A Walk Taken

When not having a purpose is the purpose

My father loved to walk. Walking was simple, functional, and the purest form of exercise. He walked in his wingtips to the train station, then across the Chicago loop daily for 37 years. He maintained a healthy weight because of the 3 miles he walked every day.

He would be delighted that his youngest daughter has been logging her own miles this summer in preparation for a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies. On weekends Father liked nothing more than to take a walk in the woods, at the arboretum—wherever he was surrounded by the natural world.

I will be thinking of him as I scramble across boulders and stand before snow-capped peaks and glacier-fed lakes. He will be my reminder to walk for the pure enjoyment of it. I won’t be tracking number of miles or speed. I certainly won’t be breaking any records. My goal is not to have a goal. I’m eager to see a magnificent part of the world, meet new people, and appreciate being able to have this opportunity.

Walking has recently become the subject of several books that promote the activity as a goal-driven pursuit. Writers, one book documents, are invigorated by walking, which fuels their creativity. Another author argues that walking is a form of protest against our busyness, going so far as to suggest that walking is a way of imagining a more sustainable future.

Norwegian writer Erling Kagge believes that “walking is among the most radical things you can do.” He speaks from experience, having been the first person to cross North and South Poles and climb Mount Everest on foot. For him, walking is a protest against growing the GDP and then resting whenever we aren’t doing so.

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In my own preparations, I admit to wanting to have the right equipment, training a lot, and becoming the consumer I’d rather not be. At least I haven’t joined the “Order of Walkers” just to head out my door.

My great hope is to keep all things political and purposeful out of my week of hiking. I intend to walk every day, period. I will put one foot in front of the other and imagine Father at my side. More than anything, he and I would agree, walking is good for the soul.

The Art of Grieving

If we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others

Yesterday I spoke with a group of about 30 women and 2 men about how writing has helped me grieve. Then I asked them to think about how they learned about grief.

The stories they shared were heartbreaking. One woman’s first child died at 6 months. When she told her father, he replied, “That’s water over the dam. Just have another one.” Another woman admitted, “I stuffed my pain; I simply couldn’t face it.” A few of us recounted how a grandparent’s suicide was kept a secret for years, as if not talking about the loss would somehow make grief go away. Many shared platitudes they’d heard, like “we shouldn’t be sad because our loved one was in heaven,” that became excuses not to take time to honor the pain of loss.

Most of us admitted that these former models reflect a different, unhelpful attitude about death. Now our generation has been left the hard work of trying to dismantle these lessons in order to arrive at a healthier way of grieving.

When poet Gregory Orr was 12 years old, he went hunting with his father and younger brother. Orr accidentally shot and killed his brother. He became a writer in large part because language gave him a way to grieve. “Words don’t change the disorder,” he said, “but hold the chaos.”

Like Orr, I’ve discovered that when I write about loss, I bring my chaos to words and language meets me with a container to help reorder the chaos. Talking with a grief counselor—or anyone who understands grief as necessary—can serve the same purpose. Those conversations can be the vessel into which we pour the emotions, the tears, whatever we can’t make sense of about our loss.

The loss of a loved one touches us all, so why do we have so few examples from our own lives of healthy grieving? “Death is scary, ” says writer Meghan O’Rourke, “and people don’t know what to say.”

I agree with O’Rourke, but I also think her response is too often used as an excuse, not an opportunity to change how we view death and our response to it. We need to learn a new vocabulary for loss and grief.

Each of us faces loss differently. Any feeling we might have is legitimate, not “abnormal” as we may be inclined to think when the world is moving to 4:4 time and our tempo keeps changing as we stumble through grief. We desperately want to fall into step with everyone else, to prove that we’re coping and will soon be fine. But what about the questions and anguish that haunt us at night? Aren’t they worth our attention?

Death is part of life, and nature is our best teacher. The seasons cycle through birth, growth, and dying year after year. Why, then, is it so hard to grieve?

I think it’s fear that stops us. Fear that if we unlock our heart, our pain and vulnerability, our own mortality, will stare us in the face. Fear that our faith is insufficient for the sorrow we feel. Fear that this natural cycle will stop with us and the end will be THE END.

We avoid grief at our own peril. And that peril is this: if we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others. We perpetuate the sense of being all alone with grief, instead of recognizing that honestly facing the inevitability of loss in our life connects us as humans.

Writer Gail Caldwell may have made the best case for why we should grieve. Near the end of her memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home, about losing a dear friend, she writes, “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”

Grieving is a holy way to feel the ongoing presence of a loved one who has died. Who doesn’t want that for themselves?

The Sense of an Ending

Writing and life: where nothing is tidy

Growing up, I read a lot of mysteries. I cut my sleuthing teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but eventually moved on to Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Maj Showall and Per Waloo, Ngaio Marsh, and British TV series such as “Inspector Morse,” “Prime Suspect,” “Vera,” “Sherlock,” “Broadchurch,” and “Shetland.” Now when I walk, clean, cook, or garden, I listen to mystery-thrillers.

Mysteries are inherently satisfying. A crime is solved, a criminal apprehended, and order is restored to a family, a village, a country. I liked this tidy resolution that restored my belief in good triumphing over evil.

I was into my twenties before I stopped flipping to the last pages of a mystery I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out “who done it” and why. Then I would go back and read to the end as I was supposed to, all the while knowing exactly where the story was headed. The element of surprise was gone, but I liked to think that I noticed clues I might have otherwise missed.

Who doesn’t like happy endings?

