Running

To the Man in the Black Hat

To the man in the black hat

walking the white dog

who passed me while I was taking a break

from running in the park,

my back to him as I stretched under the

canopy of green trees

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

whose gray hair hugged his tan neck

while I watched him walk away on the path

enjoying my freedom in the cool breeze

on this late day in spring

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

with the yellow letters that cradled the opening

on the back of his cap. Seven letters that seemed to call out to me,

as if to say: “This is what today is for. This man fought a war–maybe

two, maybe five. Maybe he is still fighting a war

–within–

so you can stand here and stretch in the afternoon sun

with all of your limbs, and no understanding of what it means to

stand on a battlefield–to risk your life for God and country.”

 

To the man in the black hat with the golden-yellow letters that spelled

V-E-T-E-R-A-N

“Thank you.” I wanted to say those words as I watched you walk by,

and I read the word on your cap. But I felt foolish, listening to my pop music

while I sought out hills to climb for the sake of climbing, and you walked down the path, perhaps off another battlefield in your mind.

 

“Thank you.”

 

I did not have the courage to say it then. But I say it now, to honor you, all of you

who so bravely served, and fought, and perhaps died, or lived to tell your tale, or to simply wear your

cap as you stroll through the park on THIS day, the day we call Memorial Day.

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You are a Crusader

The runner’s high kicks in at the one mile marker. My brain buzzes and the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck tingle. I am euphoric.

For the second year in a row, as many as the race has been held, I am participating in a 5k in my hometown: The St. John of the Cross Crusader Challenge. St. John of the Cross. The parish where I spent 8 years of grade school under the tutelage of Immaculate Heart nuns. Where I was an altar server, a mass lector, and a parishioner through college. The place of my brother’s wedding, my father’s funeral. This place holds a lifetime of memories–from what is now a lifetime ago.

My mother asked me to do the race last year. Said I was the only one she could count on to participate. I caved to her request and she missed the whole thing–arriving an hour after the race finished. When she would complain how her other children didn’t even bother to show up, I reminded her that neither did she. “Oh, well…” she’d say.

I have trouble visiting home. For one, my mother sold our house and now lives in an apartment. Truth is, though, I wasn’t sad. It was such a small house–a twin. And there were nine of us living in it. And there was always chaos and turmoil. Once, when I was driving to the nearby mall, I took my son, Owen, who was about four at the time, down the street where I grew up. “That’s where Daddy lived!” I said, pointing. “In the yellow and white house, Daddy?” he asked. “Just the yellow side, Honey.” I said, somewhat bitterly. Mr. Onebedroomforfiveboys trying to explain the concept of a twin home to his son, Mr. Ownroominafourbedroom Colonial.

The homecoming is bittersweet. Bitter because the school is closed–has been for several years, and the parish membership is waning, as well–a reflection of many, once-thriving Catholic churches and parochial schools. Sweet because I see many familiar faces and have many fond memories of the years I spent traipsing back and forth to school, playing on those fields, praying in those pews. The nostalgia overwhelms me. I can map out every classroom I was taught in and recall the teachers as well. First grade, second room on right in the primary hall, Sister Ann George; Second grade, opposite end of primary hall, second classroom on the left, Sister Joseph Agnes…

As I enter the auditorium, I am greeted by many of the mothers whom I know. Several of my mom’s best friends are assisting with registration, t-shirts, directions. My mom is nowhere to be found. She’ll show up late again, I think. The orange glow from the fluorescent lights sends me back in time– to performing on the stage, playing basketball for the intramural teams, attending the parish Christmas bazaars, even winning a pinewood derby for my Cub Scout pack. I move outside to the “playground”; the blacktop where I enjoyed many games of tag, wall ball and ring out. There is no play set–no swings or slide–those were only for public school kids. The once-firm macadam is now rubble, the faded hop-scotch numbers barely recognizable. I pass the steps where the fifth and sixth graders would line up–the steps from which baseball card collectors would toss “doubles” to anxious kids–right next to the “Spit Pit”, concrete steps leading to a cellar, where much coveted cards would be thrown, and some would risk a saliva attack to claim a prized player–a Greg Luzinski or Steve Carlton. I do my pre-race stretching on another set of steps, where I recall clapping the erasers in many grades–I can almost taste the chalk dust in the air. There are times, like now, when my mind plays tricks. Where I feel like I am seeing this through the eyes of a 7, or 10, or 12 year-old. So little has changed around this campus physically, yet, when I snap back to present day, I realize, so much in me–and the world– has changed.

