Twister vs. Temblor

A couple of days into my latest trip to Ohio, I am awakened at 11:30-ish pm by what sounds like an air raid siren. “It’s a tornado warning,” Mike says. I lay there instantly wide awake and discomfited, adrenaline coursing. “What’s that mean – a warning? Are we supposed to do something?” I was already picking up my phone to Google when I noted the large red banner message filling my screen:


Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.

And so on. After marveling at the tracking technology that located me within the relatively small affected area to communicate a dire message, I scramble to find my shoes. Then grab iPad and wallet. Mike lives on the 3rd floor of an apartment building with no basement. Although he seems open to waiting it out in proximity to the two large windows leading out to the rain-blurred deck, I am having none of it. I am a huge fan of apocalyptic thunderstorms, but once the wind starts twisting in on itself like a disturbed cat and batting cars and building into its maw, I quickly lose enthusiasm. We beat a retreat down the stairwell and enter the ground floor hallway, where various persons, singly or in pairs, huddled outside their respective doorways. We appeared to be the only non-ground floor residents who made the trip.

“I’m from California,” I announce. “Not quite sure what we’re supposed to do…” A couple pairs of eyes flicker over to us but quickly return to their phone screens. No one says anything. Mike and I take a seat on a ledge abutting the entryway. I immediately place calls to my parents and our daughter in California to inform them of our potential appointment with catastrophe. I do this mostly to sequester the film playing in my head, splicing together all the YouTube clips and dramatic movie scenes (The Wizard of Oz, Twister, Into the Storm) that are filled, invariably, with people being snatched up into the sky, pinwheeling head over heels with nothing to cling to. You can’t even hear their screams.

Ohioan folks are more taciturn than I had expected. They strike me as more like how New Englanders are usually portrayed, stiff upper lip and stoic brow, and all that. The supermarket checkers are not near as chatty as the ones in my local store. They seem to talk to each other just fine, but not really notice me. Or maybe they do, and they can tell I can’t fit myself in to the local narrative arc. I am not of this land, these swards of unending, undifferentiated green; black, looping telephone wires tangled against mountain-less skies; miles of haphazard strip malls and chili franchises – lord, Ohioans love their Skyline Chili. None of the boulevards run straight here, always curving and doubling back around intervening industrial parks and silos, then running at a diagonal until you’ve completely lost track of direction. Many roads are little more than country lanes, winding through neighborhoods backed by more green thickets and dense trees. Ponds dot the landscape. But the element that never fails to astonish me is the empty land – acres and acres of fallow fields, emerald green grassland, and snarled bushes interspersed between compact rows of Victorian houses, more industrial parks, apartment complexes with open patios strewn with BBQs and bicycles, and lone convenience stores crowning the hills. In Southern California, land has not been empty for decades; when some structure is torn down another, grander building immediately replaces it.

Mike and sit for 10-15 minutes in the hallway, pecking at our phones. We hear someone down the hall state, “It’s over,” just as we receive notification that the tornado has passed. Quickly, front doors open and close, the hallway empties, and Mike and I climb the stairs back to his apartment. I lay awake for a while, staring out the window at the rain, displaced, restless. My body is geared up for survival and resists the comfort of bed, turning and twisting this way and that to find a path back into sleep.

***

On July 4th, I am sitting on the curb along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, watching the parade when I feel the ground beneath me buckle and roll. Like the rhythmic waves breaking onshore behind me, the asphalt has become an undulating ribbon of rock and roll, a subtle shifting of the topography that my eyes can’t quite focus but my inner ear definitely feels. “Hey, are we having an earthquake?” I ask quietly, to no one in particular, not wanting to call attention to what could be The Big One. We are literally a hundred yards from the ocean and any potential tsunami will have its way with the thousands of us gathered for one of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in Southern California. Although the streets run in straight lines east/west, north/south, most of them are closed to traffic within a mile radius for this parade. Thousands of cars are parked along residential streets with no easy outlet. The landscape is flat and unwavering, studded with spindly palm trees that don’t strike me as sturdy anchors. There are two buildings over two stories in the vicinity, the respective wings of the Marriot resort made almost entirely of glass. The Boy Scout troupe wrestling a large flag into compliance continues marching along, though, folks cheering and waving from the sidelines. No one else seems to notice, so I stand and look behind me and note the waves still rolling in, regular and soothing, and I decide it’s not The Big One. The shaking continues for at least a minute, but so many people are jumping up and down, waving arms and bouncing their heads vigorously in time to the music that I decide they could just as well be its source. It’s only an hour later, as we make our way home past open bars with televisions blaring that we learn of the 6.4 earthquake that hit Ridgecrest, some 125 miles away.

