Friend-Like Strangers

I was thinking about her on my walk the other day, this woman whose name I do not know but whose path I cross from time to time on our mutual walks. I did see her in the grocery store once, but she didn’t seem to recognize me out of context, wearing lipstick and without my defective hunting dog at my side. It’s funny to call her a stranger when I see her regularly, but I don’t really know much about her, other than what the scarf covering her head seems to betray about her health. Several months back, I was happy to see her without the scarf, her thick, dark hair growing back. As usual, we were heading toward each other along a certain stretch of road but in opposite directions, and when we caught each other’s eyes, I couldn’t help but grin and say, “It’s good to see you looking so healthy!” She returned the smile, but then her eyes grew downcast, and she confided that she was fighting again.

I didn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know me. I don’t know her. Even so, I pressed my hands over my heart and told her that I would hold her in my prayers.

I didn’t see her again for months. The other day, as I was running along the stretch where I most often see her, I began to fear that perhaps I might not see her again.

I saw her the very next day. She was wearing her scarf again, but she was outside and on the move. I was with my most faithful running partner (second-most faithful if you count the dog), and I was so delighted to see her that I stopped to hello and chat for just a few seconds. I wish I had asked her her name, but I was too embarrassed. I’m not entirely sure why. There is a real comfort in knowing each other by name, and yet we can bless each other even in anonymity.

Never have I felt more humbled than one evening shortly following Sam’s death – before the “official” meal schedules had been coordinated – when a woman whose name I did not know stood on my front porch with dinner for my sons and me. I recognized her face; our children attended the same elementary school, but hers and mine were all in different grades and classes. She knew how hard it is to get dinner on the table under the best of circumstances, juggling work, sports, and volunteer schedules. She didn’t know much about me, other than that I had been suddenly widowed, and she showed up and offered her own family’s favorite comfort food. Grace personified.

I am resolved to ask my friend-like stranger her name when next I see her, and I hope I see her soon. But there is something about praying for a stranger that draws me into the very heart of prayer. I don’t know her history, the time she insulted her sister-in-law or embarrassed a colleague or broke a promise. I don’t know what she’s afraid of, why she consulted with her physician this week, or her therapist, or her lawyer. I don’t know how her mother abused her, or who her favorite author is, or who she voted for. Which movies make her laugh. I don’t know whether she hurls epithets at her ex-husband, or her kids, or at Jesus, or whether she reads picture books to her young nieces – or to struggling readers in an impoverished school district – every opportunity she gets, or all of the above, and none of that matters. I am not burdened by her offensive habits, and I am not influenced by her status. All I know for sure is that we are on this treacherous and beautiful road together. None of the details get in the way. My judgment stands clear of my intentions. I wrap her in my heart and lift her toward the divine.

On Sunday, I saw another woman whose name and story I do not know. I see her in church, and like my other friendly stranger, I hadn’t seen her in a while. She usually sits alone, often in the pew behind me and my puppy pack of boys. I do not know the nature of her personal struggles, but I pray for peace in our hearts. I turn to introduce myself, but she has left before the final blessing, before I could ask her name.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the prayers of strangers.

Reunion Tour

We girls got together for a reunion run around the Rose Bowl recently. These girls are the women who ran with me at o-dark-thirty for months after Sam’s death, and boy, was my world dark both night and day back then. These running friends paced me for hundreds of miles over the course of several years, through valleys of sadness, anger and grief, up mountains of fear, across miles of joy, serenity and strength. I would say that these ladies healed me, but one of them told me, “The truth is, Charlotte, you were healing yourself. We were just privileged to watch.” I cannot help but wonder, though, whether I would have kept moving forward if they hadn’t been watching.

We had a schedule. Short runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, long runs on Saturdays. We signed up for a half-marathon. Some mornings, depending on the work-kid-life dynamic, there would only be two of us, sometimes as many as six or seven, but we kept on track. Literally. When later one of us was training for a full marathon, the rest of us divided the route into shorter distances, so the marathoner almost always had a companion along the way. A real support team. But life got busy, and our regular morning runs fell by the wayside. Over time, most of us suffered injuries and disappointments, all of us have launched children in a variety of forms, many switched job situations or marital status, some willingly and others reluctantly, and several changed homes. Still, we move forward.

