Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Duty, Honor, Country...and Courage

In September I went to my high school reunion. And among all the faces I was delighted to see, one stood out crystalline bright. This is my story about him.

John Milstead was our golden boy. We had lots of smart people in our class. We had plenty of great athletes. We had any number of socially gifted people too. But the way I remember it, only one person had all three to an exceptional degree, and that was John.

Everyone loved John. His smile lit every room he entered. He was kind and friendly to everyone, popular or not. We expect that from adults, but high school kids rarely make the grade. John did.

John's dream was to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Everyone knows that West Point is harder to get into than the Ivies. You can't just be smart. You have to be athletic. You have to be a leader. You have to be authentically exceptional. And because that was truly who John was, he got in. Our class, from a suburban high school in California (before there was a "Silicon Valley"), had a future West Point cadet. And no one could have deserved it more.

But then, after graduation, disaster struck. When the news came out, it was devastating: John had been in a car accident and was gravely injured. I remember visiting him in the hospital he was transported to first. Naive and uncomprehending, I brought flowers. The John lying in a hospital bed, his brother by his side, was someone I couldn't recognize. At that moment, John simply wasn't there. I went back to my car shaken to the core, wondering whether he'd come back.

As the summer wore on, a group of us visited John on a pretty regular basis. His part of the shared hospital room was covered with pictures and mementos. His West Point acceptance notice took pride of place. I think we all knew he wouldn't get there, but it was too terrible a thought to hold. Instead, we focused on what John re-learned, day to day, starting from the beginning.

There was the day we brought him a board with letters. He'd been incredibly frustrated at being unable to communicate, and by using this board, he could spell out words. With characteristic determination, he spelled out sentences, conducted conversations.

There was the day we closed the hospital room door and stood him up. The nurses would have had our heads; it wasn't time yet. But John wanted to stand, so that was that. And stand he did. And then he walked. And one day he walked out the door and went home.

As we feared, John didn't make it to West Point. That is a tragedy of authentically national proportions. But that tragedy doesn't minimize in any way what John accomplished. John graduated from college, married, and had children. He now works in a YMCA with people who have various disabilities. I have absolutely no doubt that he is an incredible teacher and mentor, motivated, as I know he is, by the original values that pulled him to West Point and then pulled him out of catastrophe: duty, honor, country. And, of course, courage beyond us all.

John, your class salutes you.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

lost and found

I was walking to work a few weeks ago when my phone rang. It was a police officer in Milpitas.

"When did you lose your blue wallet?" he asked. Just like that.

"The day before my mother died. November 23," I answered. (Just like that.)

The Milpitas PD had found the wallet lying in a parking lot in an industrial part of town. The officer speculated that it had "gone down the rivers," and asked me whether I knew a person whose discount card was stored in the wallet. I didn't. 

He said my bar card was there, and my driver's license, and several other cards. 

"Can you send it to me?" I asked him. 

"I don't think you want it back," he said. "It's pretty beat up."

Oh, but I did. I certainly did want it. 

It arrived a while later, looking like it does in the picture, but a little more roughed up. I opened it. Everything was there--bar card, bar association card, driver's license, insurance cards, credit cards (all of them), HSA card, Exploratorium card, library cards (SFPL and UC), random notes. Everything of mine, and a few remnants of another life.

A Subway receipt from February 15, 2015, from Montague Expressway in San Jose (meatball sub and a cookie, paid with $20 cash).

A Banana Republic merchandise certificate issued to a Katharine Alfond on March 28, 2005--endorsed on the back, apparently unsuccessfully.

A green card thanking my mystery wallet-holder for celebrating Olivia's birthday at Vanguard Bingo. $5 buy-in discount if used by November 14, 2014. 

A battered lottery ticket.

A Home Depot store credit.

The return of my wallet triggered many more questions than it answered, of course. How and when did I lose it? I'd always thought I dropped it somewhere in the house in a state of distraction as my mother was dying, that we'd find it when we sold the house. Nope. I thought when I cleaned out our cars, I'd see it hiding under a seat. Not there either.