There are about a hundred people at the starting line–a mix of walkers and runners. There is a Mummer’s String Band Quartet playing Dixieland music, and the fire station has brought a truck to display the American flag. One girl sings the National Anthem while the rest of us are awkwardly quiet. This feels like small town America to me, both in the sense that there is the unspoken fear that these towns are an endangered species–swallowed up by all the McMansions and the effects of the recession, and in the sense that there is an abiding sense of hope that good, decent people will continue to gather, will continue to rally, and support one another and live upstanding lives.

The pastor says a prayer of thanks. And then the race begins.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

My latest running song is “Wake Me Up” by Aloe Blacc and Avicci. I play it several times when I run. The beat is great for pacing and the lyrics captivate my mind:

Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start
They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me

So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost

Before today, the lyrics made me think of parenting. How parenting is like feeling my way through the darkness. How none of us knows where the journey will end–or for whom it will end first. The lyrics are almost like a dialogue between a parent and a child–to me–because that’s where I am in my life. But today, I am seeing things through the eyes of my younger self. I am the child, yet, I’m wiser and I’m older. I feel this dance between my selves take shape early on in the race, and find myself switching perspectives throughout. I pass the tree that we planted in eighth grade–thirty some years ago–and think that it should be bigger. I run along the sidewalk where I was once a safety–I loved wearing that neon badge. I see the church spire in the distance, and reflect on how much my religious life has changed in the past decades. How I no longer go to church, or consider myself a Catholic, and yet how I’ve never felt more at peace and less fearful in my life. I may not be religious anymore, but I am spiritual; I feel blessed in so many ways.

All this time I was finding myself, and I didn’t know I was lost.

I hear these words as I enter Roslyn Park–a childhood hangout for sports and trouble making. A woman holds up a sign to encourage the runners. It reads: “You are a crusader.” My eyes sting with tears. I am so moved by this statement. I feel like a crusader. I feel like I have fought to be where I am in my life– to make peace with my past and try to be a good man. To have authentic relationships in my life. To live in the moment with my wife and kids. To be true to myself.

Each of us is on a path, and so many stops seem predetermined for us. I think about what I can control–very little but my reaction sometimes. I know all this, and yet, I think of how frustrated I’ve been the last couple days. I think about my mother.

The other day I was reading a book that described an “adult relationship” with one’s parents. I was completely baffled by the term: A-D-U-L-T Relationship? “Is that possible?” I thought. It mentioned foreign concepts like “boundaries” and “privacy” and “independence”.     I was dumbfounded.

I love my mother. I really do. But sometimes I think that’s the problem. Love confuses things. It can weigh upon a person. And if that love just happens to be Catholic, it is wrapped very tightly with guilt and shame and fear and more guilt. My mother is obsessed with death (for more on that, read this). She cannot get enough of bad news. I have told her this makes me uncomfortable. I have asked her not to talk about certain things in front of the kids –like DEATH–yet she cannot seem to help herself. The other night I invited her for dinner. Here are some highlights from her visit:

Two minutes into visit:

MOM: There was a guy on Katie (Couric) today with no arms who painted the most beautiful pictures. You should bring them up online and show the boys. (My son’s look at their arms, and then at me).

ME: Oh, wow. That’s sounds incredible–but they’re about to start homework.

MOM: And Katie asked him how he eats, and he said he eats with his feet. (Now worried that we’re not paying attention, or horrified enough, or grateful enough for having all of our limbs, she deliveries a tidbit to each of us) And Hayden (7), he says he washes his feet before meals the way other people wash their hands. (Hayden looks at his hands, then his feet). And Owen (8), he showed her how he puts food in his mouth with his feet (Owen puts down the apple slice he was about to eat). And Michael (aging rapidly), he brushes his teeth with his feet, and writes with his feet, and…Oh! And she also had a woman on who was shot in the face and she–

Me: MOM!!! Please! They don’t need to hear this stuff.

