She’s Not Just Any Old Bird

 Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.

~Sir Walter Scott

Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived.  It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting.  In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together.  Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.

Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.

The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.

Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.

I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird.  From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.

So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.

The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.

That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.

By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.

It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.

Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.

Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.

Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.

I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries.  I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.

Alone With Myself on the Curb….

I was alone; left on the curb of the street.

No more than five or six-years-old, I sensed that they had lost me for a moment, for I was rarely alone as a child, and I questioned the uncertain adventure that was before me. I wasn’t scared, but it was a curious situation for the middle child of eight children. It was odd, and I knew it.

I looked up to the house only about 30 feet away. The windows invited me in with the yellow light of evening, the warm aroma of dinner cooking on a chilly autumn night, the little heads of my sisters moving about; I was aware of me, but were they?  No one called or came out for me, so I let go, for what seemed like a very long time, of the warm blanket of safety that was my family.  My timid, tiny self just stopped looking over my shoulder and decided to stay put.

“Being present” wasn’t a common term or practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and if it was a little girl like me wouldn’t have known it.  But even though I could not articulate what I was experiencing I sensed that this was a rare opportunity to “be where I am” and to listen to my own thoughts. Honestly, in a family of eight kids, the noise of so many opinions and thoughts got muddled up in my own. I could never be sure if my thoughts were mine…or theirs.  So I did what I already knew how do to, I “noticed” everything and decided it was important.

It was a fall evening and the sun was low in the sky, giving the world I knew a golden glow that was cinematic.  The white of picket fences and trim around windows popped with light. The colors of the tree bark richly darken from the day’s rain, fluttering gold and orange leaves released from their sleepy branches, the red of the fire hydrant and the sturdy brick on our northern houses all created a romantic luster of a magazine picture. I was in love. There was nothing I enjoyed more than beautiful images found in magazines and the movies, and I felt some innate need to capture the moment as if my eyes were a camera lens.

Through a series of thoughts about whether my grandparents and parents could remember when they were young, I made this weird little decision, out loud, that this was a moment to remember.   So, I set about the act of observing every detail around me.

I was a petite child, rather meek, and can remember looking closely at my small pink hands as I spread open my fingers in the air with the moody gray sky as a back drop.  I observed that I had my father’s hands, square and strong, but when I moved them like an Hawaiian girl waving her hands to the Hula, I had the grace of my mother’s long slender fingers.  She had once been a hand and foot model, and her hand always looked so perfect in my father’s. I resolved that my hands were the perfect mixture of both of theirs and suddenly didn’t feel so all alone, as if my parents were always at the end of my arms.

The cold breeze on that Michigan night swirled around me and flipped about the bangs of my soft, brown pixy hair (a standard little girl cut in our house) and I watched the silhouette of geese honking their goodbyes as they passed over our rooftop. I could smell the crisp chill in the air combined with the lingering smoke of the day’s burned leaves and dead branches.  My mother was making a simple meal of hamburger, onions, and gravy that was poured over rice; filler-food, for a lot of kids. It wafted from the partially opened windows, and even if no one else was calling for me to go in, my stomach was.  I closed my eyes, my little body wrapped in the natural and home-cooked aromas of the day, and I resolved that autumn would be forever my favorite season…the place I belonged…the season when I was most aware and alive.

I can stillAt Age Five see my shoes, brown oxfords scoffed around the toes (probably worn by my sisters) and loosely tied, below brown corduroy pants faded at the knees. Wearing a candy red cardigan sweater over a polo shirt with buttons big and shiny; I liked to finger the smooth edges of those buttons. They looked edible.  I recall liking that sweater a great deal, so I felt safely tucked into its familiarity that unusual night.  Where I sat on the curb, my oxfords were damming up the run-off rain water as it headed for the gutter.  Orange maple, red oak, and golden birch leaves matted the water’s edge and little ripples moved the fallen foliage to their final vibrant end under the street.  I remember a sense of sadness for their going away, layered with anticipation for the first snow of winter that so many people of the seasons feel and understand.

