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Ghosts of Christmas Past

They’ve been swishing through my mind this week, my December memories.

I was one of those lucky kids who had idyllic Christmases. I won’t drag you through a soft-focus reminisicence; you’ll have to trust me on this one. The ghosts from those Christmases are all actual dead people. They haunt me with their love. When these grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins walk arm in arm with my memories, they show up just to remind me of joys received and joys yet to pass on.

No, those ghosts aren’t the ones that slow me down.

The first Christmas after my divorce (Christmas was literally three days after the judge stamped the papers) I was living in alone in the apartment of my marriage. My ex and my dog had moved to an apartment down the hall in the same building. If I looked out the kitchen window, I could see the dog’s head and paws popped up over the windowsill, watching me from across the courtyard. I was sleeping on an inflatable mattress, but in an act of incredible hope I’d set up a tree in my entryway.

No. The ghosts that give me pause are the ones who have handed me perfect days, on a platter. Who have made me laugh until I was light-headed, who have made me feel so sparkling and precious I was sure I’d had them fooled once and for all.

I have a December memory of companionsip. Running through Central Park after a deep snow, pausing along the reservoir for a kiss so tender and hopeful I barely recognized the lips. There’s another memory of an afternoon movie, a stunned two hours of precious mundaneness. To that ghost, a ghost who pops up once or twice a year to wish me well in five words or less, I repeat my prayers: be happy. Find peace. Be healthy.

So much crap has happened this year. I speak more in a general, national way rather than about my life; I grieved my fair share and limped through eleven months of injury, but really, 2012 was a great year for me. Looking around, though, I acknowledge sadness and tragedy striking. Deaths, injuries, disasters, massacres. When my ingratitude threatens to rob me of persepective, I come back to this: I am healthy, I know where to find peace, and I am happy despite the flaws, both charming and repugnant, of this life and this world.

Merry Christmas to all my ghosts, because really, Christmas Past is Christmas Present is Christmas Future, and I wouldn’t be here without you.

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These Things. Some Days.

These things can calm my heart, some days:

A clutch of dahlias from my dad

A sparky laugh

A glass of wine

Potting a plant

Singing a song

Alliteration

A postcard from abroad

The breeze lifting my hair from my face

A smile, shared in secret, in a crowded room

But some days, nothing calms me. Some days, pausing only gets me another gulp of air. Have you felt so uneasy that you scratched yourself to get away from the sting? Have you been here: strung out. Have you sought reassurance from the fickelest source?

How about this: my heart twisted up, upon learning that my foe has been diagnosed with an incurable disease.

And then: I recognize my own humanity, my character defects and fatal flaws, in a friend who suffers similarly.

Some days, the only thing that will calm me down is being reminded that we’re all in it together. Some days, the best way to calm myself is to calm someone else.

These things I know to be true.

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I have told you a little bit about Frances, my nana. When I was a girl I would spend weeks every summer with her. Instead of summer camp, my brother and I (and whichever cousins happened to be around) would spend every day at Jones Beach with her. She was an active woman up until her late 90’s. and would drag my brother and I with her on walks up and down the beach collecting shells, along the boardwalk to bring up the sun, to the West Bathouse where she’d swim endless laps. Everything was so far, and it took so long.

This is much of how I remembered it. Long. Far. Endless. The parking lot was vast–hotfooting it to the bathrooms was a major annoyance. The ocean was miles away from where we planted our beach chairs at the top of the beach. Walking the boardwalk from Field 6 (where Nana always parked) to Filed 2 (the end of the line) took hours and hours.¬†

I suppose I’ve been back to Jones Beach since I was a child. I’ve definitely been there for concerts (Rush, Dave Matthews Band, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, Tears for Fears, The Fray, Blues Traveler, the list goes on). But when I went to Jones Beach this Labor Day to lay on Field 6, it seemd like the first time I’d been back in 25 years.

