Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.
It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.
Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.
Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.
I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.
Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.
Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.
After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.
Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.
But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.
My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.
By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.
I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.
I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.
But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.
Vermont broke weather records last week: my car thermometer said 73° when I left work Friday afternoon, with partly cloudy skies and a pleasant breeze that carried an earthy spring scent—in February. I could be wrong, I speculated to Handsome Chef Boyfriend a few days earlier, and I know there’s still plenty of time for big snow, but this feels for all the world like spring thaw to me. Yes, he agreed, and even if it snows again, it won’t stick around long.
Call it climate change, but it feels more like weather. Winter’s fury’s still fresh in my mind: below-zero misery, the distinctly menacing sound of the heat cycling on and staying on, heart-stopping electric bills in the post office box, and the eternal fight to keep winter on the outside of the car, to say nothing of shooing it out of the house: we’ve paid our cold-weather dues, and if spring wants to move in a month early, so be it. Mud season is a thing of beauty.
Yesterday there was no cycling on of the modern kerosene heater that warms us pretty well in this tiny place. The house was blessedly quiet, with only the sound of a laptop keyboard clicking behind me, a snoring Labrador wedged next to me on the sofa, clouds drifting across the skylights overhead, and aromatic brown rice bubbling under the saucepan lid on the stove just around the corner. Later on we’d throw open the door and leave it that way, just as we do every day in summer: how delightful to enjoy this appetizer in winter, even if it’s only a tease.
Spring thaw means resuming my running habit in earnest. But where it was once part and parcel of every day in my erstwhile Southern life, in Vermont it is seasonal. Some folks manage in the winter with special equipment, but my damaged foot objects. This was a point of dispute between me and my well-intentioned doc in December: you can do it if you really want to, she insisted. I lobbed one back at her: not at my age, not with Haglund’s deformity. I know Haglund’s deformity, she persisted, and you can do it if you want.
It was another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon in Tennessee, who identified this malformation in my heels (it’s more pronounced in the left one), and another who explained why I have it. Sometimes Haglund’s is called the “pump bump” because women who routinely wear heels are vulnerable to it. I’ve never worn heels a day in my life, except maybe for the odd special occasion. I mentioned this to one of my M.D. ballet dads a few years ago when I was still teaching. How could I have something tied to the wearing of those awful shoes, when I never wear them? Well, he opined, you may not wear the shoes, but consider this: you put your foot in that position every day of the week for hours at a stretch.
He made an excellent pointe, so to speak: ballet dancers (and their teachers) maintain this position of the foot more often than not. It’s called relevé, and you can see it here in spades in an examination class at the renowned Vaganova School:
But I digress. My doctor is wrong on this one, and that is that. I’m more body aware than the average Joe and because of my badly compromised foot have exactly no stability on ice, not even on packed snow if it’s slippery. Time and again this winter I grabbed hold of trees to stay upright negotiating the topography of the back yard for Scout’s late-night pee breaks. If growing old is not for sissies, as the wisdom goes, neither is winter in Vermont with a dog.
Nor is the confounded bony protrusion on the back of the heel the only problem: it’s all the soft stuff around it—muscle and tendon—irritated by movement, sometimes angered, occasionally declaring all-out mutiny. I will make your life a living hell if you attempt to stand and walk. It occurs to me I can’t have my foot replaced.
So I won’t run in those conditions, even with special equipment, the conditions which prevailed from some time in December until only a few days ago. Instead I will respect the foot.
But mud! Mud is the perfect medium for running, a thing I remembered last weekend when Scout and I embarked on our first several runs of “spring,” as it were. The heel sinks into the soft, mushy gravel in a satisfying way, water oozing up around it, the shock absorbed mercifully and gently in the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the lower back, while blood courses joyously through the veins. Scout is a perfect running dog, happy to keep up whatever cadence I ask of him. A slow couple of miles a day feels fine for now, with some starting and stopping to honor the foot thrown in for good measure: I’m a good listener and had rather avoid mutiny down below even if the heart thumping up above urges us on.