I seemed to understand the changing seasons, even at such a tender age, as the normal push and pull of life, the sentimental mystery of time passing. Blame it on the movies or my father’s songs; I already knew autumn was bittersweet.

Along with the sad leaves in the little river at the curb, sat three little toy boats in primary colors. Made of hard molded rubber, they were propelled by twisting a rubber band around a spindle at the rear of the boat.  They didn’t go far or make much noise, but they were a favorite water toy of ours.  I worried for a moment about their safety in being left outside, but moved passed it to observe the sparkly pebbles in the cement that made up our street.  I marveled at how the street could be made up of such jewels of pink and pearly-white stones…like a treasure just ignored as people walked and drove over them.

Only minutes passed, I’m sure, but for me it seemed like time just hung in the air like the aroma of cedar and smoke.  Before the urgency of getting called from the house, I took one last look at the pure radiance of dusk and decided that I was meant to remember things. It would be my job, my calling to notice and file away images, aromas, textures and expressions.  I would do this for everyone in my family, because I felt deeply that ‘someone’ needed to slow down and see things; someone needed to remember.

As many young children feel, I believed I was living in the cradle of a perfect family and that my love for my parents and sisters and brothers was unique and stronger that life itself.  I believed we would never leave each other; it was unimaginable.  And yet, something inside my innocent self felt that, just like the seasons, life turned too quickly. It left me thinking there was a great need to approach all things on a sensory level so to record them in my memory for all time.  From the spring time smell of lilacs in the alley, the new smell of vinyl toys at Christmas, the sound of my father’s deep base voice to the look of deep emptiness in my mother eyes staring out the window; I experience the world around me with an acute awareness. From the embarrassment of having to wear bread bags over our shoes inside our boots to keep the melting snow from reaching our socks, to the warmth of my sister’s legs tangled-up in mine on a cold winter night; I experienced everything with deep emotion, as well, and never wanted to NOT feel those emotions. Over time, very little escaped me.

On that day, alone with myself on the curb, I had an awakening and made vows to the God within my soul to see and remember everything that I thought was important. Little did I know then that the trees and colors of the neighborhood we once lived in would vanish, and that the family that was held together with super-glue love would one-by-one grow up and leave.  That I, too, would be so removed from the seasonal changes of my youth, and that I would never know autumn like that again in my adult life.  My memories at the curb were just the beginning of a lifelong need to capture moments with my senses, perhaps for the day when no one else would remember.

In today’s information rich world, choked by an over abundance of arm-chair psychology and philosophies, one would say I was ‘mindful’ or hyper-sensitive. I might have even been diagnosed with attention deficit, since I was so often distracted by my senses as to be called a ‘daydreamer,’ ‘lofty’ and ‘a quiet and shy sort of girl.’ But even in early childhood, though I failed to have the vocabulary and understanding to express what I was experiencing, I knew it was some sort of gift or calling, this intense alertness to things around me, and to hold on to, remember, and recall the details of what my senses brought to me.

No one really cared. In those days, our parents were not being trained to listen to their children or promote their special gifts. I had to fit in, do my chores, perform as well as my sisters in school, sit down, shut up, and get to bed! My parents certainly gave me a rich life of music, stories, and nature, but I think they were much too busy just providing for us to single anyone of us out and give us ‘extra’ attention. We would have to do that on our own.  I often wondered if one of my parents or a teacher along the way would have seen this intense perception in me, particularly this sensitivity to the natural world, how I placed value on them and connected them to some sort of quality of life; if they would have encourage me to write or express myself through art, what creative things would have sprung forth?

Instead, I have lived an ordinary life, restricted by conventions and low expectations and my own choices to shelf my sensory perceptions and memories, to be dealt with ‘some other day.’ Babies to raise, bills to pay, traffic to dodge, people to please; with no encouragement or acknowledgement of any special gifts; I grew up and into what society expected and was quieted by self doubt.