Then one of our number reached a point where she needed companions for her journey. It was time to get the band back together. We issued the clarion call.

The reunion tour was a blast. When teenagers at home no longer find us funny, beautiful, intelligent – or even remotely reasonable – then it is a distinct pleasure to spend an hour sweating and swearing with kindred funny, beautiful and intelligent women. When the septic backs up over a holiday weekend, the grouchy cat shreds another sofa, and the dog develops a neurotic reaction to hearing the football game on television, so much so that the whole family gathers surreptitiously around a laptop behind closed doors to catch the highlights instead of turning on the flat screen in the family room, it is a relief to hear others’ tales and travails of homeownership, quirky pets and psychotic sisters. When one of our children receives an award, scores a win or gets that fat envelope from a preferred college, our joy is amplified by sharing the news with these friends, the same friends who were there for the child’s concussion or his car crash or his heartbreak.

The power of community to lift, to love and to laugh is remarkable. We liked it so much we decided to run together again the next week, but I almost didn’t make it. Primarily for reasons associated with the prior evening’s activity, the get-together of another group of hilarious, gorgeous, witty women, at an equally raucous but slightly more sedentary event – our book group. I seriously considered curling back up in my cozy bed instead of braving the cold, but then I thought about the many early mornings that the girls had gotten up early to run with me.

I load up the dog’s crate, and we head out to greet the morning. There is healing power simply in the act of showing up.

We walk, we run, we pause. We listen, we laugh, we cry. We share stories of disgruntled children bemoaning the existence of chores and our inadequate parenting. We encourage each other through family traumas and holiday gatherings, which are occasionally one and the same. We put one foot in front of the other, some days more slowly than others, but still moving forward. It is an honor and a privilege to go alongside, bearing witness to the progress, seeing each other’s beauty and value. And we’ll do it again next week.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends along the way!

Sacred Steps

There are so many things I love about running, not the least of which is that anyone who has known me for longer than a decade will believe that the real Charlotte has been abducted by aliens based on the appearance of the words “love” and “run” together in one sentence. I did not willingly run until I was 40 and then only because I needed to do something with all the mad that was torqueing me after Sam’s suicide. Running turned out to be an effective method to pound away a lot of anger. It was, for me, my own version of the fast and the furious.

Nearly nine years later, I am still running. I’m far from furious (and I never was fast), so there must be another hook. It’s the companionship of my defective hunting dog. It’s the joy of being outside, the connection to nature and fresh air. It’s the simplicity: I don’t need a court reservation, a bicycle pump or a team, just a good pair of shoes. It’s definitely a sense of accomplishment, and it’s an excellent excuse to go shopping for running clothes, which is cheaper and more fun than therapy.

But mostly, I run for the metaphors.

Every step counts.

I’ve put in a lot of distance since I took up this awful sport. I’m physically stronger, more emotionally balanced, and I have a drawer full of running tights and tanks. Running is hard. So is grief. But there’s an alchemy in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Running away doesn’t solve problems but running as a means of facing into the pain of loss is empowering. The steps need not be quick; a plodding, methodical gait just as surely brings me closer to healing as a blistering pace. In fact, the slow, deliberate steps are themselves the very evidence healing, because they demonstrate that I am not stuck. Inertia is not holding me back. I shift my energy from hurt and anger toward peace. Movement is success.

And there’s more good news. As my physicist father says, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So off I go.

It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up.

Every time I lace up my shoes, leash up the dog and head out the door is a victory. It doesn’t matter whether I go around the block or the Rose Bowl, how fast I run, or how long I spend on the trail. Life has a way of dishing out stops and stalls in myriad forms – injuries, inclement weather, doubt, fear, family issues and stray white dogs. There are a million reasons not to go, but when I do, I feel better for the effort.