The next night I am in front of my computer, watching an episode of Stranger Things, when the earth sways into motion, gradually building its sashay until the leaves on my mother’s potted palms are rustling in rhythm and the windows rattle in their frames. “Do you feel it?” my dad calls from downstairs and my mom and 9-year-old niece and I compare notes: they sense a slight movement, feel unsteady on their feet, I can count a mounting beat as the shaking persists for over a minute. I call my daughter in Huntington Beach (tsunami!) but the circuits are tied up. Five minutes of repeatedly checking Google for an update, we learn this one to be a 7.1, again, centered outside Ridgecrest. The media warns that these major quakes signal an end to a 20-year draught of temblor activity in Southern California; The Big One is overdue. Consider this a warning.

***

On the phone from Ohio, Mike asks, “Quick! Which do you prefer: tornado or earthquake?” My inner geography immediately responds “Earthquake!” It’s what I know, what I’ve lived with for most of my 57 years. Even Moldova, where I did a three year stint in the Peace Corps, was prone to earthquakes, not tornadoes. But there’s something reassuring about that red banner appearing on my phone, giving me a chance to seek shelter, call loved ones, hold my husband’s hand as we trudge up and down the stairs. With an earthquake, one gets very little, if any, warning. Boom hold on – only nothing is stable and the very ground can liquefy beneath you. I suppose we’ll hear each other’s screams during the worst of it. Unless, of course, tsunami…

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April 27, 1985-2019

Today my 36-year-old nephew marries his longtime girlfriend at his family’s ranch in Merced, California, turning a date which for 34 years has been saturated in sadness and loss into one of celebration and welcome. Quite unknowingly, he and his fiancé selected the anniversary of his paternal aunt’s – his father and my sister’s – untimely death for their nuptials. My family couldn’t be more grateful and glad. Finally, a happy ending to a dreadful commemoration.

In the last decade, I admit that the date often comes and goes without me paying heed to its significance. How long can one actively grieve, after all? I was 24-, my sister Lorraine 20-years old, when she died. Given our age difference and the fact that I left home at 17 and was largely out of contact with her until I moved back home at 22, my conscious experience of her as an individual is constrained to perhaps 15 or 16 years of episodic memories. And that becomes an increasingly smaller ratio of my life as each year passes. One of the tragedies inherent in dying young is that one’s persona is forever frozen, never accruing the experiential strata that deepen and flavor a personality and connect us to other people. So, Lorraine fades as time accrues, as she is unable to maintain meaningful bridges into the lives of those of us who remain.   No one can ever dissect, commiserate or appreciate her college years, her serious romantic relationships, her career successes and failures, her children’s unique characters and miens, her pursued interests, abandoned dreams, lost causes, or significant personal triumphs. They were all killed in that head-on collision on a dark canyon road in 1985. (I used to picture her suddenly liberated soul floating about the location, untethered, for months after the accident. Did she know that she was dead? Is there a legitimate case to be made for “knowing” you are dead? I don’t wonder about that anymore. It’s been way too long for her still to be lost, if she ever was indeed.)

My grandmother, Lorraine’s namesake, will turn 98 in less than a month. For the past couple years, because she is open regarding her readiness to die, I do not think of her eventual passing as “tragic” or heartbreaking. My memories of her are rich and robust: I distinctly remember many of her milestone birthdays – 50, 65 (she retired), 75, 90. I don’t think it improbable that she will see 100. Yet, she, too, is fading as time inexorably flows. Her ability to span the divide between herself and her family (all her friends have died) is almost completely constrained. Leaving the house solely for medical appointments, she spends all day in her pajamas and bathrobe, reading in her favorite chair. She will not attend her great-grandson’s wedding and feels no guilt nor regret for not doing more. At this point in her life, experience is passively attenuated, never actively curated. And because of this she is becoming increasingly immobile, frozen in time. The less present she is for each progressing moment, the less we will feel her absence when it becomes irrevocable.