The nostalgia was so powerful, I wept.

In this new life of mine, I cry more often than I would have ever thought I would allow myself, or find acceptable. I’m not even embarrassed about it, and it doesn’t always mean I’m sad.

I drove my Nana’s car. I took the Meadowbrook State Parkway. I drove thought those aqua toll booths that were made famous in The Godfather. I remembered nights spent dancing to New Wave with my high school friends at Malibu dance club (the exit sign to Lido Beach was what reminded me). My heart swelled with joy and homecoming as I sailed over the bridge. Then, the pencil! (If you don’ tknow what the pencil is then you definitely did not grow up on Long Island.) I remembered how Nana would keep me and my brother occupied in the predawn hours as we drove to the beach, looking in the grass next to the highway for Josephs (ducks) and Marias (rabbits). Oh, the rituals. The food, the friends, the walking, swimming, poppylols*, tanning, eating, more walking, then heading home before the rush. We never sat in beach traffic, I didn’t even know what that was until I was in high school and started going to Robert Moses with my friends.

Nana would back her car right up to the sand. She got there early enough to easily park in the first row. Field 6 is special in that you can literally use your trunk as your “office” if you put your chairs and umbrella down right there. So, I did the same thing on Labor Day (except I walked down the beach to lay closer to the water). Nana used to put her car keys on her car tire for safekeeping! For a girl who loved the beach, I hated sand on me. I was constantly at the faucet to rinse off my feet, and clean out the crotch of my one-piece after jumping around in the ocean.

My nana was an early-adopter of sunblock. She was slathering it on my and my brother before anyone was fretting about skin cancer. She was a wizard with a can of Solarcaine, too, because sometimes my brother and I got lazy (and burned).

So as I walked along the boardwalk–noticing how quickly I got from the car, to the bathrooms, to the boardwalk, to Field 4–I cried. I cried for who I had been as a girl, before I was pushed around by my classmates, by my 20’s, by my 30’s. I cried for Jones Beach, which had apparently spent the last quarter century shrinking. I cried for Nana, who was so vivacious, so active and fun to me. She had such a way with children. It may be her greatest gift, the way she can engage and love children. There was a time in my life during which she must have been my one true love: she held my attention and esteem, and all I could see was her burnish and her delightful unconventionality.

It was a little awkward, all the crying. I mean, the beach wasn’t crowded (it was windy and not so hot) but there were enough people there that my solitary walk with tears was a little, shall we say, out of season. More suited for January. Despite that, it felt good to emote for a while, in a place so comforting and familiar.

Lately, I’ve been carrying this kind of pre-grief around with me. I am sad for my friend Dan, who has greatly deteriorated from his Parkinsons Disease and is now in hospice (though not the palliative care ward yet, thank god). I’ve missed him for a while, as PD has taken him from us bit by bit. I visited him a month ago. While being near him was a relief and a joy, I was heartbroken to see how greatly he was diminished. And my Nana, who can still be sharp as a tack when she is interested, is not the same either. She’s in better shape than Dan, but it’s a wrench to see this once proud woman struggle with dentures, with drool, with all of the indignities that come with extraold age.

I walked along the boardwalk, I smelled the friend food from the concessions, I stood online at the bathrooms, I cooed over the trashcans stenciled with the classic crabs. Also, I felt superior. Superior to everyone else on that beach–that’s how sure I was that I was the only woman there with this unique, poignant, significant experience of Jones Beach.

That’s a crock. The supeior part, I mean. I have no doubt that my experience of Jones Beach is truly and solely mine.

When I was born, Nana drove to Jones Beach and praised God as she watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. This is one of the very, very few things she and my dad have ever agreed upon: apparently, the sunrise that day was one of the most beautiful to have ever happened in the history of the world. How’s that for some love.

When Nana leaves me to carry on her life in some other dimension, I will have to come to Jones Beach to bid her proper goodbye. Even though she hasn’t been the queen of Field Six in decades, it’s her place. More precisely: it is our place.

