confessions of a ragdoll athlete

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow wearyand lose heart.”

Hebrews 12:1-3

javelin

The sad thing is, my season was over before it ever really began. It all started with that stupid hamstring injury I got while doing off-season training on my own in Europe last summer — born out of my enthusiasm to begin something new and my unquenchable desire to be good at it. The story about how I ran myself through Central Europe with starry-eyed dreams of coming home ready to take my place as a cross country champion, or at least a contender, has been told before. But the story doesn’t end with me sitting alone on a hillside in Southern California after the season’s final race, shouldering the immense disappointment of unsalvageable failure.

In fact, if I had known then how much farther my quest for success would take me, and who it would turn me into, I would have taken a much deeper breath that afternoon and braced myself for the longest, most grueling seven months of my entire life.

Coach was the first one to suggest I consider track in the spring. He kept saying, “With those long legs of yours, maybe I’ll stick you in the steeplechase.” At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t planning on doing track. Real life beckoned.

But I’m nothing if not extremely competitive and, as I’ve said a thousand times, I compete to win. So when I realized that these silly injuries had robbed me of a proper competitive season in cross country, I decided that perhaps a season of track would be good for me. I needed to do it. I just didn’t feel like I had finished yet.

So, all Christmas I trained with Coach and a handful of dedicated athletes who, like me, were determined to begin the season with one foot already in the blocks. And, just like the summer, I found my holiday season disappearing into a rigorous practice schedule. The day before Christmas Eve and the morning after Christmas itself, I was out on the field with Coach and the gang. (Christmas Eve I spent stuck on the couch because the lactic acid build-up in my thighs was so intense I literally couldn’t move).

And the practices weren’t easy. I’d run myself stiff on the field and then walk over to the weight room, nauseous and weak, and begin lifting. Deadlifts, hang cleans, and other various forms of addictive torture became a regular part of life, as did protein shakes, balanced meals and 64 ounces of water daily(ish).

IMG_20170310_145402When the season officially began in January, I was ready to go. A 59.59 quarter mile, making State Championships — my goals were set, as usual, unachievably high. But I wasn’t worried, because now I was used to pain. I knew I could push past that barrier in my head that said it was too hard. I had mastered the little voice that says it’s okay to quit. I was ready to put in whatever was needed and there was nothing standing between me and that medal podium.

And then it all unraveled.

It started out innocently enough. The deltoid muscle in my ankle tightened one day during the second week of school while I was practicing 650 meter repeats with the distance kids. I couldn’t finish the last few laps and the distance coach sent me to the trainers. During that all-too familiar walk across the parking lot from an uncompleted practice to the trainers, I prayed, God, please don’t let this be like last semester. Please don’t let me spend a whole season injured and on the bench again. I worked so hard all of Christmas break and I really want a chance to win this time.

Screenshot_2017-03-04-23-28-52A few days after the deltoid, I pulled my quad. It only kept me out of practice for a week or so, but I had to wear a sleeve and now I was spending extra time at the trainers before practice to get my ankle wrapped and do rehab on my leg. Moreover, the quad injury forced me to switch lead legs going over the hurdles. It was a death sentence for my season, I just didn’t know it yet.

“Back again?” Dennis and Stacey would ask every time I hobbled in on weak legs with a weak smile. “You’re just a regular humpty-dumpty, aren’t you? We’re just going to have to tape you together entirely one of these days.”

When we began practicing at the Olympic Training Center on a real track, I found myself jumping real hurdles and all the excitement was just a little too much for my right shin, which began a regular habit of lapsing into splintering pain midway through each warm-up. Once the quad injury forced me to lead with the right leg, I found myself careening over hurdles and thudding to the ground on a splintering shin.

So now my stunts at the trainers included taking care of my shins and popping 800 milligrams of ibuprofen before practice to curb the pain and inflammation.

None of this I minded — I loved spending time at the trainers because they are kind, interesting people with super cool, space-agey gadgets that do the most incredible things to help the human body. No, the problem was that I finished work at noon and practice started at one o’clock, which meant I had only an hour to get to school, change for practice and still get a substantive workout at the trainers. So, I was usually late for practice.

But I also had class at three every day, which meant, either I lost time at the front and back end of practice or I was late for class as well.

My level of respect for student athletes has multiplied a hundredfold in the last year. That needs to be said. What these kids are able to balance is amazing.