In the end, what do we have of anyone in our lives but our memories of them? Each passing minute, most of them not continuously spent in their presence, describes a growing gulf between us and them. For some, that gulf is only days, perhaps months, wide and is easily surmounted the next time we see them. For others, the gap can lengthen into lives diverged, an unspecified point passed which, unknowingly, marked the limit of our mutual ability to recognize and commune with each other. There are people whose presence I believed essential to my daily existence once upon a time (my ex-husband springs to mind or my very best friend from high school) who could be dead now and it would not affect me in the slightest.

I often ponder how I will be a name that might surface (or not) at Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2095, an atavistic tale told by my now two-year-old grandsons to their probably bored great-grand kids under unimaginable (for me) circumstances. We are all destined to fade away and in the grand scheme of things a life of 20 or 98 years is of equal, unimportant length to those who hold no memories of us. Meanwhile, I am glad to welcome another iteration of family to the layers that lie beneath.

3:00am with Wolf & River

wolfriver

My twin grandsons are two weeks old today. Right now, mommy and daddy have taken them out for a walk so I have a brief respite to record some thoughts.

I know that when I announced my daughter’s pregnancy I fielded many heartfelt congratulations and expressed excitement from friends who already had grandchildren, telling me what a completely different experience it would be from having my own child. “You get to spoil them!” “You can hand them back when they’re cranky.” “You will realize a different sort of love – one not based on responsibility for raising them but on the pure joy of experiencing them.” Yeah – not so much yet. I’ve been living with my daughter full-time as she and her partner make the transition into parenthood with preemie newborns and have been, in effect, functioning as a third parent, complete with bottle-feedings, burpings, changing diapers, cleaning bottles, endless laundry, bath time, and tandem comforting ( mom and babies.) The fact that they are premature puts an added burden of anxiety on top of everything: about once a day one of them gags and chokes after feeding, entailing the need to turn him head down over one’s arm and firmly pat his back. So one must be watching them like a hawk one hour out of every three to ensure that someone is there to intervene when this happens. This does not promote any significant amount of time for relaxation and regrouping.

I’ve had one kid – and I did it alone, without benefit of a husband or partner. I lived with my parents at the time but they were both working full-time and not available to help at 3:00am as I trod the bedroom floor trying to comfort a shrieking infant. But my daughter was full-term, 8lbs, 2oz. She had a fully-formed digestive system and a hearty trachea. And there was just one of her. Once I had her fed and changed and burped and swaddled, I could look forward most nights to a quiet stretch when I could sleep myself. This is not true with preemie twins. The entire cycle of feeding, changing, burping, comforting, and swaddling often takes up to 2-3 hours for one. And by the time he’s quiet, the other one is ready to go again. Most times they are overlapping. I have no idea how a single person could manage. (In fact, the doula who has been helping us says that she no longer accepts twins in her practice; it’s just too hard, she says.)

What has been SO gratifying about this experience is witnessing my daughter transform from a young woman who was accustomed to indulging herself and her whims (yes, a millennial!)  into an absorbed mother who has lost all concern for herself and her own needs in giving 24/7 attention to her newborns. It has been both achingly stressful and immensely rewarding for me to witness her complete metamorphosis: it is so hard to watch her dragging herself from bedroom to kitchen to rewash another receptacle for her breast milk (she pumps in order to provide bottles for daddy and me to do feedings) or change another shitty diaper with bleary eyes in the half-light of dawn, but so heart-warming to hear her murmuring a lullaby or see her kiss the top of a shrieking head. Since her partner is working full-time, it is most often her and I together through the wee hours of night, trying to juggle the bottle warming and burping and diaper changing and gag monitoring; it has brought us into a closeness I’ve not experienced with her prior to now. I am sure at some point I will enjoy all the benefits of being a grandmother, but right now I am reveling once more in the experience of being a mother and watching my child master, with grace and tenacity and boundless love, one of the biggest challenges of her life so far.

Elevation

I’ve been absent from this space for awhile, mostly because I’m acclimating to a new routine and living situation. Sitting high on a hill, overlooking the never-ending stream of automobiles sluicing down the 5 freeway, California sun lighting up floor-to-ceiling windows is a different experience than being nestled down in a tree-arbored apartment in southwest Ohio. The dominant color there is green; here I am steeped in golden brown and dusty blue.

SIlver_Lake_living_room

My daughter Rhiannon is coming up on 35 weeks of pregnancy with twin boys and I have been summoned in support, the first time in more than a decade that I can recall her making an unequivocal request for my help. Obviously, I am awash in emotion. This is one of those life passages so fraught with implication and meaning that one is placed in an altered state merely by their occurrence. Watching my only child soften into the contours of fecundity, I hover in suspended awareness. Time is passing; my role in my own life no longer assumes center stage. This is the future coalescing and supplanting, as it always has and will forever do.