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Roots

Today is my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary.

Forty-five years, people! Four and a half decades–FIVE and a half decades of knowing each other, if you count from when they first started dating–and they are still IN LOVE. They sometimes even make goo-goo eyes at each other. For perspective, I was ready to jump off a bridge after being married for a tenth of that time.

My parents’ love is one of those gifts that everyone who spends time with them receives. I have been lucky enough to catch the reflection of their love, and to absorb the overflow, for 39 years.

In the darkest hours of my divorce, witnessing Dad flirting with Mom made me feel lifted up and reassured. There was no woe is me no one loves me like that, just, “Thank God for proof of love.”

Tonight over dinner (they were in the city and invited me to dinner), Mom and Dad were talking about how they grew up in the same town, about all the intersections of their extended families, dating back 60+ years. How my mom, as a little girl, would go with her father to the grocery store owned by my dad’s cousin. How there is a picture of them at the same brithday party of a mutual friend when they were in elementary school. How all these people–families, friends, neighbors, clients–lived within blocks of each other. I got all choked up.

How beautiful it must be to have such a network of people who know your roots. For the first time ever in my life I thought, I would like to have that.

True love is umistakable, you just have to open your heart to see it.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

[Photos from across the subway platforms.]

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My readers thank you, AB, for tagging me in this blog meme “11 Things I Bet You Didn’t Know About Me.” And I thank you because I get to make a list of eleven things, eleven being (as we all know, RIGHT?) the perfect number. I’m going to be half-assed about the meme, though, and just answer the questions AB has posed to me (and ten other people); I will not go on and ask eleven original questions of eleven other bloggers. Without further ado.

1. Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Being a teacher’s pet and a teased child (the latter begat the former), it’s nearly impossible for me to pick one teacher to be my favorite. I’ll narrow the field by taking the word “teacher” to eliminate any of my college professors, which takes me pretty quickly to Miss Dresch, my fourth grade teacher. As memory serves (and I admit, any of what follows about Miss Dresch could be erroneous), she was kind, thoughtful, wasn’t duped by the predictable charm of the popular kids, and once came to pay a visit to my mom and dad (presumably to talk about me) at our home–and I wasn’t in trouble. I liked her so much my parents invited her over for lunch one day, just because. She was tall, and not slender but not fat. She had sandy blonde hair that was somehow both fine and coarse, and she wore it in a bob. In the classroom, she wore sensible shoes and tweedy skirts. She once gave me a little statuette that was a bean with arms, legs and a smiley face and an inscription on the pedestal that said “You’re a great human bean.” Or maybe I gave her that statuette, I can’t remember. In any event, this woman made me feel special and appreciated without calling tremendous attention to me, and that was quite a feat (since usually if I wasn’t the center of attention I figured I wasn’t special at all).

2. What were your sports of choice when you were younger?

I hated sports as a child. Well, let me rephrase. I hated sweating, and I was afraid of balls. (Keep that in context, please. I’ll let you know when you can all bust out your #twss’s.) I had no hand-eye coordination, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test made me want to hide under the bleachers, and I was deeply mistrustful of boys and of girls who were good at boy-like activities (e.g., soccer, softball, etc.). My freshman year of high school I nearly fainted and puked after running the mile, and the gym teacher had to take me inside and run my wrists under the cold water tap. So my sports of choice when I was in elementary school included: reading, climbing trees so I could sit there and read, sewing clothes for my Cabbage Patch doll, and bullying my little brother around while I still could. Those aren’t actually sports, you say? Alright, I’ll try again. I kind of liked riding my bike, pumping on the swings, and playing Marco Polo and Whirlpool in my neighbor’s above-the ground pool. Are we talking about actual gym class sports? I had fun climbing the cargo net in elementary school, and playing parachute. In middle school I enjoyed this odd sport called European Handball, and I grew to like volleyball even though the volleyball court seemed the most likely place for a ball to break my nose. But if “younger” means just, say, ten years younger? Well, then, the answer my dears is “running.”

