John of the Cross

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.

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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).

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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.

Be a good sport

Growing up, I hated sports. I wasn’t sure if I sucked because I hated them, or if I hated them because I sucked. All I know is that I was forced to play organized sports until high school.

My dad loved sports. Like many men of his era, it was the best way he could communicate with his kids. If I could throw a decent spiral or a curve ball (different balls-I know), he would have had a catch with me. I watched him do this with my other siblings. My three older brothers and sister were very good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs.  My younger brother and sister were also good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs. Me, not so much. Both girls in my family could throw a baseball better than I (although none of my siblings would know to use “I” in that last bit):)  No, I’m not jealous. Not at all, he lied.  Anyway, out of seven children, I was the least athletic. Last in line for athletic prowess. Seventh of seven.

My father tried to be patient with me, but I would have none of it.  My dad played full-equipment, contact football until he was thirty, in a men’s league in Northeast Philadelphia. He coached pee wee football, baseball and  basketball at the elementary level, and softball at the high school level. My father was an athletic director for a private elementary school in our area. He breathed sports. He tried to practice with me, to teach me the basics, but I rebelled. In hindsight, I realize what I was doing. It’s taken me thirty years to figure it out, but I know that part of it was the notion of being lumped in with the rest. I wanted to stand out, be treated as an individual, not just be included in the roster, part of the line-up. And if the others were going to be better at it, then that was no way to get my family’s attention.

Most of my siblings played sports in high school – two brothers received football scholarships to a prestigious private high school, both played in college and one has coached at the college level ever since he graduated. Luckily, I was next in line from the household’s best athlete—right behind the all-star, the golden boy, the coaches’ favorite player. Me, I was third string. A bench warmer. A virtual non-participant. From my earliest athletic experiences, I was an embarrassment. I was the oldest kid on the t-ball team (I actually got demoted after my first year of Little League) This was the era of The Bad News Bears movies—a team of misfits I would have been perfectly suited for. In fifth grade, I was on St. John of the Cross’ JV football team. They called me “The Professor”—I think I was the only kid with glasses under my helmet. In seventh grade, while “playing” varsity football, I was lumped in with a crowd of overweight slow pokes. We loafed around the field and waddled our laps around the school. The coaches nicknamed us “The Country Clubbers” since we behaved like a bunch of middle-aged men out there (which reminds me:  my 8th grade teacher, Sister Albert, announced to my class as I rounded the bases during a game of kick ball one day that I had the body of a 40-year-old man. How charitable of you, Sister.)

Thankfully, by eighth grade I was a full-time smoker. This gave me a reason to join the track team. My friends and I signed up to run in the long distance events. We would practice at the local high school. By practice, I mean we would disappear into the woods, then hide behind a wall and smoke a couple cigarettes. We watched the other runners do one mile laps around the school property. On their last lap (we always asked) we would come in for the end of practice after splashing water on our heads to look sweaty, and pretend to be winded. We lost every meet we ran in.

High school and college were athletics-free. A couple stints of intramurals, but nothing to brag about, believe me. Then, in my twenties, I was looking for a reason to quit smoking. I was a guilty smoker—always was—and it started to wear on me. I kept imagining myself pulling an oxygen tank to my future kid’s school play or pee wee football game (ha). My brother Joe suggested I start running. Do it gradually and build up. I took his advice. I ran a few times a week at a local trail. I signed up for a 5k when I was 25 (which I completed still drunk from a night out in Philly). But slowly, I began to change. I started to run more and smoke less. I would see the cross country teams from the school where I taught running on the same trails in the late afternoon. Jim, the girls’ coach, asked me about coaching the boys’ squad. “Jim, I’m not a runner, really.” “I see you here every time we practice.” “Yeah, but I’m not a coach.” “They need a running coach and you run—you’re qualified.” And so, I coached cross country for about six years. I learned about speed drills and pacing, and I gave them all I could. They were more than grateful. During that time, I even managed to kick the smoking habit for good!

When I switched schools, I no longer coached cross country. Ironically, I found it helped me get in better shape. Since I was not coaching, I had more time to actually run.  Now, I was signing up for more races: 10 milers, half marathons. Eventually, I didn’t feel foolish when I labeled myself as a runner, or talked about an upcoming race. Today, I am still running. I discovered trail running a few years ago, and now I can do ten mile races in the mountains. I do not say this to brag. I say this to remind myself, and you, that we do not have to let our past define our future. We can become whomever we want if we put our minds to it.

In the past few years, I have begun the athletic journey with my own sons. I was even a coach for both of their t-ball teams (brought back some of my glory days). I was able to mask my lack of skills enough to assist coaching their Little League teams (I was the line-up guy), but I can’t see that lasting into the next phase of their baseball careers. I still worry that I won’t be able to be the guy they have a catch with on the front lawn.  But someday, sooner than later I hope, I will take them to the trails that hug the river into Philadelphia, a serene place called Valley Green, and I will teach them the art of running. I will run along side them, I will let them beat me in the beginning, and I will share everything I know about how to be a runner. And if they decide they do not want to run, or they find their passions elsewhere, so be it. But they will know where to find me if they ever want to explore that world.

Recently, my mom was remarking about all of the races I run these days. “You know, out of all my kids, who would have thought you’d end up being the most athletic adult?” Thanks, mom (I think). But she did get me thinking. I am the most active today of my seven siblings. I do not mean to sound boastful, but it’s true. And if I had a choice of either playing sports through high school or college or being active for life, I think I’d choose the latter. I love where I am today. I feel fit. I feel alive. I get to participate in many exciting races and see many amazing landscapes. Now, if someone could just teach me how to throw a damn ball!

Painting by Veronika Nagy

Photographs of Valley Green by Ellie Seif

Click on pictures to visit these artists’ sites.