During Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I went for a walk, and I wore my very bright, hard-to-miss pink running shoes. Since it was a holiday weekend, when the lake is overcrowded with “trunk-slammers” as my late father-in-law used to call them, the roads were filled with runners, walkers, bicyclists, people with dogs, garage-sale enthusiasts, and drivers on the road using their vehicles as weapons of mass destruction. Because I tend to focus on the latter with fits of anger, it is easy to forget there are also a lot of friendly people who are more than happy to strike up a conversation on a beautiful day.
Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I will stop and have a twenty-minute conversation with a complete stranger on just about any topic. Sometimes a 45-minute walk or run can turn into a two-hour morning event, which is why I usually walk or run solo. When I return from my solo runs or walks, I always have stories for my husband whether he wants to hear them or not. I tell him the latest about a neighbor’s health woes or about the truck driver I flipped off and yelled “f*****” at for almost running me off the road. My husband shakes his head in an all-too knowing way. Yes, I have a potty mouth, and I wear pink running shoes. My father would be so proud, and my mother would have handed me the swearing jar. Sometimes I walk with my husband though, and I try to behave myself.
On a beautiful Saturday morning during Memorial Day weekend, Jim and I approached our local shopping area which consists of a hardware store, bank, grocery/booze store, and a tourist trap that sells fresh fudge, t-shirts, and knickknacks. A young woman, perhaps 30 years old, stood in the parking lot snapping photos, turned towards me, smiled, and said: “I love your pink shoes!” Even her eyebrows were exclamation marks! I thanked her, and Jim and I continued on our way. I could tell people were admiring my shoes as we continued on our Treasure Island Loop, named so because we end up on a dead end road where we look out across the water towards a small island in the midst of the big part of Higgins Lake.
As my husband and I continued our walk, I practically bounced along in my pink shoes while he pretended to ignore my rapid-fire monologue about everyone we passed by. As we rounded the corner near Detroit Point, a very nice woman, perhaps a few years older than me, holding a garage sale in her driveway said: “I love your pink shoes.” Well, damned if I wasn’t forced to stop and talk to her about my pink shoes.
As she inspected them, she told me that she had recently been to an outlet shoe store and wanted to buy some “aqua-colored shoes,” but the salesgirl told the woman she was “too old to wear aqua-colored shoes.” My new friend and I cackled in delight at the salesgirl’s stupidity. My new friend said she would soon be shopping at another store for some bright aqua shoes. We cackled again and agreed that at our age we could wear any color shoes we wanted. As I caught up to my husband, who was clearly not interested in a philosophical discussion about shoe colors, I began thinking of guidelines, masked as restrictions, of what women are told to do, or not to do, as they age: No long hair after age 40 (or 50 depending on which magazine you like to read). If your hair has ugly gray sprouts, dye your hair as soon as possible or you will look OLD. Never, ever, ever wear a short skirt. After all, someone might fall over dead from seeing an attractive, in-shape woman’s knees if she is over 40. I remember walking down the hall with a male colleague at Saginaw Valley State University one day, and a young woman walked out of the computer lab and into the hallway in front of us. She wore low-rise pants and a shirt that was cropped off somewhere between her pierced belly button and her amplified cleavage. As she turned, and we caught a glimpse of her thong underwear, my colleague said to me: “Well?” as his eyebrows rose into very large question marks. Well, indeed. At least she wasn’t over 40, or we would have had to call the campus police and have her arrested. When I went to college as an undergraduate and eventually graduate school, I was a hockey mom, always on the run, and basically wore blues jeans and t-shirts.