I felt guilty if I shared my perceptions, indeed wrong if I dwelled too often on them. Heavy company, overly dramatic, moody, distractible, highly emotional, too intense; these are the things I’ve been called. Many times, all bottled up inside myself, I just felt like I was crazy.

But, I wasn’t. I know that now, fifty years later. I was born with sensitivity, intuition and the ability to see how fine details affected the bigger picture and people’s emotions; the kind of gift that leads to a highly creative life, if nurtured. It wasn’t nurtured, so it didn’t flow or grow. I let down that little vow-maker on the curb, and I am sorry for that. She was my authentic self and over the years I betrayed her, disguised her to be something else, quieted and shelved her to the demands of other people and voices that discredited her. I was afraid of her.

Authenticity, though, doesn’t go away. When autumn comes to South Texas, I see things that people who have lived here all their lives don’t see. And I remember the detailed dramatic autumns of my youth, like a memorized movie running in my head. I am still at the curb, taking in every aroma and sound, only now I am not listening for anyone to ‘call me in.’ I am aware of me, and it no long matters if anyone else is. I am alone and letting the remembering flow like the water along the leaf strewn gutter…cluttered, rippled, and dotted with colorful objects. The only one who is calling is that little voice inside me, wondering when I’m going to respond.

Perhaps my five-year-old self understood something that took me years to comprehend, when she proclaimed that ‘autumn’ is my favorite season, when I am most alive; the place I belong. Not in the way of ‘time in the year,’ necessarily, but more in the way of life’s cycle. Spring and summer were too busy and binding for the little girl on the curb, and winter is yet to unfold. Autumn would be the place where my own dramatic changes would unravel and become revealing with images and memories flowing like the stream at my feet and sparkling like the road that no one noticed and just trend upon. Seasonality is not only choice for me, it’s a gift; an ability to see the beautiful struggle of changes, its entire splendor from life to death, and not only embrace it but yearn, indeed ache for it.grainy half face colored eyes

The poets and artists have always known that autumn is the most romantic and memory-inspiring time of the seasons, when trees can no longer keep their leaves and must let go, the shadows grow long, the light is illuminating, and when the changing air sends a little shiver down our sweatered spines.  As I let go of youth, the tyranny of convention and obligation, and the privilege of time, so it is that autumn has become my most vibrant season of all. I am most certainly in the season of change, awakened and alive; where the little girl on the curb knew I was meant to finally ‘be present.’

I Was Hungry!

Recently I read an endearing love story about two older people who found meaningful companionship late in life, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” by Eve Pell for the New York Times.

The lovers in this story were not beautiful middle-aged movie stars.  She was in her 70s and him in his 80s with rich histories when they married, after two years of dating.  They shared a love of ‘running,’ among other things, and the wisdom in this memoir spilled out in a kind of realistic fairytale fashion; even death was tender and triumphant. It gave me a hopefulness that more love is always possible even as I age, but also a faint recollection of my youthful days of ‘running’ crept into my thoughts. I remember that free-spirited time before the limits of self-consciousness stopped me, when I could run like the wind without any thought of physical damage or being ‘too old’ to run.  Like love, it was empowering, and it was mine, and on so many levels, it seems to be gone.

Mid-life has made me come face to face with so many truths and untruths. Decisions and actions seem more urgent; there is no more time left to waste. One of the realities that I have grappled with for years is my addiction to eating. Food has nourished my mental ups and downs, soothed and satisfied, but has also numbed me into believing I don’t have the right or ability to fill myself with other, more meaningful things.  Throw ‘age’ into the mix and easily gained weight, and what used to calm and excite, now is just my death sentence. With mid-life also comes self-examination.  I can remember exactly where love shifted and when my hunger to run, to move, to feel strong turned to that base hunger that we all understand; to eating.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was long-legged and awkward, but the fastest ‘girl’ runner in my grade at Wellington Elementary in Roseville, Michigan. As it was Bob Nichols, the fastest boy in my class, was my heart’s desire. I can’t recall what I liked about Bob, except that he was tall and relatively good looking. Lots of girls liked him. I suppose he was the most popular boy in the sixth grade and normally wouldn’t have looked up from the slushy pea-gravel of the school yard to take a second look at a nervous girl with blue winged-tip glasses like me, but he did. I kind of felt like maybe we were connecting through our love of racing.  Every day that year at recess, we flirted in a competitive way and threaten to race each other. I couldn’t hold my body up long enough to swing one arm passed the other on the monkey-bars, the merry-go-round made me puck, and let’s not even talk about climbing the dreaded ‘rope,’ but I was a swift runner.  As long as I kept running, I had this ‘thing’ with him, this undivided attention; it was motivating.  At last, one muddy spring day, it happened.  We were all happy to be out of our boots and jackets, the air was sweet with lilacs and budding trees, and a race was planned. All the sixth graders gathered in a long line just past the metal playground equipment, and I was at the starting line with Bob, my dreamboat. I really wanted to make-out with him, but I raced him instead.