IMG_20170202_162406I was doing a decent enough job managing the stress of trying to be in four places at once, all things considered. But, even though my times were getting better little by little, I was frustrated that I seemed to be missing out on getting a full practice in. As the realities of being an injured student-athlete who also has to pay bills began to sink in, so did the nagging spirits of doubt. Maybe it’s not true that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. Maybe sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or your body just physically does not have what it takes, or the window of possibility has closed already. The more time I spent on a table at the trainers, knowing I was missing warm-ups again, the more keenly I felt my chances at State slipping away. And with our first meet a week away and my quad still wrapped in a sleeve and mounds of tape wound around my ankle, the fear that this season might actually be just as frustrating as the last one tightened its grip.

So then, my prayer changed — God, please just let me compete this year. Even if I don’t win anything, please just let me compete.

And, for reasons that I would question for the next nine weeks, God said, “No.”

Halfway through our second meet of the season, immediately following my 400 meter race — a nerve-wracking thrill of an experience in which I distinctly placed dead last — my shins began their usual song of shrilly-sung misery.

“It’s really bad,” I told a teammate as we laced up for our next event — hurdles.

“Everyone gets shin splints,” she said. “You’ve just got to muscle through it.”

And it’s true. Most of the athletes on the team have complained about shin splints at some point this season. So I put my spikes on and I finished my last race of the day.

Fullscreen capture 5112017 103335 PM.bmpI wish I had known then that it would be my last hurdle race of the season. I wish I could have savored the feeling of soaring into the air, moving forward with purpose and poise, and the rush of my heart as we careened around the track. But I didn’t. I was too busy trying not to come in last place, worrying about whether Coach would be disappointed if I got a bad time.

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t walk. On Monday the trainers told me to get my shin x-rayed and I spent a week doing my workouts in a pool so I wouldn’t be putting weight on my leg. I limped around campus until Friday when the doctor saw me and immediately put me in a boot.

“We’ll check on it again in about two weeks,” he said, giving me the number for a physical therapy place to call. The prescription said, “Twice a week, five weeks.”

Five weeks put us into April and dangerously close to the end of our season.

When I told Coach, he folded his arms and sighed. I think he knew then what he never once said to me: my season was finished.

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

I was quiet for a minute. What did I want to do? I wanted to rewind to the first week of January when I was still hurdling pain-free. I wanted to go back to sprint workouts in December, the heaving and hurting and harried breath. I wanted to run.

“The doctor said I can do javelin if it doesn’t irritate the leg.”

Coach just nodded. “OK,” he said. “But I want you to keep doing your pool workouts.”

I promised I would.

So that was that. Now, I began my mornings extra early, heading to the gym to practice sprints in the pool before work, then hurrying to the trainers before javelin practice, and hitting the gym again in the evenings after class to get an upper body workout in to supplement the javelin routine. And, somehow, I still managed to squeeze in those physical therapy appointments twice a week (my therapist informed me that my shin splints were a reaction to the hamstring injury I had gotten over the summer, which never really healed. Each following injury was, to some extent, a domino effect from that first pulled muscle). My day was planned down to the minute. Heaven forbid I forget to pack a lunch or leave a book at home. I basically lived out of my car. My gym bag was a veritable zombie-apocalypse survival kit.

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Every day was more frustrating than the one before. At first I had hoped that, with the alternative workouts, maybe I’d be able to keep up with everyone else and still have a shot at qualifying for SoCal Championships (I had all but given up on State, even in the unrealistic version of my dreams). I was even practicing static hurdle drills at home, using an intricate jimmy-rigging of my livingroom furniture.

Yes, I understood that the chances of being able to get out of the boot in time for one last race was almost non-existent, but as soon as that thought crept into the back of my tired mind, I pushed it away. I didn’t have the strength to think about the odds. I just needed something to hope for. I needed a reason to not give up. So I hoped for one final, magnificent race.

But as the weeks dragged out miserably and my leg showed little improvement, I stopped hoping for a quality race and just started hoping for a race, any race.

Oh, the conversations I had with God this semester… Questioning, accusing, pleading. All I’ve wanted to do all year was run. Why would He keep refusing such a simple request? Such a little thing in the grand view of the eternal cosmos, wanting to run. Why would He deny me that when I’ve worked so hard? I was hurt, confused, and discouraged. I would drift into the trainers and try to match the cheery smiles of Dennis and Stacey, but by mid-April, my spirits were failing. It didn’t help that the javelin workouts had begun a whole new set of sore, bruised or strained muscles.

“What are we going to do with you?” Stacey would ask with her fix-everything smile.

“I don’t know,” was all I could manage. “I think I’m just unraveling.”

