiet small voice inside my head whispered, run.  Run like the wind.

One of the things that my 40-year practice of yoga has taught me is to listen to that quiet small voice.  It is the voice of wisdom.  My inner knowing.  Higher self speaking.  So I listened and started to run.  Not like the wind.  More like a lazy summer breeze.  But it didn’t matter.  I heeded the call.  Summoned my runner’s soul. And took off.

The remarkable thing was.  Nothing hurt.  My lumpy bumpy old saggy knees felt fine.  They hung in there.  Rock steady.  Solid.  Reliable.

And continue do so. Even up the steep hill at the end of the run.

Read this part carefully because this is the really good stuff.  The point of this moving story.  The big metaphor I mentioned earlier.

You can’t get to my house without climbing a hill.  The neighborhood is aptly name Rock Heights.  And believe me, you have to climb to get here.  When I first starting running in this neck of the woods, even long before my knees blew out, I would walk up the last hill just before home. I called it my cool-down; thus justifying the leisurely end to the run.  But not any more.

For the past two months I have been challenging myself to run up the hill.  At first it was impossible. Then I gave myself small daily challenges that I was confident I could achieve.  Today, just make it to the red fire hydrant, for example.  Once that became easy, it was, make it to the telephone pole past the hydrant.  Then a few days later, it was the next pole, then after that, the bus stop, then the mustard colored house at the corner, then up past the entrance to the park, and then finally make it to our driveway.  Within weeks I was running up the hill nonstop.

Now I run up the hill without even thinking, without the markers, the little goals to achieve.  I no longer notice them.  Instead I keep my head down and focused on the small piece of sidewalk directly in front of me. No further. It’s a steep hill. Part of the Big Picture, I know. Yet I don’t look up.  I focus only on what I need to do.  The small task at hand.  Nothing more. That little square of cement is all that matters.  It’s manageable.  It doesn’t daunt. Deter. Dismay. Nor dishearten.  This much I can do.

I haven’t ever counted the number of squares in the sidewalk, from the bottom of the hill to our driveway, but let’s just say there are many.  Too numerous to count.  Besides it isn’t about that.

It’s about getting to the top of the hill.  Bit by bit.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Lessons in Gratitude and Patriotism.

IMG_1825Grateful and patriotic.  That’s how I felt last weekend when E and I escaped again to the mainland.  This time there weren’t any medical procedures tagged onto the end of our trip.  No Big C cloud hovering over our heads like an alien space ship.  Just two glorious days of freedom and fun with our oldest daughter A.  Quite simply, it was divine. And exactly what the doctor ordered.

I like to keep an attitude of gratitude. I’m happier and far more optimistic when I do. Life just feels richer and amplified when I see the glass half full. This thankful continence isn’t always easy to maintain though.  Sometimes I engage in rip-roaring pity parties of one. But most of the time I count my blessings.  And they are many.

Last Saturday afternoon, smack dab in the middle of a busy crowded downtown Vancouver street, I had an epiphany.  The sun was shining gloriously overhead.  The energy and positive vibe in the city was electric.  Music and laughter, breezy summertime conversations, and the smell of suntan lotion wafted from every street corner.  It was picture perfect.  Endorphins flooded my limbic system, and by doing so released a profusion of happy childhood memories of summers at 204. In an instant, I was as lighthearted and mirthful as a ten year old girl running under the garden sprinkler. Yippee!  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Another neat thing happened in that moment. My gratitude muscle expanded and skyrocketed, then soared heavenward through the brilliant clear blue sky.

Giddy with glee, I turned to E and said, “Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

He looked at me as if I had suddenly grown two heads. I fully appreciate why he would find my declaration untrue, given the circumstances of our life right now.  But before he could protest or disagree, I repeated, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.  In this cosmic moment, which is all we have, life is perfect. Just the way it is.”

Then he got it.  His eyes welled with tears and he smiled. Big honest smile.  Right from the heart. One filled with gratitude.

Later that day, our daughter took us to a baseball game at the Nat Bailey Stadium, where the Vancouver Canadians and the Tri-City Dust Devils were playing. I can’t think of a more definitive summer diversion or pastime than going to a ballgame.  Some people find this game boring. Too quiet and slow.  But for me it is beautiful.  Elegant. Subtle and masterful. First and foremost, a team sport.  Yet each player has a time when they stand alone at home plate.  Armed only with a wooden bat, years of practice swinging it, the sagacity and the wits of a street-fighter, the indelible voice of their coach always with them, the encouragement of their team mates, the cheers of their devoted fans, and the genuine love of the game.  It is there that each player, one by one, bravely faces the nine guys from the opposing team, all focused on the same thing. Stop this guy from getting a run.

My love of the game goes way back.  The Old Man loved it too.  He was one of the guys who started Little League in our hometown.  He coached and umpired games well into his senior years. When I was young, I used to tag along and sit in the weather-beaten wooden bleachers and cheer on ‘our guys.’  It was during those long hot steamy Northwestern Ontario summer nights, that I fell for the game and the boys who played it. During my Toronto years, The Old Man loved visiting, especially in the summer.  Going to a Jays game was a dream come true for him.  To see a major league game close up and personal was beyond his wildest imaginings.