Bob was the favorite, so I knew the crowd was cheering for him as it increased in volume and excitement.  I had a couple of die-hard girlfriends giving me encouraging yelps, both as unpopular and awkward as myself. I was so consumed with impressing Bob, that I really don’t remember much of the race.  I just ran, flush-faced and lacking in technique, the noise of our cheering classmates was deafening and with a sort of tunnel vision, all I could see was the finish line. I won, just by an arm’s length, but that was enough.  The roar of the crowd died down to a hush as I crossed the finish line. It was clear no one wanted me to win. Bob was comforted by a group of future cheerleaders on the side lines as he walked away defeated. After that fatal show of physical prowess (on my part) he never really talked to me again. The sixth grade lingered on with sleepy algebraic mornings and long lecturing afternoons until we were all off to our summers and separate middle schools. I never saw Bob again. We moved away at the end of my seventh grade year, and though that day would not be my only lesson in the fragility of the male ego, it was certainly the first. I was just happy to go home and have my after school treat of crackers and sweet milky tea.

I loved to run probably as much as any kid. I didn’t think much of it or that I would ever lose the initiative to start moving my body down a road at a faster and faster pace. I also liked to dance and ride my bike; I had no great passion for the sport of running. But, I did enjoy the thrill of the race, the competition, and the win.

As it turned out, I was to play out this same scene again on a different scale a little more than a year later.  My grandpa belonged to one of those male fraternity lodges; you know where secret handshakes, pledges, and the wearing of some type of hat with horns was the rule of the club. It was the Elks Club, I believe, and every year they had a summer picnic somewhere off 12 Mile Road where the city seemed to turn into country, though I would discover that too was an illusion of childhood. I always looked forward to that annual picnic as a child. Mostly, for the food and games, but not so much the hanging around in the sweltering July heat waiting for my parents to pack us all up in the station wagon for the sleepy drive home.

That summer it would be different. We were moving, and I was about to enter the eighth grade.  I was shedding the things of childhood, coming of age, budding and rosy-lipped, and walking with more of a sway than I did the summer before. I could feel desire well-up in me by just the thought of meeting ‘a boy’ at the picnic. The anticipation made me come alive with confidence. Though I was only about 13 years-old, in my mind I was very much a woman and anxious to experience the kind of great love I had witnessed in the movies. Certainly the possibility of love would be there somewhere between the bowls of potato salad and baked beans.

After the usual unpacking of all of us out of the car (always a little disheveling and embarrassing), I glided through the picnic tables filled with older people; saggy-armed women in halter tops, with that familiar drawn-on eye-brow arch, bright orange lipstick smiles and compliments, “Oh, Archie, look at these beautiful Currie girls,” they would assure my bent-over Grandpa that, somehow, he done good. The older men in their tilted summer hats and seersucker shirts had a need to kiss us young girls and would grab our arms for the lean-in; a tight hold around the waist locked us into those beer-breath kisses. I generally liked the attention and seemed to understand my purpose in their sinking old eyes. Something about me made them happy, and I was okay with that.