After the rice finished cooking yesterday I laced my running shoes with Scout circling me enthusiastically. Crossing the bridge over the Battenkill I glanced uneasily at the water roaring under it in torrents, carrying runoff from the nearby mountains; later HCB and I would observe places it has already breached its banks to settle in wheat-colored fields. Elsewhere in our neighborhood the same is happening on a smaller scale, streams ripping through culverts under the roads and in some places spilling over the top of them.
Scout kept his nose skyward to concentrate new smells that surely must assault him like a freight train, stopping now and then to bury it in the warm, wet schmutz on the side of the road below. Meanwhile my foot cried out like a mythical Mandrake yanked out of its potting soil, but I didn’t let on to Scout, only slowing down now and again to shush the pain.
Once home we headed directly to the tub, where a mud-encrusted Scout suffered no pain in his first stem-to-stern scrubbing on my watch. And true to his character, he stood resolute and patient in the soapy water through it all, content to lie on the bathroom floor quietly afterwards for a towel drying and brushing. Scout ended his day as it began, hunkered down with his humans, but sweeter smelling, exercised, his belly full of turkey and kibble.
I know running will never be the same as it was even a few years ago. There will always be a twice-daily regimen of ice baths, and pain meds, and fish oil, maybe some massage, and the occasional Arnica application if I want to keep going. Two things I know for certain: I need to run. And my left hand needs a leash in it. For the time being, anyway, they’re both met.
Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.
But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.
Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.
Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.
A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.
We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.
Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.
Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.
Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.
HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)
The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.
The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.
Updates: I am pretty dang pleased to report my foot issues have not yet derailed this latest big effort to resurrect my beloved running habit.
I told somebody yesterday I’ve learned to view every glorious, temperate day in Vermont as a gift; last week there were several of them, and the temperature once even climbed into the low eighties. Nevermind the snow this morning. On Monday and Tuesday I ran, not exactly like the wind, but I ran, friends—two consecutive days because the weather insisted; I am on week seven of my C25K program and it is going very well indeed, better than expected. To make it work I must:
- Keep on going to yoga, as I do most Sundays and sometimes in the middle of the week.
- Take anti-inflammatory meds, and stay on top of them.
- Use Arnica gel on the foot before I go.
- Stretch hammies, calves, and Achilles, holding each about 45 seconds, give or take.
- Repeat #4 on the flip side of the run.
- Dunk the bothersome foot in an uncomfortable ice bath for 20 minutes when I return home; I usually Skype my son to take my mind off the burn.
- And for much of the day during the work week use a knobby roller on the offending heel while I sit at my desk and write; I would like to think this is helping break up scar tissue.
It’s a shotgun approach that seems effective.
Wednesday was weights class at the gym, which for me is like taking cod liver oil—I know there are benefits, I am not crazy about doing it. And on Thursday my bicycle came out of winter storage for the first ride of the season. The landscape in the photo marks my turning-around spot, close to the New York state border. Friday my bum hurt like heck from the unforgiving saddle, but soon I’ll be tough enough to forego the “butt shorts,” as I call them, opting instead for more comfortable cottony stretch shorts as I do every summer.
Life always seems a great balancing act, and I’m not there yet. I gain control over One Big Thing, only to turn around and find Another out of kilter. Like that game where you whap a critter on the head and then one pops up out of an adjacent hole; I find it infuriating.
I’ve put myself back on a nutrition plan, one that has been around since the 1960s and has worked for me several times in the past. Handsome Chef Boyfriend is participating by default; we’ve enjoyed some very nice benefits thus far, but this particular plan does require work—careful buying habits and a lot of meal preparation at home. It’s okay—I have a trained professional at my disposal.
Three and a half years ago I was thirty-five or so pounds lighter and ripped. And I was scared down to my socks and anything but happy. Now that situation is more or less flipped. There is much to be said for happiness; I shall keep pursuing the rest. Cheers.