The Nat Bailey Stadium is gorgeous.  Most people wouldn’t describe a sports stadium this way. But to me it is. This was my first time, and like many firsts, it was memorable and I loved everything about it.  The pre-game excitement, the smell of popcorn and hotdogs, pizza and beer, cotton sundresses and pink cotton candy, fans in red tee-shirts and baseball caps, flip-flops flapping up and down concrete steps, hoots and hollers across the stands, the red wooden bleachers with perfect views of the field, the calls from the beer guy and the fifty-fifty girl, the playful fan photos taken with Bob Brown Bear, the cornball music, the repartee and easy banter of the announcers, the pre-game warm-ups, the national anthems, and the crack of wooden bat on leather ball.  Gorgeous.  Every last bit.

Before the game begins two national anthems are sung.  I don’t recall the name of the singer only that she gave a virtuoso performance.  Flawless. Resplendent. A crackerjack job. I love the American anthem.  It’s impressive and majestic.  But I’m a Canadian girl.  Through and through.  Tried and true.  Homegrown, born and raised.

From the very first note, when this crowd of devoted Vancouver Canadians fans stood shoulder to shoulder, hats in hand, young and old alike, and gloriously sang our national anthem, I was moved. Unexpectedly touched yet filled to the brim. With patriotism. With pride. With gratitude.

Oh Canada.  Dear sweet Canada.  My home and native land.  I am so grateful to be here.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Hitting one out of the park.

I can feel it.  Spring is definitely in the air.  But even better, summer is just around the corner.  And with that notion comes all the paraphernalia of summer.  Lighter brighter sweeter clothes made from cotton and other carefree fabrics. Red toenails and colorful rubber flip flops.  The summer toys are brought out of the  basement, back shed or garage.  Things with wheels and pedals.  Things designed for the water and hot sandy beaches.  Games that are synonymous with sunshiny days and long warm evenings are played.  Racquets, bats and balls of all description.  This is the season when my favorite sport is played.  Baseball.

Let’s make something perfectly clear right up front.  I am not the athletic type.  Sporty Spice I am not.  I don’t gravitate towards playing team sports of any sort.  I’m a loner when it comes to anything even remotely athletic.  Running.  Walking.  Yoga.  Skip to my Lou. That’s about as close as I get to being an athlete.  But there’s just something about baseball that I like.  And I think it has something to do with The Old Man.

Little back story.  I never thought of The Old Man as terribly athletic either.  Despite what the black and white photos of his younger self reveal.  I only recall a man with a round girth and skinny white bowed legs.  But he did love sports.  In particular, hockey and baseball.   Back in the day, when homes had one television set, Saturday nights were  Hockey Night in Canada, and nothing but.  You could always count on him to be sitting front row and centre, glued to the television set for the two solid hours the game was televised on the CBC.  A bag of Old Dutch potato chips, sour cream and onion dip, and a large bottle of Pepsi at his side.  It was loud.  Raucous. And grating on the nerves.  Ma would often busy herself in the kitchen.  Some Saturday nights I would take refuge in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, if she happened to be out for the evening.  Otherwise, I would sit in the living room in the cozy chair next to the fake fireplace and read.  It was like Ma and I were held captive for those two hours.  Prisoners of Hockey Night in Canada.  But in a strange way, I think I actually wanted to be close to The Old Man on Saturday Nights.  Figure out a way to share his passion and excitement for the game.  Or maybe I just wanted some chips and dip and a tall glass of Pepsi.

Four things came out of those Saturday night sessions with The Old Man.  A lifelong craving for junk food.  A preference for Pepsi over Coke.  An ability to block out ambient noise.  And a love for reading, especially fiction.

On Saturday nights, while lost in a book, I learned to filter all those shrill sounds, the extraneous racket and cacophony blaring from the television set.  I retreated to the world of make-believe and fiction.  I became a mental escape artist.  A cerebral Houdini.  This ability has served me well over the years.  It has been particularly helpful when working in open-concept environments where you can hear everything and everyone. Including the pin drop.  But when necessary, I can press the mute button.  And hear nothing except the sounds within. I’m grateful for this gift, compliments of The Old Man and Hockey Night in Canada.  To this day, I hear the Theme Song and my mind goes to another place.  I switch off.

Baseball on the other hand, is a different game all together.  There is just something about the understated elegance of this sport that appeals to me.  Whereas the hockey nights were filled with shouting, cursing and bellowing at the television set, watching baseball was much more civilized.  Baseball wasn’t intrusive and never monopolized an entire night.  There was no such thing as Saturday Night Baseball, at least not back then.  Plus, during baseball season I could go outside and play with the neighborhood kids while The Old Man watched the game.  I wasn’t trapped inside a small wartime house in the dead of winter with nowhere to run.

Another redeeming quality of baseball was that there were no theme songs that involved a full-on brass section.  No trumpets blaring.  Drums pounding.  Chests beaten. The only baseball song I knew was Take me Out To the Ballgame.  That charming little ditty was universally loved, and whistled, for its sheer unpretentious and innocent hokey corniness.  That’s what I loved about it.  Then and now.