High school was another matter. I graduated in 1973, and I am sure a few teachers at Dodge City Senior High probably got an eyeful of legs and breasts as they traversed the halls. In the late sixties and early seventies, we wore mini-mini-skirts, crop tops, low-rise pants, and bell bottoms, and many of us tossed our bras, instead of burning them, as we began to wear whatever the hell we wanted to wear. But gossip spread quickly around my high school, and my wardrobe choice one day became a minor cause célèbre. I made the mistake of telling one of my girlfriends that I had decided not to wear a bra, safely hiding my lemons behind the pockets, breast high, of my dark blue t-shirt. It wasn’t long before I was walking down a hall on my way to class when I felt the end of a finger, like the pointed end of a rifle, roll down my back. “No bra,” the teenage boy snickered, as he ran to tell his friends. By the time I got to my next class, I felt as if I had a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of my shirt. Good grief. Free from the restraints of the horrible bras we had in the sixties and seventies, my lemons held on for dear life as I was continually attacked from the rear. Somehow I survived that day and never told anyone after that if I was wearing a bra or not. As I got older and bras became more comfortable, I felt a little more compelled to wear them. I still hated them, but when I realized that breasts, even lemons, will sag as the aging process robs of us our loveliness, I decided to wear a bra on a regular basis.
Now that I am somewhere between fifty and death, there are some things I miss. I do miss my long hair, and I am trying to grow it back out. I refuse to dye my hair any longer. The money I am saving from not being blonde, blonder, or blondest will be well used for a nursing home somewhere in my future. As for short skirts, yes, I still wear them, but not the really short ones I used to favor. Years ago, a student of mine asked me if I was a runner as she stared at my calves. To my horror, I realized my calves were larger than my lemons, didn’t sag, and were very well defined. Such is life.
If my new pink shoes can help me return my calves to their glory days, then I will have made a very smart purchase. Even if they don’t help my calves, they have already paid off, as clearly the pink shoes are a conversation starter, and the envy of at least two women. So I will keep wearing them as I head out on the roads listening to Bruce Springsteen singing about a “Pink Cadillac,” my footfall in line with the beat of the drums, and my lemons tightly snug in the sports bra du jour, I will feel the wind blow through my short gray hair, and I will try to keep my swearing to a minimum. I will run past houses and businesses flying the American flag, and glide into memories of days of the past, missing my father, a veteran of World War II, and my mother who encouraged me to wear whatever I wanted to wear as long as the dishes were done before I walked out the door.
And isn’t that what literature requires, really, for the writer to feel like her life depends upon it?
I am not certain when I first realized I had a problem with language. Memories six months prior to my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) seem to come and go, and some memories are nonexistent. If not for stories from my friends and family, and the writings in my journal, some so strange they fail to make sense, it seems as if I ceased to exist in mind and spirit while my body lay in wait for embalming. I felt as I was a stranger in a new country, and the language barrier made me invisible.
Instead of displaying the gift of gab that my mother would accuse me off having when I was young, I began hesitating over each word, fearing some dreadful malapropism or simply using the wrong word (like dock) when I was actually describing the hoist. I had to walk on the dock to get to the hoist which held the boat, but for some reason, my brain now found ways to avoid the logical sequence of events or find the correct word. As the Beatles famously sang, “Say the word and you’ll be free.” Well, damn, I wanted to be free, and I felt as if my life depended on it. I began to retreat more and more into my home office, lie down on the couch, and watch television. I became hooked on NCIS and the character Ziva David.
Ziva David’s character, played by actress Cote de Pablo, is a former Israeli Mossad agent who becomes an NCIS Special Agent. Ziva’s malapropisms, called “Ziva-isms,” are well known to NCIS viewers. As Ziva adapts to American culture and its plethora of analogies, idioms, and slang, she also shows her fellow agents that she doesn’t take crap from anyone. As I became addicted to NCIS marathon days, watching five or six shows in a row, I felt as if someone was “jerking my brain” (chain) as Ziva said in one episode. The NCIS family became my family, and I gave up reading books and writing.
Time passed and my frustration grew with my inability to comprehend anything more complex than People magazine. One day, as I stood in my office, staring at hundreds of my books, I noticed Laura Kasischke’s book of poetry, Space, in Chains, sitting on a shelf, by itself, as if waiting. I began rereading her poetry, and when I finished each poem, I sat still and listened to the quiet. I decided I was in language rehab.