I remember putting on my mother's red leather jacket and driving to the pharmacy down the street to buy what turned out to be the last set of home hospice supplies we'd need. That was the last time I paid for anything until I realized I no longer had my wallet. I must have dropped it in the parking lot or left it on the ledge outside Starbucks. I'd have been too distracted to notice.

So that's probably how I lost it. But what happened next is far less explicable. When people pick up wallets, normally they either return them in some way, or take possession of them and their contents, which includes taking the things of value and ditching the wallet. But my wallet-holder didn't do either. The address on my driver's license is current, and anyone can find me through the California Bar website, so she intentionally didn't return it. But she also didn't take anything or use any of the cards--two Visa cards, AmEx, Nordstrom, MasterCard (HSA). And she didn't ditch the wallet, either, at least not for several months.

Instead, my wallet-holder walked around with me in her pocket, undisturbed. Did she show my ID as hers? Does she look like me? Was she homeless, like the officer speculated? If so, why bother carrying a large wallet if she didn't intend to use anything it held? The wallet is beat up, indicating exposure--was its bearer ever tempted to buy a jacket, some hot coffee, a hotel room to get inside for a night?

How did it end up lying in a parking lot in Milpitas one day in July? Was there a struggle? Or did my wallet-holder simply drop it? Why didn't someone else pick it up?

I'll never know, obviously. But I feel some amount of kinship with both the battered wallet and its wandering temporary custodian. I tried cleaning the wallet up, but it won't be the same; some degrees of loss and damage cannot be undone. And, orphaned, I've also been wandering under a new identity not entirely mine.

Lost, and found? No, that's too neat. 

And I think this is only the first chapter. 

A love letter to my friends without children

Dear single friends and friends without children,

     Lately, more than one of you has shared with me stories of things that are said to you by married women with children.  Women like me.  Apparently, my tribe actually says things to you that indicate a pretended incomprehension of your state.  Why are you still single?  Why don't you have children?  And implied: What's wrong with you?  Don't you see how blessed I am?  How I've made the right choice?  Don't you see how safe and protected I am?

     When you tell me these things, when I hear that mothers have tried for some reason to make you think you are lesser, my heart aches for you--but I also feel angry.  Because those women have no right to tell anyone how to live.  

     And I want to tell you something.  Children are a blessing, of course.  But many things in life are a blessing.  Meaningful work is a blessing.  The chance to develop your talents is a blessing.  Giving to others is a blessing.  We are many-dimensioned creatures; parenthood is one limited dimension only, and at least for me it can never be the whole of my life.  The compass of our lives is measured out in intentional participation in the world; in creativity, projects, endeavors, improvement.  In love.

    Children might make your life fuller.  And they might not.  We parents do not own our children.  We bring them into the world and do our best to love them; but their thoughts and their actions are not, and never can be, ours.  They are their own people, if we do our jobs correctly, just as we belong irreducibly and inalienably to ourselves.  Every person is ultimately a mystery to others.  Our children are no exception.  Any woman who has children so that she will not die alone is a fool.

     It could well be that you feel grief because of your childless state.  And if you do, my heart aches again for you, and much more sharply this time.  I am so sorry for the empty space that you contemplate.  And no words of mine will fill it.  But I am sorry for your pain.  

     We all walk an unpredictable path in this life, and parenthood does not change that.  You and I are in every essential the same.

     There's something else I want to tell you.  I treasure you in part precisely because you don't have children.  I love my daughters, of course, but with my adult friends I want to talk about things other than the world of children.  I want to know what interests and drives you, what projects you're engaged in, where you are headed.  I want to know where you're going on vacation and what you're doing for fun.  Yes, of course I have mom-friends with whom I talk about these things, but part of our relationship is always consumed by logistics and playdates and birthday parties.  Those conversations always carry the comfort of mutual experience.  But you, my single and child-free friends, are never encumbered by such things.  And you and I can therefore be together without the encumbrances.