It’s track and field season here in New England; maybe in other parts of the world, too, not sure—this is well outside my life experience bubble. ‘Tis also the season when Handsome Chef Boyfriend morphs from pastry chef by day to pole vaulting coach by afternoon and the occasional weekend, true story: he coaches invincible young folk who run like crazy with a long, bendy pole, then jam it into the ground and somehow try to heft themselves many feet up, up, up into the air, and then twist around, and clear a horizontal pole without knocking it off. Sometimes they actually make it.
For about a decade H(PVC)B has been coaching high school pole vaulters; this year he was asked to work privately with an individual student, a talented freshman at Southern Vermont College. There he is, the boy in the yellow jacket, young Isaiah. On Saturday Isaiah and one other SVC student competed in the New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, accompanied by a gaggle of coaches and some well-wishing teammates who did not make the cut for this event which in turn was a qualitfying event for a bigger meet next weekend: the Eastern College Atheltic Conference Divsion III Track & Field Championships.
Being the consummate ballerina, I tend to notice bodies and there were some pretty, sinewy, lean ones in Massachusetts at Springfield College for Saturday’s meet. Being there among them made me wish I’d discovered the joy of running much sooner than I did in my late thirties, like maybe when I was a young college student. But even then I am almost certain nobody could have convinced me to pole vault.
Yeah, not so much.
But I digress. Saturday was cold, gray, rainy, generally unpleasant. There was a lot of standing around and waiting for things to happen, which I have learned to expect at these kinds of things. I parented a figure skating kid and was spared much waiting around at athletic venues, except for one weekend a year at the local ice rink; hat tip to parents who routinely tolerate it.
After an eternity the men finally had the so-called runway and “pit” at their disposal for practice vaulting ahead of the actual competition. And for the record, it is not really a pit; it’s a bunch of really big, squishy mats, and there are not enough of them in my humble opinion.
Isaiah had a couple of iffy practice vaults, and took a bad spill off the mats after one of them, injuring his shoulder. The track felt slippery to me (I can’t say whether it was actually slippery, but I did hear some grumbling about it from some of the athletes). And the ballerina in me wanted to put warm clothing on these kids while they stood in the long queue awaiting their turn. Some of Isaiah’s competitors walked in front of me when I was attempting to capture one of his practice vaults, and so I only caught a couple of awkward shots:
Pole vaulting is nothing if not awkward, though. And it was just one of those kind of days. Kids were falling all over the place—Isaiah was hardly alone.
When I could no longer feel my fingers I finally took my leave of the track meet and headed to the student union across the street for coffee. And as fate would have it, I missed Isaiah’s moment, the one we had been waiting for (not to worry: Coach Chef was there). Turns out on his third and final vault Isaiah not only cleared the horizontal crossbar, but cleared it by a mile, only to inadvertently knock it loose with his foot on his way down. He narrowly missed qualifying for next weekend’s big event.
It was a bitter pill for young Isaiah to swallow. And so it goes—we’ve all been there. It is another little chink of mortar to add to the bricks that compose us and make us interesting, small consolation when we’re in the moment. Chin up, Isaiah, it is but a blip on your timeline. At least, that is what my mom used to tell me when my lower lip was scraping the ground: life goes on and you do your best to make lemonade of lemons.
A long-awaited visit to Berkshire Mountain Bakery finished our Saturday. This interesting little place took the spotlight in one of four episodes in food writer Michael Pollan’s wonderful documentary series called Cooked. I think it is fair to say I am a Michael Pollan afficionado, even if I do not practice his food philosophy completely and earnestly all the time. But I appreciate his comprehensive knowledge of food history and love that his message about healthy eating is rational, never shrill.
The thing to distinguish the bread at this particular bakery is the absence of leavening—baker Richard Bourdon uses fermentation and ancient baking practices to create a product that is ostensibly good for the gut, even for folks with gluten intolerance. (You can watch the series on Netflix, and I enthusiastically recommend it—even if you have no interest in the underlying healthy food ethic, the documentary is thoroughly entertaining, as is Pollan’s narrative.)
Turns out the outlet in Pittsfield, where we had dinner, was just that—an outlet. It was not a bakery as we expected. So the atmosphere left much to be desired. But the product was every bit what we hoped for and more.