3. What did you want to be when you grew up?

A ballerina. A dolphin trainer. An editor. A writer. An expat. A wit.

4. What profession did you ultimately end up in and why?

I work in book publishing. I first got my job in book publishing because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my BA and MA in literature, and my best friend was an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster. I stayed in publishing because I couldn’t think of anything else to do; also, I didn’t think anyone else would want to hire me ¬†(not necessarily in that order). This is still the case.

5. What is the single most important thing you think parents should teach their children?

Humility.

6. When you run, what is the one thing your mind turns to the most often?

People I love.

7. What is your favorite book and how many times have you read it?

Impossible to name just one book. But I have twice read the life-changing The Bridge to Terabithia. Find out why.

8. If you could only pick one movie to watch for the rest of your life what would it be?

I haven’t seen that movie yet.

9. Are you more comfortable in the city or the country?

It has nothing to do with comfort. It has to do with right and wrong. City life is CLEARLY the right choice. (What, are you waiting for me to add, “for me?”)

10. If you had the option of spending three months of the year in another place, where would you choose?

Bologna, Italy. (That was the easiest question.)

11. What is your all time favorite museum to visit?

The Frick, followed by Sagamore Hill.

Thanks AB, that was fun! Hope you all learned a few things about me. Ideally you learned eleven things, but I admit a few of these stories are retreads.

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Belated

It’s par for the course these days that I am late for someone’s birthday. It’s a character flaw I hoped never to acquire; I used to be impeccable on my timing and remembrances. Now, though, my life is like a top that spin evermore rapidly, so sweet moments like birthdays of friends and family members come and go and all I’ve done is thought, “Shit. I forgot again.” This includes the 4-year birthday of Pigtails Flying, which occurred on Friday, January 27.

My dear readers shouldn’t be surprised that I am late to celebrate my blog’s inception–after all, it’s been well over a year since my posts went from showing up four times a week to four times a month. Actually, four times a month means we all got lucky–usually it’s more like once a month.

When I first started blogging, I loved how it made me pay attention in a new way to my surroundings and experiences. I listened to my thoughts more when I ran, since I often used that reflection as a subtext for my post that evening. I wrote to find my voice and style; I wrote to amuse; I wrote to gain a readership. I also used my blog as a way to meet other runners in New York City.

My height of my blogging was during my training for the 2008 New York City Marathon. I did most of my runs after work, so I’d post about the workout right after I did it. I loved that routine, everything was immediate and the writing was the final step in processing my day, by examining the meaning and narrative of my life through my training. Sometimes I was explicit; usually I tried to write in code.

My blog kept me sane through disappointments due to injury, relationship rifts, and a long loneliness. Even when I wasn’t posting, I’d go back and read old entries to remember quick races, happy moments, and shitty parts of life that I managed to survive.

I like to write, I can do it well enough that it is generally enjoyable for me and for my readers. Even more than that I love writing about my running, and turning an activity that has a narrow focus into something that non-runners will appreciate. Since really, I’m trying to write about life.

Happy birthday, Pigtails Flying. Here’s wishing I get to spend more time in your excellent company in this, your fifth year.

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Dear TK,

I think by now we know each other well enough that I can spare the formalities and cut right to the chase. You have grown as a runner, but I don’t mean that you’ve gotten faster. I won’t lie to you about such things (or anything, anymore). Despite your speed lagging behind last year’s, you can still legitimately claim improvement. No, I’m not referring to the PR you ran in a 4-mile race earlier this summer (low-hanging fruit). What I’m talking about when I’m talking about your running is your attitude towards your sport, and your ability to recognize the difference between forcing an issue and persistence and determination.

