Walking down the hill, after a week living at my desk, a week trying to fight my way through, now in the first light of morning, I keep feeling that chill-and-warmth that we call “walking over your grave.”
The road is still gravel somewhere beneath the blacktop – and so crowded now with past selves - that woman with hands thrust deep in the pockets of her windbreaker grinning up at the rain - that one with a baby strapped to her chest in a blue-denim sling and singing – that one with bouncing daughters on either side squabbling over who gets the “ring hand” - that one hauling up another wheelbarrow mounded over with icy-cold golden-white grapes to steam down into juice - all those were bodies I once lived in and I have to fight an urge to turn sideways in order to pass through.
I have never lived anywhere so long as I have lived here, walking over and over the same path.
Here two bare-legged little girls are still gathering blackberries in that hot dry summer before the new houses were built in what was (and somehow still is) the wild patch across the street.
Here is the shade and long grass where Vicky and I used to tell our stories stretched out along her well-groomed and never-to-be-walked-on path of thyme, watching our first-graders running across the yard with sun in their hair, before divorce and its dislocations, childbirth and a bout of homeschooling took us separately and deposited us in other places. I almost hear the cadence of her voice and almost through the closed door see that immaculate sunny place like the inside of a well-cared-for instrument – moon charts on the walls and exuberant potted plants. Someone else lives there now who keeps the gate always locked and has a barking dog, someone who nods rather grimly from the darkened windows of an SUV when we wave on the road.
Here, where the trees open up and you can catch glimpses of the river, is the spot the girls and I always began to run to catch the bus (and where more recently Young Son shouts and runs ahead of me just for the joy of it) and here the place my sunny-faced fourth-grader tripped and as quickly bobbed up again, her face creased into patient suffering, her small and golden cupped palm filling with blood.
Here, still and always, at the crest of the hill above the creekbed, it is one of the first days of summer: some sub-sound, like a throbbing of fear, drumming in our chests, is actually outside us – a swarm of bees, like one of God’s thoughts, waiting, resting on the air.
Here is the downhill slide where my laughing preschooler fed Andy-the-dog her piece of breakfast bread one icy autumn morning and here the spot at the bottom of the gully where Andy herded us into spring’s horsetails - that strange prehistoric plant that grows along the roadsides here - whenever a car zoomed past.
Climbing back up onto the flat here is the Christmas tree field (from which we at different ages and sizes come with different half-grown trees on wagon or sled, or loaded on our shoulders).
And here the work glove we fixed to the top of a fencepost so its owner would find it again. Both gloves are there for me - the first jaunty waving I remember so clearly and now the sad hand, beaten down by rain these long ten years and collapsed in on itself.
I meet, as usual, my walking friend somewhere between our two houses. We will walk, as we usually do, one of three routes. It doesn’t matter which – they have all become a progress through the stations – at this corner we’ll be talking about education, along this stretch we always mention our brothers for some reason, here we always seem to remember our mothers.
But it feels good to move legs that have been folded beneath a desk five days steady. To breathe the wind and feel the blood rising through all my veins.
And when we turn our steps to keep rhythm together, it is a great freedom to speak in safety, out loud, and without considering. Especially because of writing all week – which does bad things to me, leaves me blinking and shaky and irritable – “thin-skinned” - like I’ve blistered off layers of protective epidermis and am all over new skin too pinkly painful.
The night before I had had to speak in public – part of an ongoing project that is having some kind of agricultural effect on my soul (harrowing, winnowing, I can’t decide quite what) – and I had done that speaking limpingly, boringly, distractedly, and woke this morning still feeling burnt and blistered with embarrassment (on top of the thin-skinnèdness) and sick of myself.
But the walk does me good. I say as much, “Oh, it feels so good to be out here this morning.”
“It’s me,” says my friend.
“I was about to say that,” I laugh back at her, fondness filling that laugh with sweetness.
This Saturday morning friendship has become a place guarded by many mornings, past and (God willing) future. The economic downturn (for the time being) has stopped talk of expansions and transfers out-of-state. Which would not stop our walks we’ve sworn – we’ll just have to get head sets, she imagines, and become dotty old women gesturing into the empty air. But I imagine it will be more like the morning recently that I forgot she’d gone to the coast for a conference and walked all the way over in the gray morning to look at her weathered-silver farmhouse (I’d remembered by then) and then walked home to the sound of my own footsteps.