     I am not defined by my children, and in some quarters of our society this is rank heresy.  So be it.  Virginia Woolf declared the necessity of a room of one's own and five hundred pounds, and so do I.  You, my friends, are one of my keys to that room.

With my love.
Mary Kelly

Friday, January 3, 2014

Letter to 2014 from an Unbowed Runner

Well hello 2014.  Am I ever glad to see YOU.

Your older brother 2013 did his very best to break me, but though he gave it his all, he didn't win.  I'm still here and still standing.  And better: I am running, once again, and I'm smarter this time.

I got benched (again) at the beginning of March.  A creeping Achilles injury finally felled me on the very day I ran my first 800 and 1500.  Being on the bench for six months was terribly hard.  And I got benched right when I was really fit and just barely getting started with track racing.  It was such a long painful road back.  I could finally run again in September, but since then it's been baby steps the whole way.  Only now am I finally creeping back to the 30-miles-per-week mark, a place I haven't been in nearly a year.

The inability to run was both painful and ironic.  I'd been named a San Francisco Marathon Ambassador for 2013, but was hobbled and couldn't meaningfully participate in this incredible opportunity.  Hugh Herr and I partnered with No Barriers USA to start No Barriers Boston, a fund to support persons who suffered amputation in the Boston Marathon bombings, but I found myself largely cut off from the community that would understand that mission better than anyone.  And I continually received email updates and race reports from the Impala Racing Team that I love so well.  Could I help fill out the masters team for an upcoming race?  No, I could not.  All year long, I could not.

During a year lived out in the shadows of grave family illness and the inequality and deprivation that threaten our national equilibrium, all this whinging about such a thing as running seems even to me to be petty at best.  But of the hard lessons I learned this year, one stands out: "running" is a many-dimensioned thing, affording me not only fitness and health (both physical and mental), but also a community, precious beyond expectation.  Running makes my life easier, yes (in ways I do not always comprehend when the alarm goes off in the cold predawn darkness of another day of training).  But running also helps me stay strong for those who need me.

Tonight, in the first days of the new year and on the eve of my birthday, I hope to turn a page.  I'm stepping up my training, but I'm still healthy.  I've been named a San Francisco Marathon Ambassador once again, to my great good fortune.  No Barriers Boston awaits.  So does track season.  And so does all the rest of my complicated but blessedly fortunate life.

And so, 2014, I'm asking you to work with me a little.  I promise to do my part.  All I ask is the freedom to run in the company of my friends.

Allez, hop!  The road awaits!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Open To Injury: Everyrunner's Story

The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare.  --Juma Ikangaa

     If we could imagine an Everyrunner--our running community's version of Everyman--then Everyrunner would periodically be hobbled by injury, with the actual frequency governed by wisdom or luck.  Anyone who regularly laces up running shoes knows this.  But as it turns out, injury harbors its own teaching.

     My own story goes something like this.  I fell too in love with racing in my second year of running, and raced far too often for my level of training and weekly mileage.  I ignored small injuries and pains because all I could think about was running fast--and I was very good at denial.  And then I ignored a meniscus strain not long before the San Jose Half Marathon on October 7.  I ran, with pain, and still achieved a P.R. at 1:36:32--which only encouraged me to race more.  On October 14, I paced the back half of the Nike Women's Marathon.  And then, on October 21 came the coup de grace--I attempted the Humboldt Half Marathon, even though I had been in pain that week.

     The race started, and immediately I knew I didn't have it.  My pace dipped from 7:30, to 8:00, to 8:15.  The teammates I'd anticipated running with left me in their dust.  I resigned myself to a training run.

     And then, at mile 7, a searing pain shot through my right calf.  I was well and truly done, unable even to walk the rest of the way.  The dreaded season-ending injury had arrived, cutting me out of all remaining races for 2012.  

     It was three weeks before I ran again at all, thanks to the guidance of a wise friend and coach who convinced me not to run in the presence of any pain, however small.  The injury didn't settle in my calf--it stayed in my meniscus, which was scary.  I decided that I finally needed to listen to the wisdom of those who'd been telling me I was weak in the hips and core.  That weakness opened me to injury and I had to fix it.