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, stars of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” were my favorite secret agents in the 1960s. Like James Bond, they always resolved some international situation. The book Boys in the Boat tells the story of a group of rowers whose homegrown grit and teamwork lead them to Olympic victory. In Educated, Tara Westover finally escapes a suffocating life. Easter is the happy ending to Lent, when Christians say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

I’ve been working on the ending to my manuscript. For awhile. At times I’ve thought I could just tie all the themes up neatly, cinch the bow on top, and declare, “Done!” But a thought—more a correction to my thinking—keeps surfacing. There is nothing tidy about life. And what is literary nonfiction but a person’s experience artfully told? To be true and real, that experience must include all the messiness and pain that come with life—relationships, parenting, aging, a diagnosis, dreams derailed, and, waiting for all of us, death.

IMG_1198.jpgWhen I shared my struggle in writing my final chapter, a friend suggested I look more closely at the endings of other memoirs I admire. What a good suggestion that was! Revisiting what we think we know nearly always yields something new.

“[W]e never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures . . . the pain is what yields the solution” (Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home).

“If we are to live ourselves, we must relinquish the dead” (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking).

“I opened the door to the rest of my life, this new life without a living link to the old world” (Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter).

With these rich examples steeping in me, I appealed to my writing coach. “I’m spinning my wheels,” I wrote to her, “wondering if what I have to say has value, uncertain as to how to land, questioning my faith, even revisiting the story’s heartbeat. No wonder I’m stuck!” At least I didn’t add, “hoping to run a marathon this weekend without training.”

With her help and my perseverance, I will find the elusive ending. But it will require patience, instinct, the gentle wisdom of others, and trust in the process itself. In the midst of my writing block are loved ones, activities of purpose, a good poem, a good meal, nature—all sources of inspiration and hope.

Surviving the Siege

When the usual tricks aren’t working

I thought getting through January was enough. I’d avoided making any resolutions I would not follow through on. I’d read and listened to several books, finished a podcast series on race, painted a room.

Then, the Siege.

Arctic air some of us haven’t experienced before or can’t recall, it’s been so long since temperatures here registered lower than Antarctica. (So cold that the previous sentence doesn’t have a verb.)

What to do when we are in virtual lockdown in our own homes?

The usual tricks weren’t working. I finished a book but couldn’t get out of my chair to fetch another. My office is begging to be decluttered but I can’t seem to see the piles all around. I dare not take a walk, not after listening to the dire warnings on MPR of exposure, frostbite, hypothermia, death. Frightful stories on the scale of news from Washington that were followed by a story of the Arrowhead 135, an annual endurance race of that number of miles across northern Minnesota that 146 people who need a challenge started yesterday.

“If you get a warm year,” one regular participant said, “it’s almost like you got cheated.”

Ha.

This morning I was at my desk, as usual, feeling just a little cheated that I wouldn’t be walking outdoors today, as is my habit. Even through the shades, the room had begun to brighten. It was time to open them, I decided, calculating that the overall effect of sun in (not to mention the lift it brings me) was greater than the draft that would come with it. This is what I saw:

 

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Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, this Siege.

I’d worry about my mental health if I was stuck indoors long-term, but for now, I’m embracing it. Last night I spent an hour in the basement, trowel in hand, planting canna and elephant ear bulbs. Today, a jigsaw puzzle. I won’t ever attempt the Arrowhead 135, but I can see why some people do. There’s something about not doing the usual.

Things could be a lot worse, I tell myself, still in my chair, staring out the frosted window. I could be married to Donald Trump.

Paid in Full

When a house becomes a home

Thirty-three years ago, Chris and I bought our house. We were to be married in July 1985 and spent that spring looking at houses in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood—about 100, as I recall. (Was it a coincidence that our realtor, ever gracious and helpful through to closing, retired shortly afterwards?)

Homes were going fast, often for over the asking price. We’d already been outbid on 2. So when the realtor called me at work to describe this house, which was to be listed the next day, I headed over immediately. Before I finished seeing the main floor, I called Chris. It didn’t take long for us to agree that this was the house. Within an hour we were writing up a purchase agreement.

We moved into our 1917 Craftsman-style house on June 1, arguably the hottest, most humid day of the summer. The A/C was welcome relief as my Aunt Bea and I organized the kitchen while Chris and Uncle Andy set up the beds.

Here was where Chris and I raised our children and had 3 dogs. We added a fireplace, a bathroom, and converted a porch into year-round living space—all without changing the house’s footprint. That had been our intention from the beginning, to preserve the integrity of a modest, well-built house.

A neighbor told us that there had been tires in the front at one time, and that the house itself had been neglected. The yard was a blank canvas. Over the years, Chris put in a patio, regraded the back yard, grew vegetables, and was a mostly willing partner when I wanted to add one more flower garden.

The only addition we made that likely won’t increase the value for the future owner was a growth chart on the door frame by the back entryway. In pencil, Chris marked our children’s height over the years. I forget it’s there, only to notice it on occasion, coming and going.

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My heart fluttered recently when I logged on to my Wells Fargo account and saw those long-awaited words: “Paid in Full” next to the mortgage balance. The house was finally mine! I thought.

But hadn’t it always been ours? The moment we were given title to the property, this house became the epicenter of our lives. A child was born here, a husband died. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries were celebrated indoors and out. We entertained friends and read books in front of a fire. We puttered at our hobbies. We teased each other. We discussed politics and our  nonprofit work. We planned vacations. We faced health challenges and celebrated new jobs.      We saw the kids off to elementary school, then high school, college, and the world.

Some days the house feels too big, the upkeep too much. Some days I’m ready to move. But the echoes in every room and the accumulation of memories far outweigh the effort that goes with owning a home. Besides, is a house an effort when it holds the history of a family, a history that is important to claim?

My house is paid for in full. Better, it has paid for itself countless times over as a home, a haven, a loving embrace.