Getting back on the trail again is not necessarily easy, but it is an option. Not unlike dragging myself out of bed in those early days of suffocating grief. A running habit is a practice in resilience. I rarely regret making the choice to get out and run, because it means that I have not been defeated, not today.

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

I never believed it possible to find enjoyment in the process of running. Honestly, do runners appear to enjoy the process? After many miles under my belt, I can say with a straight face that I have become an enthusiastic, if untalented, runner. Getting out and moving is joy incarnate. It’s a meditative time, a space for reflection and place to stretch. Maybe I’ve just become serotonin and endorphin addict. Maybe I’ll reward myself with a new pair of running shoes. There are worse things.

There are also the vistas and wildlife. I live in the foothills above Los Angeles, and I never tire of the way the morning light falls on the mountain terrain. The sunrise brings possibility. An early run is a great way to connect with the energy of a new day.

For the most part, our local wildlife consists of deer, song birds, harmless lizards and small rodents. I have, however, seen more coyotes than I care to count and had a few unfortunate encounters with leashless dogs. Mercifully, I have only seen our local bobcat safely through the kitchen window or posted on FaceBook. Not counting the suit in the Audi, the least civilized animals I engage on my run are my own native jealousy, resentment and endless chatter, and those beasts get quiet and calm in the course of a long run.

Life is a series of ups and downs.

True enough. There are no flat routes around here, unless you’re inclined to run around the high school track ad nauseum. Which I’m not. I’d rather sport neon orange and head for the hills. Which is to say, I’d rather fall in love and run the risk of loss and heartache.

Life’s road trip brings incredible joy and great sorrow, torrential rain and sunny days. Some miles are faster, some slower. Some hills are steep and slippery, some a long, gradual climb. You can call them opportunities, challenges or butt-kickers. Which makes it all the more satisfying when I stand at the top, inhale and smile. It’s not without its hazards, notably the shiny, black Audi careening past at breakneck speed, but I’m not bitter.

It gets easier.

It doesn’t, actually. The first mile always hurts. Every single run. But the second mile is easier than the first. Usually. Sometimes it’s worse. Runs can go that way.

It will get easier and it will also get harder, but somewhere along the road I get stronger. In any event, my story has not ended yet. My favorite variation of the It will get better/All will be well/Don’t give up encouraging theme is “Hang on little tomato.” The image of a little red tomato holding persistently to a green leafy vine, waiting for the clear blue afternoon amuses me no end. I can almost smell the sunshine on the vine from my childhood vegetable garden. The sunny someday is a hopeful path. True, I enjoy the days when the running is easier, but I keep running even though the course is challenging. I am hanging on.

We are all connected.

Years ago, I started running with a group of intrepid ladies who hit the trails together in the early hours of the day. With kids and work and other of life’s interventions, our schedules rarely align these days, but even when I go by myself, I don’t feel alone. It is nearly impossible to get out into the day without running into somebody I know in my stomping grounds. My community of runners is omnipresent, including friends, strangers and bloggers. We run down dreams and renegade children. We wave at each other and our rescued canines. Even if we don’t know each other’s names, we are companions on the journey.

I often have fortuitous meetings with people I know along my path. An impromptu conversation with a neighbor, a smile and a wave at a generous friend on her way to drop off kids, sometimes my dear husband Tim on his way. He stops to give me a kiss, and I am blessed beyond measure. More often than not, I return home from a run filled with gratitude and surrender. Sometimes even forgiveness.

Keep breathing.

Breathing is key to the whole process. My life mantra applies equally well to a run: “Inhale, exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Running as meditation is my favorite form of the sport. Sometimes I think when I run, which proves to be a great source of inspiration. Sometimes I reach that place where I stop thinking altogether and the mind escapes its hamster wheel. These moments when stillness and movement connect might be the most beautiful experience of all. In this space, I am rhythm and motion and power. I just am.

I wasn’t motivated to hit the pavement in order to gain fitness, achieve a personal goal, raise awareness or find community, although running has provided all of those. I was yearning for peace of mind, which, much to my surprise, I found on a run. The journey continues, and every step toward wholeness is sacred. That is why I still run.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And sacred steps.