     But I had to change my orientation to my body first.  Being open to injury meant that I had to think more deeply about why I'd gotten hurt if I truly wanted to heal completely.  I realized that while I am a no-shortcuts, focus-on-fundamentals person, I hadn't used that approach with running.  I'd tried to race too frequently, on too few miles of base, with completely inadequate stretching and strength training.  I was fast, but I was weak and lazy too (harsh but true).

     So I found a personal trainer and started twice-weekly kettlebell and barbell workouts.  And I got treated by my chiropractor and sports massage therapist.  It helps that everyone on my personal team understands and supports my running goals.  I also resolved to build my mileage slowly and carefully to 40 miles per week by the time my team starts training again on January 22.  So far, so good.

     I got injured because I failed to understand both the harsh calculus of competitive running and my own current limits.  But failure is a powerful teacher.  I also failed because I tried to do things I couldn't yet do, and that is the best kind of failure.  You can grow stronger at the point of injury.  My injury was physical, but it was also mental and spiritual.  Opening a pathway from mind to spirit to body was necessary if I wanted to begin learning how to listen deeply to my body.  And so being open to injury has meant rededicating myself to getting stronger, faster, and better by doing the hard work of the everyday.  

     Because one thing I learned is that competition is only partially about racing.  Even more, competition is about showing up every day.  Competition is every drill, every 5:30 a.m. alarm, every mile in the rain, every deadlift.  It's every time you think you can't go any further, and then you do.  It's about strength of body and mind.  It's about purpose and intention and even love.  And it's also about knowing when not to run, which is perhaps the hardest learning of all.

     Everyrunner carries this knowledge in her body.  Now I do too, and I'm grateful.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A comedy of half-marathon errors; or, the newbie chronicles

**UPDATE** Thanks to the impeccable race management and service orientation over at SJ Rock N Roll, I actually do have an official time--1:36:32.  Somehow, they went back either to hand-timing or to the cameras and pulled it out for me. Thank you SJ RNR for the official PR!

Chugging away through the streets of San Jose, I looked down at my feet at mile 5.  Just that fleeting glance was enough to inform me that my half-marathon race had just turned into a remarkably well-organized and pre-routed training run, with support included.  Though it was race day, at the Rock 'N Roll San Jose Half Marathon no less, I lacked one small piece of plastic that would make me into an actual racer: my D-tag.

But you know, after I had a good laugh over that, I realized that really it was par for the course.  Yesterday was a great day to learn a large number of lessons, among them:
  1. It's a little hard for the race to give you a time without that shoe tag.  To the mental checklist: shoes, singlet, shorts, sunglasses, add: d-tag, number.  Two short steps for race prep, one long step for official finishes.
  2. Might not be the best idea in the world to run a half-marathon after a tough training week.  Next time you do a half, remove at least one of the following from your prerace routine: Presidio Hills cross-country race; ten-mile "recovery" run with a speedy friend; killer Impala track workout, with sprints o' plenty, just two days later.  (DUMMY!)
  3. Yeah, and next time you might not want to attend a benefit in Marin the night before a race in San Jose.  Just maybe.
  4. Here's a good one: when your legs feel like cement blocks would feel if they could actually hurt intensely (from mile 1, to boot), don't forget that cement blocks can still move.  If you yell at them enough, they'll even move at a decent rate of speed.  Just don't let the legs win.  And no, you're not allowed to quit in the middle of a race, even if you won't get an official time. Nice try though.
And hey, there were so many great things about the day.  Here are two: my Impala teamies Verity Breen and Megan Kossar.  The always-amazing Verity rocked it, placing tenth with a time of 1:22:44, and Megan had a great day with a PR at 1:36:07.