We left loaded down with a bunch of bread, thinking we’d make it last. We will not. And so it seems routine visits down to Pittsfield, Massachusetts will be part of our still-evolving landscape.
That’s some pretty dang good lemonade.
Not many weeks ago I took the first uncertain steps to resume running after an injury interrupted a many-years-long stint; I wrote about it here. I have a new pair of running shoes to prove it, hard-won shoes begat by the sweat of my own brow and a little research, and a long drive to a neighboring state.
In the intervening days and weeks I have undertaken a running regimen one of my colleagues reviewed for an online publication. It’s aimed at folks who are athletic slugs with a keen desire to exercise, but without effective strategies for starting and sticking with it. The typical scenario of failure, as the program’s creator describes it, is resolving to run, and then over-reaching the first time out, soon throwing in the towel when the body balks.
That does not describe me. I am the runner who once started each day with a quick swig of water, a leashed dog or two, and then covered no fewer than four or five miles at a respectable clip before the sun had fully breached the eastern horizon. I remember the first time I ever tried this, tiptoeing out the back door a few minutes past five a.m., opening a squeaky iron gate quietly as I could to keep from waking the neighbors, stepping off the curb onto the chilly pavement with two eager Siberian Huskies whose excited breath showed in the amber light of the street lamps. The only sounds were the dogs’ toenails against the pavement, the occasional soft clinking of their tags, and our collective breathing. Somehow I did this crazy thing again the next day. And the next, and for many, many years, with different combinations of family dogs. I came to love this hour that was sometimes the only peace in my day.
We were so easily spooked in those early mornings by whatever we imagined lurked in the shadows of neighborhood trees and hedges. (Human or canine, the mind plays sinister tricks on itself in the darkness.) Out on the main road rolled newspapers sailed over the top of the paper carrier’s car in the darkness, each one set aloft by his expert arm but still landing with a quiet thwap in one driveway and then another (this action sometimes evoked a low growl in the dogs); we could hear baritone radio voices muted inside passing luxury sedans pointed towards the big teaching hospital just across the river, the doctors on call starting their rounds; we could smell other people’s toast and coffee; more than once skittish urban foxes and coyotes crossed our paths; finally we witnessed the street lamps flickering off as daylight overcame dawn. Each day my dogs and I watched the neighborhood wake up; by the time we arrived back home they were tired out, our own house was stirring, there was a child who needed to be gotten up and readied for school, breakfast to be made, schedules to follow. My quiet time for the day was over.
This lifestyle continued unchecked for years and I honestly believe brought me a measure of sanity I could derive from nothing else. But soon after I moved to Vermont for a new teaching position, and shortly before I lost my beloved German Shepherd Clarence in early 2014, chronic posterior tibial tendonitis forced me into running retirement. It’s a mouthful but mainly describes inflammation in the muscle and its associated tendon that reaches down from the calf and wraps under the heel by way of the ankle bone on the inside of the leg. Mine is painfully distended and swollen in the region of the heel itself near the attachment, and behaves badly most of the time. It does not respond well to stress, which would include long distance running. It does not take a shining to classical ballet, either, and one movement in particular, called relevé (think calf raises)—a movement that occurs many, many times over the course of a single 90-minute ballet class—is particularly aggravating. And of course it does not respond well to the other kind of stress, either—the emotional kind.
Add afternoons of teaching ballet class for a three- or four-hour stretch (actively dancing and demonstrating relevé and lots of other body-challenging movement), to mornings of vigorous long-distance running, and a congenital heel deformity that adds wear and tear to the soft tissue, and then throw in a little happy weight gain just for good measure, and the body will finally protest so loudly you can’t ignore it another second. Dang posterior tibial tendon: an orthopedic surgeon diagnosed it as compromised many years earlier, but it was decent enough to allow me to keep on keepin’ on. Now it was throwing the worst imaginable fist-pounding, screaming, spitting tantrum. It certainly had my undivided attention, as nature intended.
