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: Where Would we be Without our Mothers.

Ma and Daughter Number One wearing matching sweaters.

I miss Ma.  Every day.  Some days I pine for her in the deepest way.  Especially at this time of year.  I’d like to sit and have tea and cookies with her.  Just one more time.  Phone her up to chat.  Long distance to wherever she is.   There are days when I weep.  Uncontrollably.  It’s like a sad Candid Camera.  When it’s least expected.  Tears.  I never know when they’ll erupt.  Or why.  I can look at the same picture of Ma a thousand times and all it does is evoke a smile.  But every now and again I’ll see it through a different lens.  And the tears fall.  Like the loss just happened.  Heart broken anew.

Ma was the perfect mother for me.  She wasn’t perfect.  And she’d be the first to point out her flaws. But only Ma could have given birth to me.  Without she, there would be no me.

I had a good mother.  And I gave birth to a good mother.  I am doubly blessed.  Twice heaven-sent.   Daughter Number One (DNO) gave me a granddaughter and made me a “boo.”  In our family this means grandmother.  It was an endearing childhood nickname that we hauled out of antiquity.  Ma was already Gran, Granny and Grandma.  No other title seemed quite as fitting so we came up with the boo thing.  And it just felt right.

I always knew I would be a mother.  It wasn’t like I lied awake at night dreaming of the day when I would hold a child in my arms.  It was just something I took for granted.  Understood would happen.  And I am so grateful that it did.  I love being a mom.  I love being a boo.

When Ma was a young girl, she did dream of being a mother one day.  Having a family to call her own. By the time she was ten both her parents were gone, and for all intents and purposes, Ma and her four sisters were left orphaned.  They were raised by their maternal grandmother.  Ma loved her dearly.  But she longed for a mother’s love.  I get that.  There’s nothing quite like it, especially when you’ve got a good one.

It was from that motherless child’s perspective that Ma’s desire grew.  To one day be a mother herself.  There was never any doubt in her mind. No second guessing.  It was her magnificent obsession.  Her four kids were everything to her.  As were her grandchildren and great grandchildren.  Quite simply, Ma loved kids.  Not just her own. But everyones.  That was where her heart was.  And kids loved her.  Drawn to her like Mother Earth.  They may have come initially for her cookies.  But came back for her kindness.  And she had it in spades.  Her heart was compassionate.  Her understanding empathic.  Who wouldn’t want to run into the arms of someone so emotionally gifted.

Ma holding me as we pose for the camera.

It was love at first sight for both Ma and me.  I don’t remember of course, but on some level I think we do.  Somewhere inside our spirit lives this first moment of meeting.  Ma said I was born around noon.  It was summer time.  Possibly the living was easy.  Ma was happy.  From what I was told her water broke, she had me, missed lunch and that “I was the cutest baby.”  As it just so happens, my three siblings were also the cutest babies.  It’s nothing shy of a miracle how every mother has the cutest baby, or babies.  I love how equitable the universe is on this subject. But equality aside, this was our moment for mutual admiration.  My three older siblings all had their turn.  Now this was mine.

Ma said I had dark brown eyes and tons of long black hair.  I used to pull it and make myself cry.  And then look at Ma like she was the culprit.  Ma loved to tell this tale of my infantile masochism.  It was her “cute baby” story.  And I couldn’t get enough of it.  Partly because it made us both laugh.  But also because Ma always told it with an air of pride in my crowning glory.  Like this was some extraordinary accomplishment on both our parts.  And at such a young age.

Me and Daughter Number One posing for the camera.