The weather was spectacular--practically custom-ordered to be clear, sunny, not too hot.  And especially considering how many thousands of people ran the half, the organization was terrific.  Though I was in pain and struggling from mile 1, I still managed to pick up the pace in the last 5K just by force of will.  And though I didn't get an official time, I know my Garmin time, and it would have been a PR at 1:36:xx (I'll get it next time!).  This newbie feels tremendously lucky to be healthy and able to run 13.1 in 96 minutes.

And as a final note,  you gotta love my race number--F16.  I enjoyed being a fighter jet for the day.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The House at Pooh Corner

 Today is my daughters' last day at preschool.  After our vacation, they'll leave our immediate sphere and start their long walk away from us and toward the horizon.  It's a walk we've worked very hard to prepare them for, with love, and hugs, and lots of reassurance.  All the same, my heartstrings are stretched to the breaking point today.

Today, my babies leave the House at Pooh Corner.

Christopher Robin and I walked along
under branches lit up by the moon.
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
as our days disappeared all too soon.
But I've wandered much further today than I should
and I can't seem to find my way back to the wood.

Last night, both girls asked for the rocking chair.  It's been months since we rocked at bedtime, but they are, understandably, regressing a little.  So we snuggled up and rocked, one at a time, and they told me how sad they are to leave their teachers.  I reveled in the little arms clinging around my neck, and remembered our first days together in that chair.  For a long time, I could rock both of them at once, one behind the other, two babies spooning on my lap.  Their dear sleepy heads would lean against each other into my chest, one blondie and one brown, drifting off into baby dreams while cuddled into their twin.

My baby girls are far too big to do that now, but they never stopped hugging each other and I hope they never will.

So, help me if you can, I've got to get
back to the house at Pooh Corner by one.
You'd be surprised there's so much to be done,
count all the bees in the hive,
chase all the clouds from the sky.
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh.

In May of 2009, we crash-landed into San Francisco in an emergency move prompted by my mother's very serious illness.  Those days are now a blur.  I had transferred offices within my large law firm and had to take the California bar exam about two months after we got here; my husband was initially gone in Massachusetts half the time working on his Ph.D.; my girls were barely two; and my mother was very sick.  It was a real challenge to hold everything together, and I often worried whether the chaos and stress would harm my girls.  I remain convinced that St. Paul's Littlest Angels preschool, where there were fortuitously (miraculously?) two places available that terrible May, has played a tremendously significant role in ensuring that my girls came through that era as unscathed as they could be.  For over three years, the same teachers--absolutely no turnover in that time--have nurtured our girls, played with them, comforted them, and loved them.  I'm thinking about them today, with a heart overflowing with gratitude for their steadfastness, humor, and caring, and for being there for us all this time, day after day, with smiling faces to greet them every morning.  We will all miss you.

Winnie the Pooh doesn't know what to do,
got a honey jar stuck on his nose.
He came to me asking help and advice
and from here no one knows where he goes.
So I sent him to ask of the Owl if he's there,
how to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear?

Since they were babies, I've always read Pooh stories to my girls.  They just love Pooh Bear, and they know I do too.  Pooh is good to have around in a pinch, even if the "pinch" results from him eating too much at Rabbit's and getting stuck in the door on the way out!   Mostly, Pooh is a great friend.  He loves people without judging them, and always shares his honey.  Among the lessons my girls learned during these peaceful, beautiful preschool years, I hope that's one they keep.

My talented, brave, kind, precious little ones.  Watching you leave your preschool and walk away from the House at Pooh Corner toward the amazing and unpredictable lives that await you is at once one of the saddest and one of the most inspiring moments of my life.

It's hard to explain how a few precious things
seem to follow throughout all our lives.
After all's said and done I was watching my son
sleeping there with my bear at his side.
So I tucked him in, kissed him, and as I was going,
I swear that ol' bear whispered "boy, welcome home."
Believe me if you can I finally came
back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
and whaddya know there's so much to be done
count all the bees in the hive
chase all the clouds from the sky
back to the days of Christopher Robin
back to the ways of Christopher Robin
back to the days of Pooh

--Lyrics by Kenny Loggins