My foot looks normal every morning but by day’s end is swollen and tight and yellow; it does this whether I run or do nothing, but it’s worse when I spend the day on my feet. Lately it has sprouted new capillary growth I can see just under the skin. But in my professional life now I spend most of an eight hour stretch sitting: this has brought welcome relief to the offending foot and heel. And in the last couple of months…could it be? I swear I could feel actual healing in that foot. The rest of me has felt like a slug, like the wanna-be runners for whom this interval training app is intended.
People rebound courageously all the time from all kinds of trauma far worse than mine, going on to reach impossible training and professional goals. I decided the “baby steps” approach of this little regimen could be the salve I needed to ease back into running again, this time without all those damaging relevés, and sadly also without a dog at the end of a leash. The first couple of times out I was giddy from the old euphoria that for me comes only from running. Other pursuits have stepped up to the plate in the last year and a half in lieu of it—yoga, weight training classes, bicycling in summer and spin classes in winter, and even swimming. Nothing does for me what running does, but I concede some of them (yoga especially) help make running better, or even possible.
Significantly, I returned home from those first few jaunts pain free: nada. zip. nothing. No pain at all, at least nothing outside of what I consider “normal” pain. Rest must have been the thing that was missing, I concluded, the thing all the dance and sports medicine professionals insist is so important for soft tissue injuries, but is so elusive for driven athletes. I finally gave this tiresome injury what it wanted, or so I believed.
Slowly and surely the pain came back.
I’m soldiering on for the time being, nearing the end of the fourth week of the training program and skipping some of the modules that feel silly to me. Last week I researched running with posterior tibial tendonitis, thinking other runners who have the same problem would report the fix: there must be some cocktail of exercises, stretching, icing, heat, or other things to make this work. In truth I have tried them all in the past (and some I still practice), but held out hope there was something I missed.
Instead I found this ominous warning: Stop running, and stop now. Do not attempt to push through the pain. You do this at your own peril, risking permanent damage to your foot, damage that will change its shape and ultimately change how you walk and move. Furthermore, the very instep itself is at risk, as the tendon is what holds it up, giving it the important structure it needs to do its job.
Terrifying advice that leaves me at yet another difficult intersection.
Run at your own peril. Don’t run at all.
There is a particular flavor of nightmare I hate, and it goes like this. You wake up in your own bed and familiar surroundings, and everything seems fine. It is time to get up and start the day. And then some awful thing happens, some terrifying thing, there is a menacing person you don’t recognize standing behind the open bedroom door, or whose shadow just stirred in the hallway beyond. Then you realize, I am not yet awake—this is a nightmare. And you try desperately to stir. You open your eyes again, thinking you’re in the clear, and then that shadow moves again. You are still in the dream, imprisoned by your own mind. Eventually you do wake up and pinch yourself just to be sure, and you start your day in earnest, feeling a sense of disquiet.
Every single morning for an entire year I felt like that, the year I lost everything that had meaning to me, the year before I left Tennessee to start life over in Vermont. Every morning I was caught up in the hope that what was happening to me was only a bad dream, and every morning I was disappointed. Things got dramatically worse before they got better, loss and angst following me right into my new home state, financial ruin, emotional turmoil along with it. I have likened this to being pushed into a deep hole, somehow managing to cling to the edge with only a couple of fingers.
And then I managed to get the other hand to the top, then all ten fingers dug in, and then an elbow, and another. Then one swinging foot found a toehold, bits and pieces of dirt still giving way under it, but in the end the toes won and the other knee made its way almost to the top of the hole.
Daily I reminded myself, you can choose to sink or to swim, advice I heard often growing up in a family with a strong line of matriarchs at the helm.
In the last few weeks I have felt better (in spite of the foot) than I have in the last two years, and not just physically. At first I could not breathe and a couple of times was caught up in comical bouts of coughing that continued over the course of a day. Then gradually my lungs cleared and I felt better. Muscles began settling into a shape I recognized and my clothing felt better on me. Even my head started working better, with renewed clarity of thought and vision.
