Sunday, October 21, 2012
The dairy I spent the latter half of my childhood on was seven miles from town. That seven miles was often the reason I couldn't go to parties or go to the beach and hang with friends in the summer, at least until we were old enough to drive. I begged to be allowed to walk into town, was told it was too far, unsafe, "No!" But one summer day when I was in my early teens Mom said yes and I walked those seven miles along the highway with a friend.
There's a lot I don't remember about that day, but what does stand out for me still is the sense of total freedom and the intimacy with everything I walked by. Daisies seemed more exotic, as did the Canadian thistles and tansy that also dotted our fields at home. Dogs rushing to the edge of properties barking fiercely made us laugh with relief once we made our way past. The wind of cars rushing by, headed in the opposite direction to possibly the Canadian border, rocked us and whipped our hair and made me feel so alive.
That walk gave me access to the adventurer in my soul I'd only found previously in the depths of my imagination. I remember the arrival in town was a little disappointing. Even though my legs were rubbery, my feet were blistered (cheap flipfops not good hiking shoes), and my nose would peel in the days to come, I would have walked all the way to Spokane 80 miles farther with just the littlest bit of encouragement.
In the nearly half century since then walking has been my meditation, my exercise, my solitude, my everything.
The summer I was pregnant with Kathleen and as alone as I'd ever been, I walked the streets of Spokane every day for hours, finding comfort in my body's movement and the sense of relief from the oppressive heat of my attic room and the shame that threatened to consume me.
In the years between Kathleen and the cult I roamed the streets of Seattle, Great Falls and then Spokane again. When I moved to Portland, I rode a bike for a while, but found that two wheels and the balance and attention required to stay alive on them were nothing like traveling on the power of my own two legs. So I got rid of the bike and walked Portland as well. On those walks I imagined myself living in the beautiful old homes I passed. I prayed endlessly to be changed and to be loved. I inhaled the fragrances of flowers, and often took them with me as company for the rest of the walk.
I almost always walked alone, although much much later I came to understand I was accompanied on every single walk of my life by the Creator of the mysteries I absorbed with each step.
Even during the cult years I found bits of time here and there to escape into long wandering walks. Shortly after my marriage a golden retriever named Jesse came into our lives, and my walks took on a purpose. I found wild trails nearby our suburban home on which I would let him off-leash and I would watch the seasons change and be delighted with small scurrying thing and larger flying ones.
When that life and my marriage disintegrated, I began running. Mile after mile after mile around a high school track until my shins stung and my lungs ached. I ran everywhere, but found pleasure only in the accumulation of miles and the escape from myself. Running kept me safely separate from the world, my feelings, and the Companion of my walks whom I'd felt I betrayed when I left the cult.
Then I met Walt, and the walks began again. At first on the wild trails of our suburban neighborhood with a new golden retriever named Kelly. Then, when we moved to the country 20 years ago, on the miles of trails of nearby Lewisville Park with Kelly, then Riley (another golden) for the ten years of his life.
When we got Toby five years ago I found the park walks were too hard. In part it was his strength and stubbornness. But looking back, the decision to take the shorter paths closer to home had more to do with my own increasing pain than it did with Toby.
My right hip became a constant aching presence in my life. I ignored it as best I could for a long time. Then sought every alternative treatment possible, and did all I could to take care of it. Until one day I realized I was avoiding walking because it hurt too much. Where I used to park as far away from my destinations as possible so I could walk farther, I found myself avoiding places altogether if I couldn't park close by. Walking across my classroom seemed impossible and I made the kids come to me more and more. Shopping for groceries I got even more efficient than I'd ever been before, and if I forgot something on an aisle I'd already passed, it had to wait until the next trip.
What had once been a light and lively gait became a Lurch-like limp that inspired one of my students to say recently that I looked like a penguin.
The injection that provided enough relief for me to enjoy Belize this summer as though nothing was wrong wore off in three months. And so I find myself, at sixty, with a date to receive a new hip. In three weeks, I'll turn myself over to a surgeon who will remove a part of me that has served me so well for so long and is finally worn out. He'll replace it with a modern contraption of metal and ceramic that is meant to give me back my ability to make my way through the world on my own two feet, powered by my own two legs, freely and pain-free.
I'm as prepared as I can be for this new adventure. I feel deep gratitude that I live in a time and have the resources that make the replacement both possible and almost an ordinary event. I feel even more gratitude for this hip that finally wore out, and I'm sad to be saying goodbye to her. I will welcome her replacement and learn to love her as well.
The one thing I'm struggling most with right now is the fact that I'll have to use a walker for a couple of months after the surgery. I know it's not a rational thing, but I can hardly bear the mental picture of me shuffling along, pushing that metal contraption in front of me. I see old, decrepit, crippled. And even knowing that walker is going to be my ticket to independent walking, I'm having to breathe my way through the thought of it.
Walking saved me. I've found my true self in those miles, found freedom, found a God who loves me and understands me. The miles strengthened my body without my trying. And when I picture myself as an old woman, I see someone like Mary Oliver who strides out into the wilds of the world discovering the magic and wonder and beauty there until I draw my last breath.
I will make friends with the walker about to come into my life, not because she's someone I'd ever consider friend material, but because I need her to restore the most important part of my being to me. And I will soon be a walker again in every important sense of the word.