IMG_20170216_145151That was me, emotionally and mentally thread-bare and physically unraveling at the seams. And all the while, I felt like I was drifting away from the team and my teammates. I rarely saw anyone anymore.

I still drove up to meets on the weekends to support everyone. I’d see them in the trainers after a practice. But it wasn’t the same. Even fondly being known as “the girl who’s always injured” by my fellow athletes on campus didn’t make up for the fact that I was missing a second season — my last season.

But every time I was tempted to give up, whenever I felt overwhelmed by the madness, the hopelessness of it all, I would tell myself, “This is just the last curve in the track. This is the 300 meter mark and after this is a straight sprint home. You just gotta keep going.”

So I did.

The week we were preparing for the Conference Championship, Coach asked the throwers to practice with the sprinters at the local high school (it still felt weird, being a thrower and not a runner). I was in and out of the boot that week. My movements were limited, but I could walk and trot as needed. One of the interns at the trainers had taped up my ankle a little too tightly and as I limped onto the track, I knew it was going to be a problem.

I hobbled around for a few minutes before resigning myself to the fact that the tape was just going to have to come off. A teammate tossed me my keys and I sat down on the twenty-yard line and tried to cut the tape away from my ankle with the jagged edge of the metal.

“Mary, what are you doing?” Coach asked from the side of the track where he was surveying the team.

“The tape is too tight,” I answered, trying to keep the frustrated tears from my eyes, gingerly wrestling with my ankle as I watched another practice slip away. Coach does not believe in crying, so I try not to do it in front of him.

Walking over with lanky strides, his large, friendly gait silhouetted in the bright sunshine of the hot spring afternoon, Coach took up a spot on the turf next to me. He spread his legs out into a ‘V’ like a big, twelve-year-old boy and pulled my ankle up onto his knee.

“Here, give me that key,” he said. The gentle lull of his voice was coated in his usual chuckle, amused at my propensity for getting into scrapes, like a cat that always finds itself up a tree.

“How’s the foot coming?” he asked me.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning,” I said. “I’ll find out then if I’m cleared to run.”

“Wednesday,” he said. “That’s the day of Conference Semifinals.”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, “But they were all booked up this week — it was the soonest I could see him. And it will be before the races start. It’s a morning appointment.”

Coach didn’t say anything, but I knew I was cutting it close.

For the next few minutes, as Coach tore at the thick fibers of the tape, the world seemed to take a deep breath and I felt the relief. Around us, my teammates were still sprinting in their lanes in flashes of maroon and black. Janet and the hurdlers were racing around the track, bathed in sweat and sunshine, and a part of me yearned to be out there with them. But strangely, part of me was content to just be here, injured as a I was, simply resting in a moment’s pause from my usual hurry of commitments. And what a coach, I thought as I watched him slice away at the ankle wrap, to take the time to sit here and help me with such a menial thing. It was small, but it mattered so much. It made such a difference to me that day to know I wasn’t forgotten.

Whatever emotional respite those few minutes gave me were all that sustained me through the last big trial of my long, long season.

Friday afternoon’s team meeting was moved from 1:20 to eleven o’clock. I rushed over as soon as I got off work, but they were already finished and filing out of the parking lot when I arrived. I found one of the throwers and asked her what I missed.

“Just assignments for conference,” she said. “Coach put you in javelin.”

The breath in my lungs vanished.

“And hurdles? Or the 400?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, looking a little confused. “I mean, you’re not cleared yet so he can’t.”

I don’t remember if I said ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to her. I think I may have just drifted away. I meandered over to the school’s track field where my cross country season began nearly a year ago. Looking out over the lonely grass where I learned how to be a runner, heart aching, I burst into tears.

Weeks and weeks of pool sprints and physical therapy and driving myself crazy trying to keep up with everything, all for nothing. My season was over. My last race had been run.

July’s dreams of being a cross country champion, the early hopes of December and January all seemed ridiculous, vain. All my efforts washed away with one, unforgiving blow — a blow that happened months before I even knew what a hurdle was. Like the invisible gears of a broken clock, closed behind little golden doors, the muscles and bones of my body continued grinding out of place until something finally snapped, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me back together again. At least not in time for my last race.

Sobbing into my hands in the middle of that empty field, I asked one more time, God, why? Why would you bring me into this only to know from the start that you were going to take it all away?

No answer. It was just me and the grass.

I had a few days to calm down before I saw Coach again. He didn’t say anything about my season, so neither did I.

The doctor did clear me to run on Wednesday morning. “Probably not hurdles, but if you were to run a 400, if it was just one race, that would be okay. It might set you back a week or two in the healing process, but I can understand why you would want to, seeing as this is your last season.”