But I had boys on my mind, not old men. Disenchanted with what seemed like too many eight-years-old running around, I finally found them, him, hanging out by the icy barrels of pop.  Sandy-blond hair, tall, lean, and tan; he was the one. I somehow got around to talking to him in that stupid teen way, flirting with cut-downs and a lot of flipping of the hair while looking at my shoes. As the day moved on, hotter and sunnier than my languishing-self liked, the sweat trickled down our temples and backs like the perspiration on those icy bottles of Orange Crush and Frosty Root Beer that we held onto for dear life; the tension was building while we were wilting.  Just when the other kids were starting to run for food or games, and he and I were standing alone able to ‘talk,’ we were distracted by the announcement of the races!  Among the usual games of the times, the three-legged race, potato-sack race, and water balloon throwing, a ‘real’ race (at least in my mind) was planned. A 50 yard dash between the girls of my own age, and the boys of the same age, and then, of course, the winners would race each other.

I couldn’t wait for the races to begin. I had still been basking in the glory of my sixth grade win (even without the trophy boy Bob), and had found myself running everywhere down city streets and through the corner fields, racing my sisters (all faster than me and seemly more athletic) and, of course, to school with books and instrument in hand.  I played basketball at school, by necessity in a basketball family, but hated the up and down run of the court, never really getting anywhere except out of breath.  I just couldn’t wait to race across an open field again.

It was an easy win with the girls my age. The other girls were all too self-conscious and plumping out; I dashed passed them in my petal-pushers and ‘five and dime’ tennis shoes leaving them covered in dust. When the boys lined up, I was not surprised to see my favorite picnic boy at the starting line. I secretly rooted for him, as if he were already my ‘boyfriend,’ and my little whispers of love could be heard in his ears as he flew by the other boys. He won to all the clapping hands of the young parents with cigarettes dangling from their lips and the rowdy old men leaning against the make shift bars, with shout outs like, “That’a boy! Yep, that’s John son, you know, fine athlete!” We were all so happy for him, and I beamed with adoration for my new hero.  But then, it hit me. I had been here before. I was faced with racing a boy I liked and knew how badly that could turn out for my chances at romance.

I shook it off, as good athletes do. My father was a high school coach and spent most of his adult life training his girls on eye-hand coordination and focus. ‘You have to want it,” I could hear him saying, “be hungry for it!”  I was running to win, boy or not, and my hope was that he would like me for my spirit. He stood closer to me now than he had all day, and I can smell his sweet boy sweat and the Bazooka bubble gum that he snapped back behind his confident grin. His hair was wet against the back of his neck, muscles pulsating, eyes dancing with eagerness; he was engaging.  But my eyes then turned to the finish line and a look down at those shoes.  No one had ‘running shoes’ back then, and my little pink plaid footwear would not be my obstacle, nor would my romantic heart.

In seconds we were off! The force of desire shot me off the starting line with a boldness I’d never known before, and I don’t recall looking back, where apparently I left him. This time the cheering continued, in full force, even though the girl beat the boy. My father and mother were elated with my win, and that acceptance alone could keep me going for years.  My sisters were jumping up and down with their pony-tails flying in the air, my little brother was clutching my leg; I had won and made the family proud at my grandpa’s picnic. I was full of myself, my own racing heart and strong muscles; I would never forget that feeling.

The boy as sweet as could be, congratulated me and then said he had to leave, with a sad smile. For a brief moment, there was almost a touch, maybe a hug or a sweep of a kiss on the cheek, but his parents called to him to get in the car! I was crushed. As I watched him walk away my heart sank to my stomach, like a girl who would never see her once-in-a-life-time love again. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, that we could do it again and maybe this time he would win. The moment of glory and love was all too brief, too good to end. It didn’t matter. I was thirteen and no one really cared. The Elks Club gave me a doll for winning, which totally confused and embarrassed me. Graciously, though, I held on to it like a grand prize. I still have the doll, a little Barbie look-alike with blond hair in a blue gingham dress. She sits on a shelf among my childhood relics, along with my roller skate key, a  well-loved stuffed animal, some yellowing paper dolls, and painted rocks with the words ‘love’ and ‘peace’ in psychedelic colors from a time when youth was on my side.