Music and civility aside, there are a few other reasons I preferred baseball over hockey.  First of all, it was warm when you played.  You didn’t have to wear tons of clothing and balance yourself on lace-up boots with blades.  A spontaneous street game could start right in front of your house, at any time on any given day. It was uncomplicated with straightforward rules. All you needed was a ball and a bat.  If you had a glove.  That was a bonus but not necessary to play the game.  And everyone was welcome.  Including girls. Today girls play all kinds of  team sports. But that wasn’t the case back then.

Aside from the friendly neighborhood scrub ball, I played on our school’s all-girl softball team.  I didn’t have to try out to make the team.  We all got in.  It was part of the grade eight P.E. curriculum.  Most of us weren’t very good.  But we enjoyed ourselves just the same.  We played against the other grade eight teams in our town.  And lost most of our games.  But that wasn’t the point.  What mattered was, we got to play.  There were some girls on the team who actually knew what they were doing.  And I recall we had a pretty good pitcher.  They admired them from afar.

I performed badly under pressure.  If I even caught a sniff that the opposing pitcher could actually throw the ball I was a goner.   And if it turned out they could throw like a boy I was dead in the water.  Struck out.  One, two, three.  I was okay in the outfield though.  It was pretty quiet and safe.  Not a lot of action but it offered an interesting outlying perspective.  Mostly I chewed gum and spat.  It was fun being a Tomboy.  And at the end, win or lose, it was glorious to be out there with the other girls playing this beautiful inclusive game.

The Old Man receiving his Bicentennial Medal for community dedication and service.

The Old Man shared his love of the game with me.  And it didn’t even necessitate consuming junk food.  For years, he had been deeply involved with Little League in our town.  In fact, he was one of the guys who got it started.  In 1984, in celebration of the Ontario Bicentennial Year, the Minister of Northern Affairs Leo Bernier awarded my father, along with 42 other folks from our town, a medal for Exemplary Community Dedication and Service.  The medal was given to me after he died.  I never realized at the time, the significance of his contribution to the game in our little town.  I never thought of him as the kind of guy who had a positive and worthwhile impact on the lives of others.  At least not to this degree. He was The Old Man for God’s sake.  A medal?  But now as I look at it, hanging from the red, blue and yellow ribbon, I am proud.  Very proud Dad.

I have fond memories of going to the ball field with The Old Man.  He used to Umpire the games.  I’d sit in the weather-beaten wood bleachers and watch.  Girls had come just far enough to be able to play ball at school and on the street, but not in the Little League.  There weren’t many fans or spectators.  Back then parents didn’t go to watch their kids’ games.  The boys would walk or ride their bikes to the field and play.  And when the game was over they took their gloves and went home.  It was so poetically simple.

I watched as The Old Man leaned in behind the batter at home plate.  Proudly wearing his Ump’s mask and black vest.  To me, he looked just like the real thing.  A pro.  This was a whole other side to him that we rarely saw.  He was confident. Tough. Spirited. And oddly athletic.  This experience was nothing like the Saturday Night in Hockey nights.  It was the complete opposite.  I was fully engaged in the game.  Lost in the warm sunny evenings.  The smell of dusty canvas base bags and chalk powder.  Green grass and young boys covered in dirt stains and glowing sweat.  Snap.  Crackle.  Pop.  Wood on leather.  Cheers and shouts.  You’re safe.  You’re out.  Strike.  Ball.  Batter up.  Batter out.  Loss.  Or victory.  Always good sportsmanship.  Handshakes all around.  Better luck next time Buddy.

The last game I remember going to with The Old Man was during the summer between grade eight and high school.  Everything changed after that.  He continued to umpire games for years afterwards.  In fact, the same year that he received the Bicentennial Medal, my first marriage ended.  Badly.  I was a hot mess.  And that’s putting it politely.  We separated in April and by May I had packed up my two kids and travelled a thousand miles  to that little wartime house in the west end of town.  Ma and The Old Man welcomed us with open arms, unconditional love and above all no judgement.

It was the start of Little League Season when we arrived.  My son, who loves sports just like his grandfather, embraced the idea of playing.  The Old Man got him onto a team, and what could have been the worst of all possible summers, was made enjoyable by his participation in this sport.

All decked out in his green and white uniform and ready to play.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that summer.  Some memories are better left unearthed.  But I do recall going to watch one of my son’s games and thinking how marvelous he was.  How he looked like the real thing in his little green and white uniform.  A pro.  Just like his grandfather.  Then I remember how grateful I was to The Old Man for taking him under his wing.  And for putting some fun into a young boy’s  summer.  I was also grateful that The Old Man got to do something with my son that he was never able to do with me.  Umpire one of his games.

Footnote: My son told me today that he remembered two things about that baseball summer with his Grandpa.  He hit a home run out of the park.  And his grandpa called him safe at home when he was obviously out.  I love that The Old Man couldn’t be impartial when it came to his Grandson. I think he was that way when it came to me as well.