***

Los Angeles is providing a fertile stage for this awareness; though I have lived in its proximity most of my life, I have not spent a great deal of time within its neighborhoods. My maternal grandmother lived just outside of Glendale for decades and I would spend one week a year throughout my youth with her, usually in the spring. As my daughter grew, I would drive up once a month or so from Orange County and Grandma and I would take her to Griffith Park or Descanso Gardens or the Galleria, the same places she used to take me. That was, in essence, what LA represented for me: discrete destinations, curated experiences, little containers of childhood. Now – and especially in contrast to the semi-rural context of Ohio and Moldova – LA has deepened into a complex tapestry, richly colorful, fantastically disordered, and pulsating with life. I finally begin to understand and appreciate the siren call of LA. Energy never dissipates here. There is no quiet. At 3am, the number of cars rushing through those asphalt arteries down below far exceeds those I would pass at 8am on the 275 into Cincinnati. They hypnotize me and calm me, each one a story, an intention, a full and varied life that shoots by at 75 miles per hour, anonymous and discrete,simultaneously acting out my inherent restlessness and holding it at bay.

When my daughter first moved here five years ago I bought her a book, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, that I thought might provide a different perspective on the city where no one, purportedly, walks. Little did I imagine at the time that it would become a trusty companion to my morning perambulations through the many hillside neighborhoods of eastern Los Angeles. Coming from the land of suburban housing tracts, planned communities, and gridded streets, I am delighted by the clapboard bungalows, Craftsman cottages, Neutra- and Wright-designed villas, bougainvillea-draped manors, and wooded cabins that hang off the slopes of precarious canyons fed by one-lane, buckled cement roadways that twist around and back on themselves in whimsical loops.

Climbing two or sometimes three (if I’m feeling really ambitious) staircases every morning is giving me a much more arduous but enjoyable workout than the elliptical machine at the Ohio gym. During a typical walk, I might pass by the house where Amy Semple lived, Anais Nin died, Thelma Todd was murdered, or Faulkner wrote his screenplays; circumnavigate an emptied drinking-water reservoir being reconstructed into a wetland habitat; conquer the staircases that defeated Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box or the Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake; or stroll through the wooded canyon where once the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley line ran. The staircases themselves are vestigial monuments to long-dead contractors – C.W. Shafer or M.W. McCombs – and city inspectors – W.E. Moyle or Rumble – who stamped their names into concrete almost a century ago. They are historical reminders of a time when LA was not a city of cars and freeways, but was, instead, well-served by trolleys, buses, streetcars and light-rail systems. As Secret Stairs tells it:

The staircases were clustered around steep hillside communities near these transit lines…[and were] so much a part of the landscape that developers in some areas built houses that had no other access to the outside world. These “walk-streets”… were set on hillsides without streets or garages. Everything going in or out had to employ the public staircase running, usually, across the front of the house.

Think of that! Houses without vehicle entry a scant handful of miles from downtown LA! And, by virtue of the strenuous effort needed to access them, I imagine, many of them appear not to have been altered or remodeled since they were built in the 20’s and 30’s – a unique and refreshing phenomenon in a city that reinvents itself almost every decade. There is one particular walk-street staircase of 182 steps in Rhiannon’s neighborhood affording the intrepid climber stunning vistas of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Silver Lake reservoir that I cannot imagine hauling a refrigerator up. The houses along this pedestrian alley are tiny, brightly painted, and overgrown with banana, palm, avocado, cedar, and ancient oak trees. I imagine their contents to be relatively spare and carefully curated, or else collected over decades and never changed. One would need to work hard to accumulate stuff in one of these homes: how bad do you really want that king-sized headboard, mahogany wardrobe, or JennAir range? Enough to haul it up 182 narrow, eroding concrete steps (or pay a ton of money to have someone else do it?)