So here is what I think about this tricky situation. I could die next week, or tomorrow, or today, for some stupid reason. I could keep on battling middle age weight gain with inadequate tools in my bag, and all the unpleasant problems that sprout from that like obnoxious little tributaries flowing from a big, muddy river. Or I could take a risk, live dangerously. It could be a perilous decision.
Or it could be life-affirming.
As Mr. Balanchine said, there is only now. I choose to live in the moment, to risk peril in a new pair of running shoes.
Your body is a temple.
I’m an adherent but lately have not behaved in a way to reflect this heartfelt conviction owing to circumstances and such. I started running about fifteen years ago for several reasons, chiefly to energize myself in the early morning hours ahead of a long day dealing with a difficult child. By 2011 I was running 35 miles weekly with my Clarence-the-Canine, ’til this annoying problem reached epic proportions and forced me into retirement in October of 2013. I’ve coughed and sputtered a few times in the intervening months, but with each renewed attempt to run, the foot has objected, loudly.
There is nothing in the world like running, and if you’ve never been a runner, you’ll need to take my word for it.
In recent weeks I’ve felt some changes in the injured area of my left foot that might possibly indicate healing. (Shhh. Don’t tell the universe.) I spend eight hours a day sitting on my arse in front of a computer, and it could be this was precisely the pathway to health I needed, without fully admitting so: I would not have gone down that road willingly otherwise.
Mild weather has urged me and everybody else in these parts outdoors to indulge. Two weeks ago I bought a pair of running shoes that people who share this particular foot problem I have, swear by. Something about “give” in the area of the heel that does not aggravate it—I am still unsure exactly why it’s so special, but if the price tag is any indicator it sure as heck better be. Anyway, at this point in time I would pay a king’s ransom for the privilege of running again; I am okay with short, slow runs, happy to allow others more fleet of foot pass me by like I’m standing still.
Today was the day.
The early spring Battenkill River is flowing full and beautiful right now, a far cry from about this time last year, when there was still so much ice everywhere after the winter from hell. Mud season has pretty much come and gone, and River Road—where I’ve run in the past, and also ride my bike—is just about perfect right now.
The early spring this year is simply stunning. Little streams that feed the river are flowing at full tilt; sound byte at the bottom. Today could not have been more glorious. I arrived back at the car pink-cheeked and positively giddy, and significantly, pain free. The only thing missing now is a leashed shepherd in my right hand.
Spring has never felt more welcome. And as sure as it has felt like spring for the past week we are evidently in for 50s, clouds and rain for the next. It’s okay by me: there is no snow in the forecast, and I have noted very definite signs of thickening in the tips of the tree branches. Tender green shoots are poking up through the ground everywhere, and soon everything will explode.
The theme around here continues to be balance. There has been some progress, a bit of failure. Last Monday I foolishly decided I’d repeat my Saturday run after work. It was a beautiful afternoon, perfect weather. Anterior tibialis and hammies cared not one jot and screamed and cried like big babies. Still, a four-mile walk was better than a no-mile walk. I continue to work like crazy at the gym most days after work, pushing myself further in yoga, and actually increased my weights in Pump You Up class last week (my moniker, not theirs).
In spite of allowing myself to slip some in recent months, I am seeing and feeling palpable progress now. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I went for a run together yesterday, and it was absolutely delicious. We were also charged by a bull protecting his womens, true story. Good thing there was a fence separating us; adrenaline flowed nonetheless—that was a first for me (the bull, not the adrenaline). The communication was very clear: get the hell away from the cows, they are mine. I still love hollaring hello to all of them. It’s my turnaround spot, a high point of the route. As is a sign reading “Aflac was here,” posted in some woods on the edge of swamp where the Battenkill backs up; we have no clue, but somebody has a sense of humor.
Last night HCB made a beautiful dinner, planned ahead of time, to go along with North By Northwest, also planned. I managed to work a reference to the movie into some writing at work not long ago. That got me thinking about the movie, which is why it was on our radar. HCB observed during an opening scene how different it would look and feel if it were shot today, because nobody cares about grooming and couture anymore. I tend to agree; we’re pretty dang sloppy as a society.