I remember the birth of my DNO like it was yesterday.  I was two weeks overdue.  And super-sized.  Next to me, an elephant looked svelte.  It was the beginning of October and Autumn was showing off as usual.  I was hoping DNO would arrive a week early for Ma’s birthday.  What a perfect gift this would have been. But that day came and went.  Then I placed my hopes on my best friend’s birthday in the middle of September, but that too came and went.  By the end of September, the doctor decided that if the baby didn’t arrive over the weekend, he would intervene.  Monday came and still no baby.  An induction was scheduled for 5:00pm that day.  This was the last thing I wanted but by this time, I was compliant.  Ready.  I hadn’t seen my feet in months.  I was swollen.  And exhausted.  It was time for the bun to come out of the oven.

Perhaps it was just a curious coincidence.  Or maybe DNO was finally ready.  Because not long after we arrived at the hospital, I felt the first pangs of labor.  No need for inducement.  This became my “cute baby” story for DNO.  Just the suggestion was enough for her to take things into her own hands.  Do things her way.  This willfulness has never left her.  It is one of the things I admire and love most about DNO.  It has taken her to wonderful places that I have only imagined.  It is the engine that drives her courage.  Her strength.  Her determination to live life to the fullest.  It propels her towards big dreams.

My other “cute baby” story is how she came out smiling.  She had a happy spirit right from the start.  This too in part defines her.  I looked into her beautiful dark brown eyes and it was love at first sight.  And I knew.  There would be no stopping a girl with a cheerful demeanor and a will of steel.  Watch out world.  Here she comes.

On some level the birth of my granddaughter was more profound than the birth of my three children.  When you’re in labor you’re caught up in the fray.  There’s no time for perspective.  Reflection.  Or introspection.  That comes afterwards.  But when your child is having a child, you are witness to the miraculous. And you know it.  With every fiber of your being.  Grandchild number one (GNO) came into my world one beautiful morning at the end of summer and made it a better place.  All has been right  ever since.

Daughter Number One holding Granddaughter Number One.

My daughter had been in labor for over two days.  It was difficult to watch my child in pain.  If I could, I would have taken it from her.  It’s natural for a mother to want to take the bullet.  Jump in front of the train.  Walk without shoes.  And this was one of those instances where I would have done anything for her.  But this was her journey to travel.  Her odyssey.  Her miracle in the making.  Her moment.  My job was to wait.  To comfort.  And to love.

And wait  we did.  In the final hours before GNO’s arrival, my husband and I sat on the floor outside my daughter’s hospital room.  From that vantage point, we listened while my daughter’s partner whispered words of encouragement and love.  We listened as the medical folks led her through the final stages of childbirth.  We listened as she became a mother.  We listened as the doctor declared that a beautiful healthy baby girl was born.  Those were the joyful words we were waiting to hear.  Then it was time to meet our new granddaughter.  I held her in my arms and she looked up at me with deep dark chocolate eyes.  Just like Ma’s.  And this is my “cute baby” story for her.  I remind her often that she has her great grandmother’s black Italian eyes.  And that their time together was brief.  But they knew each other well.

Ma was a remarkable mother.  My daughter is too.

Ma taught me everything she knew.  How to bake a perfect ginger cookie.  Sew a seam on a summer dress.  Tend to an open wound.  Mend a broken heart.  She taught me how important it was to listen to your child.  And to hear the words spoken.  And those not.  She taught me how to open my heart.  And when to keep my mouth shut.  She showed me how to make much of little.  And to celebrate the birth of a child.  For there is no greater gift.

My daughter is teaching me every day.  I watch her with my granddaughter and my heart stops.  She’s engaging.  And smart. Full of all the right instincts.  She knows how and when to discipline.  She knows how to grow an infant into a little girl into a preteen and one day into a strong young woman.  She knows how to entertain her daughter.  And when to let her entertain herself.   She’s funny.  And fun.  Kids are drawn to her.  They see her great big heart.  And welcoming arms.  Who wouldn’t want to be embraced by those.

Yes, both Ma and DNO have taught me much. I like to think that I’m a better woman because of these two extraordinary ones.

A few weeks after this photo was taken my granddaughter was born. A few months later Ma was gone. They knew each other briefly but well.