The density and diversity of these neighborhoods enchants me, welcoming places where economic class and attendant privilege are not so cleanly demarcated. Perhaps one of these reasons why Angelenos remain so overwhelmingly liberal in their politics and lifestyles is that they are not able to isolate themselves in a gated bubble. So much of this city is irretrievably integrated, vagabonds setting up tarp tents in the gulches outside the Whole Foods Market, Guatemalan septuagenarians residing in crumbling adobes next to teenaged celebrities inhabiting world-renowned architectural wonders, bilingual preschools sporting late model Land Rovers parked next to rattletrap Datsuns (remember those) in their dirt lots. Los Angeles is a simmering stew of ethnic and cultural variety that fills me with appreciation, having been steeped in communities both foreign (Eastern Europe) and domestic (Orange County) that offered a limited range of predominantly pale hues. I see what the west coast – and LA, in particular – holds for people who have for years dreamed of a broader, more inclusive landscape. This place sprawls with its seemingly limitless ability to contain it all: every dream, aspiration, inspiration and realization, each nuanced individual goal and massive global concept. Energy never dissipates here. It expands, amplifies, and peoples itself.

***

When Rhiannon was around seven years old, Mike and I moved from Huntington Beach to Irvine, intent on escaping downtown sidewalks (at that time) littered with used condoms and hypodermics, where adolescent skateboarders would sooner roll over your toes than cede an inch of their trajectory and the summer tourists made guest parking a pipe dream. We retreated to the safety, cleanliness, and order of a first-class school system, landscaped medians, acres of parking lots and no less than five Targets within driving distance. We lost much in the process. I am glad to know that Rhiannon and her partner are concerned less with cocooning their two sons in cotton and convenience and more with exposing them to the wild and eclectic elements that germinate in the City of Angels. I’ve discovered that my daily changes in elevation offer me a visible contrast of perspectives, how one thing can shift and alter according to where one is standing, the landscape itself embodying the interplay and intersection of life at all levels. And all these stairs are making me strong again, increasing my endurance for the long haul, something I’m going to need as the next generation takes the stage.

When We Dance Alone

I am summoned to the front of the pocket-sized room by a woman I take to be the funeral director’s wife. She calls up Lisa, too, who introduced herself previously as the legally appointed guardian of the deceased, a man I’ve never met who now lies dead in a resplendent, satin-lined casket to our left. The hospice chaplain, the funeral director, and two unidentified attendants comprise our audience. The woman arranges herself, Lisa, and me in a tight, uncomfortable circle; I am facing a large monitor mounted above the casket upon which disparate scenes of animals, sunsets, water features and wildflowers appear then fade away. The woman reaches for the first of three battery powered candles arranged on an elevated table behind us; I recognize them as the same set I recently purchased for ten bucks from a national chain store. She flips the switch to set the wick aglow and then pulls our three hands together clumsily to cradle the candle from below. As ancient speakers only partially concealed by dusty drapes in the corners emit the first notes of This Little Light of Mine, we lift the candle above our heads, hold it aloft for three beats, then lower it between us; she then returns it to its place on the small table. We repeat this awkward ritual with the two remaining candles, singing stiffly along with the cheery verses, before retaking our seats.

I did not know the deceased, whom I’ll call JG, a 64 year-old, neatly coiffed black man with a pencil-thin mustache who received hospice services from the agency where I volunteer. As a recent transplant to Cincinnati who has attended only a handful of mostly memorial services, I have no idea what may be appropriate attire so I fall back on black. Lisa, unaccountably clad in what look to be hiking pants, Birkenstock sandals, and a light green, short-sleeve rayon blouse, has spent the previous ten minutes paging through a sparse album containing faded photos from the 1970s of a young man and woman who look to be in their twenties with a small girl who might be seven or eight, presumably JG and his family. All that is known is that once he had a wife and daughter, both of whom have been dead a long time, Lisa explains. “JG was hard to understand,” she tells me. “He had that loose tongue thing, you know, where he rolled all his vowels.” I don’t have any idea of what she means, but apparently this is why she never learned anything about JG during the time she served as his legal guardian. She visited him only a couple of times, she admits. “I have 57 clients. It’s hard to keep track of the details.”

As the chorus disappears under a blanket of staticky electronic feedback, the chaplain commences his eulogy. Oddly, it is replete with anecdotes about his own wife and daughter while containing nothing substantial about JG. He recounts a remark JG’s roommate at the nursing home made about his snoring; he speculates about a female friend who made a flirtatious reference to his broad shoulders. Claiming to have known JG for eight years, the chaplain cannot provide any concrete details regarding JG’s biography before the nursing home other than his profession as a house painter. The sadness that first cornered me upon finding no family or friends in attendance now gains a sharper edge: here lies a man who danced for sixty-four years upon the skin of this earth, skipping to moments of laughter, bending under burdens of grief, holding fast to friends, celebrating momentous events – a man who was once a babe in his mother’s arms, who attended school and went to work and watched TV and drove a car and married a woman and had a child – yet left barely a trace of evidence of those moments or things or people who impacted him or whom felt the effect of him in his wake. How can that be? How can one live that long, have the perspicacity to purchase an expensive casket and the services of a funeral home in advance, afford a nursing home, keep a photo album and proudly display a Beatles poster on the wall of his room to commemorate attendance at a long-ago concert and yet not maintain sufficient human connections to garner even a small gathering at his own funeral? What happened to you JG?