It didn’t make any difference, of course, even with the little slip of paper, all signed and pretty — registrations closed for conference a week ago. But I told Coach anyway when I showed up at conference semifinals that afternoon, and then I got ready to throw javelin at finals on Saturday. By that point, I was just happy to still be in a uniform. Happy that the championships were close enough to home that my parents could finally see me compete. Happy to be out of the boot and walking around on my own two feet. You don’t wish you could win races when you can’t even walk — you just wish you could get up stairs.

The fierce winds that had kept my sails blowing all year had finally died down to a whisper. It was calmer. Quieter. I felt empty, but at least I was at peace.

I threw my final round of javelin and it was decent enough. Nothing special, but I hadn’t been hoping for greatness.

“How’d it go?” Coach asked me as I rounded the corner by the triple jump, a flurry of school colors and officials’ whistles in the backdrop.

“It was okay,” I said. “I got a new PR, but I didn’t make the final round. So that’s it. It’s been a good season.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “Your season may not be over. We need someone to fill in a leg of the 4×400 relay. Were you serious about wanting one last race?”

My heart stopped.

“Coach, are you serious?” I asked, barely enough energy left to even hope for it. “Yes, yes, I’d do anything!”

“I know you would,” he said with a bemused chuckle. “Go talk it over with the girls, they’re warming up now.”

The bounce in my step as I rushed over to the relay girls gave away my enthusiasm.

“You are way too excited for this,” said Jessica as I bounded over to their circle next to the sand pits. The girls were sprawled on the grass in their warm-up suits with their spikes laying next to them.

“This is my last race,” I tried to explain, attempting to contain the smile that had etched across my face. “I’m getting my last race!”

“Have you even done a relay before?” Jessica asked skeptically with a knowing smile. I shook my head.

“Alright, go warm up and then I’ll show you the hand-off,” she ordered, flipping a long braid over her shoulder and giving me a catty grin. I did as she told me to — no one says ‘no’ to Jessica.

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My warm-up was short, we didn’t have a lot of time. Just jogging around the empty baseball field next to the stadium felt amazing. My legs, so long dormant, were delighted to have blood pumping through them again.

Had it really only been eight weeks since the last time I ran? It felt like years.

Jessica and Jennifer showed me how to do the hand-off — that was the part I was really worried about — and then Janet came over with orders from Coach. I was fourth leg, I was the anchor.

“Coach wants us to give her a good lead,” said Janet. The girls all nodded. We haven’t been competitive in the relay all season. In fact, I don’t think we beat a single team all year, so it didn’t really matter who ran which leg, we were going to come in last anyway. Hypothetically.

But Coach had a plan, so we went with it. And I didn’t really care where we placed anymore. I was over the moon just to have spikes on my feet again.

We took our places at the starting line, Janet in her blocks, Jessica waiting behind her at the mark, and Jennifer and I on the sidelines.

The gunshot sounded and Janet took off like a rocket. Janet is fast. She ate that first lap like a piece of cake. Jessica successfully took the baton and widened the lead, which was quite a feat considering she’s a short sprinter normally. Jennifer was still issuing me instructions when she took her place on the starting line, seconds before grasping the metal rod from Jessica’s steady fingers and making the loop herself. Jennifer is a 400 runner, so the sizeable lead we had grew into something magnificent and suddenly I found myself standing at the starting line of my first race in eight weeks with a tiny possibility of actually winning.

But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking about the fifty-meter lead the girls had just earned us. I wasn’t even thinking about how painful running this race usually is. In fact, all my nerves were gone. I was cool and calm and ready. As soon as Jennifer slid that metallic-red baton into my hand and I felt it firmly beneath my grip, the world slipped away.

My feet took off beneath me, fierce golden breezes beat down on my back like wings, and I was flying. For the first time in two months, I was racing down a track again, hugging the bend and plunging into the straightaway.

I laughed out loud — mid-race, I actually laughed out loud, it felt so good to run again. Joy and adrenaline shot through my body as I dove into the 200 meter stretch. I could hear Coach from the sidelines telling me to breathe, the same thing he’s been saying to me since September.

Everything else was clockwork. Like riding a bike, it just all came back. Dorsiflex, open stride, shoulders down, elbows at ninety degrees.

Even headed into that dreaded 300 meter mark, I felt good. If there was pain, it didn’t register. My mind was too full of stars and sunshine and freedom.

Somewhere in the stands, I could hear Corey shouting that the girl behind me was catching up, and as I turned the last curve and headed into the final stretch home, the roar from the stands told me my place was in contention.