“I feel so much better,” I announce as I come in the door. Middlest, YoungSon and Fritz look up from the breakfast table. But back inside, the very repeatedness of my life begins to assail me again – my inability to ever get beyond my shrinking limits – my need to find a way through or a way out of myself. I begin to drive Fritz to distraction, rehashing each stupidity and staleness of the night before, coming in every other minute:
“OK. The thing is . . . ”
“OK. You know what I did wrong? . . .”
“OK. Here’s what I hate . . .”
Finally I announce I can’t stand living inside myself. I’m abdicating for the rest of the day. Fritz has given up trying to reason me out of my funk. Now he takes me on a bike ride down to the river, stopping to visit an older friend. “We’ll go around by the fairground,” he directs as we climb back up toward home and then ignores my complaints about my squeaky bikeseat, “If I can stand listening to you, you can stand listening to that seat.”
“We’ll do the Dipsy Doodles,” he nods when we get to the fairgrounds.
“Whatever,” I groan for effect. “I am entirely in your hands today.”
“Mnh-mmh-mmh!” Fritz laughs his wicked French laugh and waggles his eyebrows at me, “Too bad I didn’t know that earlier!”
The Dipsy Doodles are really the Stone Road Loop, ridden the other way around. This way, with a long, more gradual rise and faster downhills it’s an entirely more light-hearted experience.
I have work to do at home, paperwork, housework, a deadline, but instead Fritz declares that we have More Places to Go. So we load Young Son into the car with Middlest to take her over to her meet.
“I know where they’re all going tonight,” I tell Fritz as we climb into the car (meaning everyone who witnessed my fumbling feebleness the night before). “They’re having a big party and purposely not inviting me and they’re going to sit around over snacks and chortle and tell stories about every stupid thing I said!”
Fritz lets out a huge shout of laughter, plainly relieved that the paranoia is finally working itself out into the open, “No doubt!”
It feels so good to laugh, to finally be the fool instead of trying to defend myself to myself from the charge of foolishness. “And instead of charades they’re going to act out things I’ve done and try to guess,” I mime it, between gasps of laughter, “ – oh wasn’t that the time . . . ? And don’t forget that one time she . . . !”
“They’ll call it Were You There?!” he squeaks, trying to catch his breath. We’re both gasping with laughter and tears are beginning to roll down my cheeks.
“Who’s doing this?” demands YoungSon from the backseat. “Who’s having that kind of a party?”
We are wheezing and almost crying and can hardly explain.
“If anyone is doing that to my mom, I’m going to BELCH them!” says YoungSon, which sets us off in a paroxysm that cleanses the soul.
We drop Middlest off at the high school track (who – adorably and regardless of what I made of the opportunity - had volunteered herself to provide childcare last night and had made refreshments – because, she says, she knows I’m trying to find my way to something new). Meanwhile, Fritz, YoungSon and I swarm through the hardware store to get parts to fix the laundry room sink and a new handle for the rake and parts for crimping the wire on the monumental garden fence Fritz is building. I examine pruning knives. Young Son and I admire brass elbows and couplers and try them on our fingers. We heft mallets and hatchets and describe what destruction would be possible with the biggest ones. Then remind the lady behind the counter about the free popcorn.
We get to the meet before Middlest begins to run – the 3000? or is it the 1500? I can never remember – We sit on the bleachers in the sunny weather, reading our nerdy reads: The Economist (me) and Analyzing Meterological Systems (Fritz). Young Son finds Eldest who is cheering on a friend from another high school who's throwing discus today. She takes YoungSon on a run to Taco Bell with her friends and then we all shout and cheer when Middlest lopes past, easily and unconcerned, contained within herself, near the back of the pack. Placement doesn't matter to Middlest, who loves to run regardless and beats her personal record (we say, “She PRs”) – which is a thing I love about track, that it’s all about doing just a little bit better every time.
When we get back home it is coming on to dark, our arms full of groceries - fruit and milk and makings for guacamole, not to mention a pink bakery box of apple fritters and maple bars. Life is good – though it would be healthier without the fritters.
When I go to put away my laundry I find a little clay guy holding flowers on my dresser. Young Son had told me: “Mom, I made something for you. See if you can find it!”
And I do believe – at least today - I have.