Mom: (feeling wounded) Well, you should at least check out the guy’s paintings.

Me: Okay, boys, let’s start your homework. Come on over here, Mom. Want some coffee? …

Twenty minutes in:

Mom: I told you about my friend Peg’s son, right?

Me: No.

Mom: Dropped dead at work. They think it was an aneurysm.

Me: That’s terrible, Mom.

Mom: Yeah. Forty-eight. You never know.

Thirty minutes in:

Mom: (excitedly) Michael, guess who died?

Me: Who?

Mom: Helen Planter (a lady who worked at the school where my father was Athletic Director). She was ninety-three.

Me: Oh, boy. That’s a long life.

The night continues with two more deaths, a few cancer scares, and the latest update on her doctor’s visits. There is also the tenuous topic of family.

My family is a collection of strained relationships. I gave my mom a book a couple weeks ago entitled Make Peace With Anyone. When I ask her if she read any of it, she replies, “I tried to, but you know I’m not good with that sort of stuff.” “What, PEACE?” I think.  I do not think everyone in my house has been on speaking terms since the Carter Administration. Each decade gets a bit worse. Currently, I have relationships with three out of six of my siblings. This inability to communicate seems to have been inherited from my parents. I am sad by this, but I realize that being invested in other people’s lives is not always possible. Again, boundaries. Who knew? My mom tries to plead her case about disputes she is having. “I could be dead in two weeks,” she says, playing the victim. “Any one of us could be dead in two weeks, Mom. Any one of us.”

By the time she leaves, I am exhausted. Pam can see it in my face. There is a weariness. I am spent. I would love to have a nice visit with my mom, but instead I become anxious, angry, and more aware of that funny mole on my neck (“You never know,” I can hear her say).

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As the race continues, I find myself becoming more exhilarated with every step. The air is crisp, and the autumn sun makes the leaves shine with extra brilliance. I come to the end of the park, and look at the field where my dad coached township football. I give a nod to the field: “You loved that game, Dad”, I think, and look up to the sky. I am thankful for a purely positive memory of my father. I feel great coming to the end of the second mile. All that has burdened me this past week seems to be lifting. I think: So, you’ll teach your children to be lifelong friends. You’ll show them that love is not always easy, but it’s always there for them. You will strive to have adult relationships with them when they are grown. 

I am approaching the most challenging part of the course–Grisdale. Grisdale is a monster of a hill. Everyone in a five-mile radius has a story about Grisdale. About soaring down it on a bike, or a skateboard, or a sled. It is steep, and I am about to climb it. Anxiously, I begin the ascent. I am a few yards up the incline, when I see a car trying to come down the road. It seems to be diagonal–taking up most of the street. The driver is attempting to turn, but racers keep moving around the car. I am instantly annoyed. What the hell is this person doing? Bad enough to be driving through the race, but this person is clueless. The driver seems paralyzed. I look at the car in disgust. I am now close enough to see the driver. It is a woman. It is an older woman. It is my MOTHER.

As a runner who happens to teach English, I am constantly made aware of the metaphors that the running life will present to me. This one’s a doozy. My friggin’ mother is blocking up the entire road of the hardest part of the race. She is an obstacle–my obstacle–stuck in the middle of the road. Wreaking havoc and causing panic. I feel my resentment build. But then, I check myself. “STOP!” I say to myself. “Stop it! This is your mother. If you keep viewing her as an obstacle, she will forever be your obstacle.” When I’m wiser and I’m older... I shift my focus. My mom is here, right in front of me, at the hardest part of the race. And she is a sign of support–encouragement. “Go, Michael!!” I hear her yell. I run up to her car and high five her through the window. “Thanks, Mom!” I say. Then, I make it up the hill faster than the year before. The end of the race is in sight.

Having to climb that beast means that I am now at the top of the highest point in my town. The view is expansive–breathtaking. On a clear day, I could see Philadelphia from here. I charge down the hill and round the corner where I spy the finish line. My mom is already there, waiting for me.