Meanwhile, a failure. I have not kept up with my friend Rebecca’s reading challenge. I am still on the March book and should be halfway through April’s by now. At least I am reading.
It is spring. We have had a lovely weekend doing projects around the house, inside and out. HCB has already cleaned up the tiny garden patch, which you can see in the middle of this photo, a tree limb defining its edge. Last year that tiny piece of earth yielded quite a lot of veg—more than you might imagine. Also note the stream at the bottom. It normally flows across the driveway, but HCB has been working hard in recent days to divert it: lots of digging and soil schlepping. (The man cooks, coaches pole vaulting, knows how to juggle, and moves the earth. What next?)
And here is a rare, sanctioned, photo of HCB, who is incredibly camera shy.
Yes, mowing leaves to mulch them and get the yard looking more like a yard again. Still so much to do before the work day arrives early tomorrow morning. And so much on my mind: ballet, writing, more writing, parenting, influential people, unstable people and personalities, people to avoid, people to love. Stories waiting to be told.
Next weekend we get to hang out with some friends over in Cambridge, NY. Looking forward to that. And the continuing search for balance.
Winter stubbornly hangs on up here in these parts long after spring has sprung elsewhere. I’m getting used to it. I think a sure sign of that is worrying less about weather and lately thinking more about finding balance. Not to get all philosophical about it, but I really do try: work, play, food, exercise, rest—both mind and body—forming new friendships, being part of a new family and all the challenges that entails, somehow finding time for myself, and time for me and Handsome Chef Boyfriend to be a couple, and spiritual life. And of course to hold myself to the highest possible standards in all of it. I’ve been going to the gym since I started my new job in January. Giving up running a year ago was hard enough, leaving the ballet world robbed me of the rest of what was keeping me mobile. At the gym I’m attending various classes: one of them can’t make up its mind what it is (a “fusion” of Tai Chi, yoga, and Pilates), Vinyasa yoga, and also a weight lifting class (yes, really: I call it “pump you up” class, but at the gym it has another fancy name).
Yoga resonates with me the most. We work on physical balance in that class, and it is a huge challenge for me: I’ve been trained my entire life to work in external rotation at the hips, but yoga is all about parallel. Forget about it. The other challenge is the guided meditation at the end of class. I know we are supposed to be in the moment, and not allow the day to intrude, and imagine things like flat horizons and layers of stratosphere while we listen to soothing, Eastern music (what a friend’s dad used to call “that goddamn California music,” which always makes me giggle). I stink at reflection and meditation. What I think about instead is, Glad that’s over because my hamstrings hurt like heck, my nose itches, I’m thirsty, and I need to pee: are we done yet? In the end, I can’t take myself seriously enough to be a good practitioner of Vinyasa yoga, but I love what the class does for me, just the same. Today I bravely struck out on a (wait for it) run. First time in a year. There will be hell to pay for it. But there is nothing like a long run to clear the head, after terms like posterior tibial tendonitis and pain insinuate themselves into the meditation of the morning. Yes, it is meditative. Like yoga is supposed to be.
I was outside for an hour and a half this morning. I thought about the Battenkill River, which followed me the whole way, how engorged it is just now with snow runoff, roiling and roaring out of Vermont and into New York, just down the road. I thought about the vernacular architecture I love and was delighted to see that a barn I photographed last year stands resplendent now with its new coat of dark red paint. I enjoyed chatting with a few cows, one of them reclining pensively on the bank of the river, which made me think of this post Jon Katz published recently. I was visited by a barn cat. I found an inlet where the Battenkill backed up into a small finger of a pond, a magical place where the water could not seem to make up its mind which way to go. I talked to the trees, who are still holding back, not for much longer. No signs of color yet, but soon things will explode. Notably, I missed my dog: I feel distinctly lopsided without a leash in my hand and Clarence at my left knee. True balance can only be restored when there is once again a dog in my life.
Still, this morning’s run was the right kind of meditation and reflection for me. Balance whispered in my ear. It is desperately needed and long overdue.