After the chaplain winds up his sermonizing with a vehement attestation that the world was created in just seven days, yessirreee, our little group files outside to stand beside the hearse. As the O’Jays serenade us with Stairway to Heaven from its speakers, the funeral director releases three blue balloons into the sky. My environmentally-aware self shudders inwardly: I wait for the balloons to catch on one of the entangled threads of telephone lines looped across the horizon but they manage to sail above and quickly disappear, blue against blue an unfortunate choice of color scheme. Stairway to Heaven fades abruptly, mid-chorus and suddenly the funeral director is gathering me into a hearty embrace. (Wait – I don’t know you!) The rest of the group shakes hands effusively, apparently either feeling saintly that we gave good effort to this thankless duty or relieved that the dismal ceremony has finally ended and we can resume our daily grind.

As the rest of the group troops back into the funeral home, I make my way across the crumbling driveway to my car. Pulling out, I note a gangly man folded like a pretzel on his front stoop, nursing a tall boy. A healthy growth of weeds fans the curbside all the way down the block. As I navigate the backstreets of downtown Cincy, I drift into a worn groove of speculation about death: how some get to know ahead of time and for some it’s a surprise; that dying in one’s sleep can be a blessing or a curse; when particulars of geography and health and work and cost preclude the attendance of people who care; why the dispensation of corpses is more important to some folks than others; how notions of reincarnation or salvation or a reintegration with an amorphous, energetic life force or a complete erasure into a featureless void will inform the process of the inevitable. What I don’t know, can only surmise, is what JG thought about death, his own death, and the circumstances that resulted in a pitiful clutch of strangers bidding him a rote and generic adieu.

 

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

– “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne


Barefoot

barefoot
photo courtesy depositphotos

Just now

on an impulse

I slipped a foot out of shoe and

stepped on the grass.

It felt like baby fingers,

succulent green and plush.

And a breeze blew me back to

flat bellies on hot sidewalks,

sprinklers spraying diamond droplets

and ice melting in paper-cupped Koolaid.

I bet it’s been forty years since I spent

a whole summer day

outside

playing barefoot.

Fifty fitness

My thirty-year-old daughter is 5 months pregnant (with twins!) and I can’t help but relive my own pregnancy as she whines about the cumbersome tractor tire imprisoning her waistline. Outside of the wonder of creating life in the provenance of one’s belly, pregnancy engenders an urgent appreciation for the normal dimensions and mechanics of one’s body. Navigating the world with an extra 30-50 pounds of weight suddenly attached to your midsection makes you long to skip, jump, run, and dance to a degree not usually accessible when trying to build a routine exercise regime. My daughter swears that the first thing she’ll do after birthing The Guys (well, perhaps not the first thing….uncorking a bottle of champagne has been mentioned more than once) is slap on the spandex and begin moving vigorously in all directions. Shrinking back to fit within the outlines of one’s accustomed physical space almost overnight is, indeed, a giddy experience, one that can light a fire for intensive activity like nothing else.

Although I never considered myself overweight or awkward as a teenager or young adult, I was definitely not prone to running around with balls or sticks, migrating towards playing fields, joining teams, or sweating for pleasure. An athlete I was not, preferring the vistas made available through reading to the distant horizon of a finish line. But something about being dense and grounded by pregnancy propelled me into action once my daughter was born. I joined a gym (partly, I admit, because they offered free child care, a rare reprieve for a single, unemployed parent) and began the process of sculpting and toning muscles, building endurance, and inhabiting my own body in a manner I never had before. Because I was young and healthy and able to spend 2-3 hours a day working out, it did not take long to realize results. Within months I could do a strenuous aerobics class (oh the 80’s!,) lift weights for another hour, then wind up with a bout of intensive stretching before collecting the child and heading home. One Saturday morning, alone and on a whim, I ran ten miles just to see if could. (Although that was an isolated endeavor, folks; I never did have the stamina for enduring marathon-grade pain.) I felt glorious, distinctly remember appreciating the amazing capabilities of my body and promising myself never to let it slide back into lassitude and indolence again. Hah!