I do not stop immediately at the finish line–I need to walk and catch my breath. By the time I get back to the crowd, my mom has already called my cell phone. “I thought you left,” she says. “Really?” I say. I give her a hug. I am glad to be here with her on this crisp morning in October. I feel like although it is rather limited, I was able to go home again. My mom brags to her friends about me running. “Only one of my kids who could do that,” she says. I feel sorry for my brothers and sisters. Then I hear her start to talk to one of her friend’s daughters. “I give the shirts out at the race for that little boy who died,” she begins. I cringe.

Boundaries, Michael. BOUNDARIES.

We’re All In the Dance

Often, I run with my friend Keith. We can go as many as ten miles together, and the conversations run the gamut. But I always have my i-Pod (I just wrote the word Walkman and had to delete it – Google Walkman if you are under twenty). Once, I joked with Keith that if I ever died while we were running–via a tree limb or a plummet from a cliff–that he was to make sure there was a cool song playing on my i-Pod. My playlist is eclectic, to say the least. And I would hate for someone to find my body and have Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj or any number of Pitbull songs blasting from my ear buds. I’m 43 for Christ’s sake. I love pop music and I’m very top 40, but I would hate for my legacy to begin with Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory (even though the late, great Clarence Clemons plays saxophone on it). But there is one song that I would proudly play in any situation. We’re All in the Dance by Canadian singer-songwriting sensation, Feist.

Life’s a dance, we all have to do
What does the music require?
People are moving together
Close as the flames in a fire

I heard this song yesterday as I was running the trails of the Schuylkill River on the outskirts of Philadelphia. My mind immediately took me to the Broad Street Run, the premier race in the city of Brotherly Love–which just happened to be yesterday morning. This song was part of my race day repertoire about five years back when I ran that race. Its simple piano melody and waltz-like tempo seems contradictory to music one listens to to stay 240px-Phenakistoscope_3g07690dpumped in a race.  Yet, when I heard that song, something magical happened: The world slowed down. We were all speeding towards a finish line, but everyone seemed to look like they were moving in slow motion. The people around me seemed to bob up and down like horses on a carousel ride. I looked left, then right, at total strangers, and felt like I was surrounded by loved ones, by family, all moving in unison to the beat of this song. Then, there was a wave of emotion; chills that began in my shoulders scattered in every direction, ending on the top of my bald head with a million tingly strands emanating from my brain. It was such a moment of clarity: “We’re all in the dance!”

On that day, it was a race down Broad Street with tens of thousands of people from as many different experiences as there were bib numbers. But it’s also the dance we do as people in the parade of cars during rush hour traffic, or standing in the checkout line pretending not to read the trashy headlines from the tabloids, or the trips to school one takes beginning as a kindergartner, then one day returning as a parent, then a grandparent. The visits to the hospital, from newborn to old man, the times spent in prayer, in sport, in taking in a play, a game, a concert, an art exhibit. The dance involves the person at the restaurant who serves you the food, taken from the kitchen where many hands prepared it, and the one whose hand you lovingly grasp as you leave the establishment, to the homeless person you pass by guiltily with your belly full and your hand growing heavy with more of your meal in a doggy bag.

Even though the Broad Street was always one of my favorite events, I have moved away from road races. Yesterday, I was training for an upcoming trail race. But the runner’s high is achieved in both situations. And this song is always on my i-Pod come race day. I wait until I’m a mile or two in before I let the words wash over me, always to the same effect. My memory floods every time I hear the ethereal voice of Feist remind us that:

We all go ’round and ’round
Partners are lost and found
Looking for one more chance
All I know is,
We’re all in the dance

Feel the beat; music and rhyme
While there is time.

And that is my wish for you. For all of us. That we may feel the beat; music and rhyme–while there is time.

So, if you ever come across my body lying on a trail somewhere, and there happens to be an embarrassing song playing–think of my children and please advance “Now Playing” to Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Green Day, or The Killers. It’s the least you can do after my nice wish for you:)

Take a moment to listen to this song. And don’t worry if you start swaying–I won’t tell anybody.