Eventually, I began reading novels again, slowly, as if I was learning to ride a bicycle. I wondered if I had finally adjusted to my anti-seizure medication or if the radiation from my Gamma-Knife surgery had opened up a sliver of thought in my clogged head. One day I opened my writing journal, and instead of recording my thoughts for the day, I attempted to write a poem. It was horrible, but I sent it to my friend Chris Giroux. Chris and I became friends when I taught at SVSU, and we had been exchanging our writing for many years, providing feedback, ripping what needed ripped, or praising each other’s work when we got something right. I began spending less time watching NCIS and more time writing. I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain as it tried to move past language rehab and into the real world.
As luck would have it, around the same time, a former student of mine, Alie Buckley, contacted me on Facebook. She had started a blog, http://ifcoffeecouldtalk.wordpress.com/. Alie asked me how I was, so I told her about SBT. She encouraged me to start a blog and share my story. Alie became my teacher, showed me how to start a blog, and offered to read my posts before publication and give feedback. Again, I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain, and started to write for a different purpose: I wanted to tell my story. Perhaps if I wrote it, I would understand it.
I published my first blog post on June 14, 2012, and the process has been cathartic, therapeutic, made me laugh as I write, and made me cry far more than I ever imagined it would. I realize I am writing now because my life depends on it.
I am still addicted to NCIS and spend the occasional afternoon on the couch watching reruns when my headaches or balance issues sideline me. I believe I am making progress in this battle against SBT, and I am hoping language rehab will soon be a thing of the past. But as I have learned, friends and family provide the constant source of strength I need in my life, whether or not I am in language rehab. So if you see me out somewhere, and we strike up a conversation, and I pause for a moment, wait. My words are forthcoming: They are on the slip of my tongue.
*Schulman, Helen. “First In Her Class.” The Friend Who Got Away. Eds. Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. New York: Broadway, 2005. Digital Print.
I have never run in the Boston Marathon or any other marathon for that matter. I have run in countless road races over the years: four half-marathons, several ten-mile races, and so many 10ks and 5ks I can’t remember them all. My biggest concern for these road races centered on one thing: Will I finish the race? Only once did I fail to finish when I suffered a grand mal seizure around Mile 2 and later found out I had a brain tumor. That’s enough to screw up anyone’s day.
For thousands of runners in Boston, their race came to a halt because evil exists in our world, not because their bodies let them down. For thousands of well-wishers and family members, the end of the race brought death, catastrophic injuries, and broken hearts. I wonder if I will ever understand.
Although I have run only one road race since October 29, 2011, I have gone for solo runs and tried to get myself back into running shape. Unfortunately, my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) does not always allow me to train the way I want to. Years ago, when Jim and I trained for our first half-marathon, we would head out on the country roads and run ten or twelve miles at a time to prepare. Now I feel gratitude if I can run five miles, and I am often trying to literally find my balance. Tunes on my iPod sometimes help, but on other days, listening to the contradiction of birds singing against the thwack-thwack of my running shoes on the pavement is all I need. When I lived in Midland, Michigan, people in my neighborhood waved at me or clapped as I ran by their yards. One man offered to let me run through his sprinklers on a particularly muggy day. I loved the camaraderie.
Something spiritual happens to me when I run whether or not I am alone or in the company of others. It is as if I become one with the earth as my feet carry my body along to whatever destiny or mileage goal I have in mind. For the runners in the Boston Marathon, I can only imagine what it must be like for those who had finished, those who were crossing the finish line at the moment of tragedy, and those who were told to stop because bombs were exploding.
I remember watching the television footage that day. Various channels repeatedly showed an elderly man near the finish line, stumbling, and then falling as the first blast erupted. Immediately, people rushed to help him up, and I thought of him as if he were my own father, knocked down by something unknown, even though my father never ran a road race during his life. I could not understand why someone would want to harm this elderly man, still out there at his age, still running, his memories carrying him forward through 26.2 miles, and well wishers standing nearby to encourage him before their cheers were suddenly drowned in the abyss of grief.
We are never the same after unspeakable tragedy. We can only try and prepare ourselves for the next time, and so we run, walk, or move through our days, watching, remembering, and praying to cross the finish line, imagining the sounds of gratitude for our smallest accomplishments.