Me at my most fit0001

I present these two photos, taken some 25 years apart, as evidence of what happens when intention strays. That point in my life that allowed for daily hours-long workouts soon passed; I had a child to get off to school in the morning and a psychologically intense, emotionally-draining job that left me physically weary and more interested in accompanying co-workers to the bar than hitting the gym after work. Slowly, the weight crept on, not suddenly like pregnancy, but insidiously, over a long string of years, giving the lassitude and indolence firm purchase by the time I noticed the shapeless, plodding woman adjacent in the windows’ reflection was me. The accretion of pounds and loss of muscle accompanied the implacable vicissitudes of aging itself; the more weight padding my frame, the more recalcitrant my muscles, the heavier my bones, the stiffer my joints, the less likely I was to push myself through the interminable stretches of intense discomfort necessary to ameliorate the problem. Despite sporadic, albeit earnest, attempts to “get back in shape,” I was invariably defeated in the long run by my tendency to fall into books for pleasure, retreat to the kitchen for creative expression, and seek surcease of existential anxiety in the bottom of a wineglass. (For almost two decades, my husband’s and my primary recreational activity was restaurant dining.) By the time I was in my late 40’s I had all but given up. I did not have the energy or motivation needed to mount a campaign.

One of my fantasies of Peace Corps service was enforced starvation and exercise; I would return home after 27 months newly svelte from a dearth of edibles, desk chairs, and motorized vehicles. During the initial 3 months of training, forced to live with a Moldovan woman who subsisted largely on the abundance of her garden, slog up giant hills twice daily to language class, and endure the sweat bath of summer without air conditioning or fan, I did drop some 25 pounds with no forethought or planning. However, the minute I moved out on my own all hope was lost. (See above for the tendencies that perennially thwart me; surprisingly, those didn’t change with the geography.) I think I actually gained weight my last year, having befriended a group of hard-drinking, chain-smoking gourmands who introduced me to the burgeoning varieties of ethnic cuisine taking hold in Chisinau. (When $20 USD will buy you a 3 hour, five-course meal, with alcohol it’s hard to abstain.)

Now, weighing significantly more than I ever did pregnant, I find myself grounded in the Midwest, home base of the chronically obese, where there are more fast food restaurants per city block than telephone poles, gas stations, and grocery stores combined and lard is flavored twenty-nine ways and sold as a condiment. If one isn’t attentive it would be easy to collapse into the hammock of country fries and bacon grease. Alleviated from the time constraints of employment, isolated from the distractions of friends, family, and familiar territory, and suddenly attuned to the accelerating shrinkage of my lifeline, I am forcing myself to acknowledge that this is probably my final chance to recapture any vestige of the strength, flexibility and endurance that came so easily to me in my 20’s. Over the last six weeks of establishing a life here, I have pushed myself to incorporate incremental degrees of activity and allow longer stretches between alcoholic beverages and calorically-dense meals. Just today, focused on keeping the correct form while heaving barbells, I caught the faintest glimpse of the faded outlines of my long lost silhouette. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to believe it might actually still be in there, muffled by time and pounds and lethargy, but attainable if I keep myself on course.

Many of the Moldovans I know are rich in one regard: their daily lives generally incorporated a great deal of physical activity, from working in the garden to manual labor jobs to walking most everywhere they go.  Conversely, exercise is  something most Americans have to schedule into their day.  It’s one of the reasons I have been so loathe to seek employment now that I’m back: I dread sitting on my ass for eight hours every day

Realistically, any measure of success is a matter of years, not months, now and I will never have the lung power or joint support I took for granted in my 20s and 30s. But it’s starting to feel vaguely pleasant, rather than punishing, to be moving. I can climb the three floors to our apartment carrying bags of groceries without panting. I logged two miles in under 30 minutes yesterday (pathetic, I know, but more than I could do six weeks ago!)  I’m thinking when I arrive in California to help with The Guys I actually will have the stamina to do so.  Much like pregnancy, aging is a brilliant attention-getter.  It forces us to notice our bodies, to appreciate the freedom granted by mobility, the range of available activities that begin to narrow and slot one into the category of “old” if we let things slide.

I know I am nowhere near ready to be old.  Here’s to fifty fitness!

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