I walked away with my doll toward a large pavilion that was being prepared for some other event. “Don’t go far,” I heard my mom yell, surprised that she let me walk away alone. I wandered into the log structure which, at the time, seemed like a grand hall where over a huge stone fireplace hung the noble head of an Elk. Food was being prepared somewhere and it occurred to me that I was hungry, very hungry.  In the center of the dance floor stood three large whiskey barrels that had just been filled with fresh potato chips.

As in a dream, I walk slowly up to one barrel and was overwhelmed by the aroma of salt and freshly fried potatoes. I almost fainted with desire. It was a smell, a taste that I would always yearn for from that day on. I ate one, than two, and before long I was consuming as many chips as I could before anyone could stop me. They filled me up, and yet I hungered for more. My desire to win the race and the boy faded away, leaving only my desire to eat as much as I could. There in that spot, on that sweltering July day with my cheap doll held tight in my armpit and the marble eyes of the dead Elk watching me; love shifted from physical strength, the roaring crowds of approval, and the hope for love…to food.

I don’t recall ever running a race after that day. I grew breast and hips and suddenly my need to pull my hair back in a ponytail and run to win seemed to melt away as summer yields to fall. I plumped out like the rest of the girls my age, not grossly, but nicely round and rosy, soft and inviting and food would feed my fantasies and idle hours. I would run home through the woods, across the little wooden bridge and football fields for the chocolate cake that sat on the counter and my mother’s gravy-laden dinners. Even when I was dating, it was the restaurants dinner that thrilled me most about the date.   Food was safe and it satisfied my hungers, all of them, while love and boys always seemed to dash away in time. Dreams seemed unreachable, but food was just a vending machine away. Food became all things loving for the rest of my life. Though not denied love and romance, education and success, food played a vital part in every celebration and long struggle, satisfied the emptiness of lonely nights and was a reason to get up in the morning when there seemed no other. We all eat, and must, so preparing meals and homemade warmth became a ritual for me, an expression of love, and a way to nurture others.  I’d drive home from work and see other mothers running with their headphones in, sweating, panting, and I could not relate to what I perceived as misplaced priorities. I was planning dinner in my head, finding comfort just in the thought of the aroma filling the kitchen. To this day, a dish of something delicious is my extension of love.

When the narrator of the love story I read spoke of running with her 80 year old husband, at first my forehead furled.  “Oh my, that must be hard on their joints,” I questioned.  But, this was a story about second, no third chances. It was about living and loving life to the fullest, right to the very end. Grace and kindness were not only present in this love story, but so was the thrill of the race and a yielding to those innate desires we all have no matter how old or heavy we get. It suggest that  we can all still listen to that inner aching to return to some kind of simple pleasure, like running down a road, through a field, to home when the street lights come on, and to our heart no matter where it pulls us.

I ran today, for the first time in maybe 30 years. Walking I have done, but when I lifted my knees and feet today to go faster something pushed me just a little harder, a faint remembrance, like a will to keep heading for the finish line, to win the race, to jump the hurdles of time and misplaced love, and just to let go of the fear and the food; love shifted back to that thirteen year old girl.

Whether I win the trophy or not, I feel inspired by this story to leap confidently back into physically moving, to get uncomfortable, sweaty, and exhilarated again, giving me a chance to make the race sweeter as I near the final lap as that inspirational older couple did.  I have a ways to go, with hopefully a little more time on my side, but the race is back on. Urgency has awakened the child in me to move again, to want to win, to feel empowered and free. Mid-life has whisper these words to me, “It’s time,” and THAT reality has been getting louder every day.  I will never run the way I did when I was a teenager, but I do feel the hunger again, hear my late-father’s words, “You have to want it,” knowing now some 40 years later, it’s not food that I want, it myself….rosy-lipped with swaying hips…as I navigate into late-life…believing a healthier me will be sweeter and more satisfying than any food I could ever possibly consume.