Remember in 2009 when you stubbornly trained through the winter despite never quite feeling 100%, and never really enjoying the training? Oh yeah, you got injured, had to defer your marathon a year, and then slipped into a depression that lasted four months. Sure, you exhibited persistence and determination in the face of inhospitable weather and what I’ll call a Qi Depletion (blame that hippy-dippy mumbo jumbo on the acupuncturists). But you also were pigheaded, proud, and living in denial about what your body was capable of accomplishing that year.

Remember in 2010 when less than seven days after racing the London Marathon you embarked on a running streak of at least 1 mile a day for 30 days? Oh yeah, you called it quits after four weeks, the streak having thoroughly exhausted you and leeched all the fun out of running. Once again, persistence and determination were clearly on display, as was resourcefulness (how did you manage to fit in a run every single flipping day?). But oops, your blind insistence to push the agenda despite warning signs once again caused problems and a mandatory cessation of training for a while.

Remember in 2011 when you were so emotionally depleted from the great upheaval in your life, that you could barely make it out to run more than twice a week? Remember how you felt like you were simultaneously bouncing off the walls and pegged to the floor by gravity? Remember how one run along a snowy trail (you were trying to be accomodating to your friend) aggravated Betty so much that you nursed your adductor brevis for seven months?

Oh. Yeah.

Sometimes our memories turn around to face us and give us the double Fingers, don’t they? Not accepting the truth is no different than lying to yourself (the slang term for that is denial). Lying! How often do we lie to others not to hurt their feelings? (Your hair looks great! Love your dress! I heard every word you said!) Well, I have also done a lot of lying to myself, so as not to hurt my own feelings. There have been more moments than I care to remember (fear of the double Fingers) in which I have carried on in denial about my physical preparedness. It seemed less painful to avoid the disappointment that accompanies scaling back on mileage, deferring race goals, and acknowledging the way my body has let me down. Remember when you were benched, and you’d watch others run by and feel like they’d stolen your boyfriend? Well those days are over TK, because now you know something that makes no sense, but is true: EVEN WHEN YOU ARE NOT RUNNING, YOU ARE A RUNNER.

Essentially, TK, your improvement as a runner has to do with surrender. You know that your running is not in your hands. Running is a gift that is presented to you over and over until you accumulate training, the same way a race is a step you take over and over until you accumulate a PR. Running is something you do on God’s time. You mocked Ryan Hall and the way he brought God into his running, but now you understand–it is only through the grace of the universe that you are here to move forward at a clip. And not only that, but you don’t run for yourself. Your running is a way to be of service to others. Perhaps you inspire others to take on their athletic dreams, or to dare to attempt what was previously thought impossible. Perhaps you write about your running in a way that helps new runners find a workout schedule, or understand how to prepare for race day. Perhaps by inviting others to run with you, you give them a chance to talk through their troubles and find an easier way forward. Ryan–your running has been a service to me: by bearing witness to your graceful form and Amerian Records, I attempt to approach my finest effort as a runner the way you have. Our finest effort–that is what God asks of us, though She is happy with an honest effort, too.

Don’t buck at the God talk. It’s just another way of saying “inexplicable,” “luck” or “beauty” and you know it. You don’t need to wear that cynicsm, it is not the most flattering dress on you after all.

TK, you precious thing. Tell them, go on. You’re not racing a fall marathon, are you? More momentous: you’re STILL A RUNNER! And also: you grieved your marathon plans and aspirations for 24 hours before you realized they haven’t died, just stepped aside to let other others claim your attention. You just improved your recovery time from four months to 24 hours. And there you have it, the crux of your improvement as a runner is surrender. Ultimately, this will serve you better than additional speed, since speed is like physical beauty (fleeting, subjective, and an illusion).

You are a treasure! Run when you can. Write when you feel inspired. I’m here for you to remind you that you are still a runner whenever you need it (the reminder, or the running).

Run strong and beautiful,

Pigtails Flying

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