My opponent, quickly closing on me, had won the open four earlier in the day. She was a bullet, and now she was shooting past me. Seventy-five meters from the finish, I felt my legs start to cramp. I still had air in my lungs and energy in my body, but eight weeks of not practicing on a track finally caught up to me. Every step was like running waist-deep in mud, until finally, fifty yards from the finish line, my legs locked beneath me and I toppled to the ground.

The bullet-girl whizzed past and I could feel my muscles seizing. For a minute, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to be able to stand up again.

Lucky for me, I have had an entire year of practice when it comes to falling down, so I know first hand that you can always find a way back up.

Heaving myself back onto my feet, I shot a quick look over my shoulder to see where the third runner was. She was nowhere in my peripherals, but I wasn’t taking any chances. With every last ounce of stamina I possessed, I pulled myself across that finish line and into the arms of my teammates before sinking to the ground once more as my legs gave out beneath me.

Within seconds, half the team had filed onto the field to help lift me up and carry me off the track. All these kids I hadn’t seen in weeks were there hugging me and congratulating me on what they considered to be quite the finish.

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“I’m sorry for losing the lead,” I kept saying, but Jessica would shush me.

“But you got back up! You finished!”

Janet made me lay down so she could stretch the butt-lock out of my glutes and one of the guys brought my shoes over so I could change out of my spikes. I tried standing but felt the overwhelming urge to puke, so I stayed bent at the waist for several minutes, trying to let my body calm down. My elbow burned from where the track had shaved off several layers of skin during my spill.

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The next thing I knew, amid the blur of congratulations and the ever-present urge to vomit, I was being pulled onto a medal podium.

“What’s this for?” I asked, head still spinning slightly.

“We got second place,” Jennifer told me as they put medals around our necks.

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They took our picture and I had to use most of my remaining concentration to not fall off the podium. It wasn’t until we were back on the grass that I looked at the medal.

“Do we get to keep these?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jennifer excitedly, her big, beautiful smile dressing her face with glee. “You get that for running. We got second place, Mary!”

That’s when I lost it. After all that, after my expectations and aspirations of winning had long been put to rest, here was the long-awaited medal in my hand.

All year long, God has closed every single door I’ve tried to walk through. From that first hamstring fiasco in July that cut my off-season workouts short, to each of the subsequent injuries that prevented me from practicing or competing, every time I thought I found a way to do it on my own, God said, ‘no.’

It wasn’t until I had been humbled to the point of surrender, stripped of my pride and steadied in the contentment of His will that he finally said, ‘yes.’ And then I understood that this medal and this race were His and not mine.

Suddenly, something much greater clicked into place. A point of doctrine that I learned as a little girl in Sunday school, a functioning of my faith that I have always understood technically but never before had context to: that we obey God because we love him. As Christians, God calls us to lives of sacrifice and obedience, in big ways and in small. It is a long, difficult race to run, but there is no fear of failure because we already know that a victor’s crown awaits us at the end — not because of our good works, but because of His. And so the race we run as Christians is not one of dread and misery, it is a race in which we set forth with joy and perseverence. Joy, because we know our pardon is sealed and the race is already won — perseverence, because we want to live up to the high calling given to us by our God. 

And so too, my hopes for track were no longer those of personal ambition. I was running a race I knew was a gift to me, a race I didn’t necessarily deserve to be in. Coach had given me the chance to run one last time, so I ran not just with delight for the privilege to participate, but also with determination to redeem the honor Coach had won for me in hopes that he would be delighted too. And those 70 seconds might just be forever emblazoned in my heart, like words of promise in stone. 

We could have come in last place. I could have tripped every three meters of that track and I still would have been happy at the finish line. How much my attitude has changed since November. How humbling this season has been for me, to learn that everything I am able to do, each moment of my day and effort of my life is a gift from God. 

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The joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Suddenly, on that golden field, surrounded by people I love — people whose love I’m not sure I even deserve — all those closed doors made sense. God had not forgotten me. How amazing that, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, he would take the time to carefully walk me through this year — not just shutting doors, but providing people to help me bear up beneath the weight of discouragement and despair. Friends who took time out of their practices to teach me how to throw, trainers who patiently and cheerfully treated my every injury, a Coach who never, not once gave up on me.

If this year as a college athlete has taught me anything, it is, firstly, the peace and fulfillment which comes from embarking on life’s grand journey with steadfast joy. Secondly, it has reaffirmed the absolute certainty of God’s loving hand in my life. Like a toymaker carefully stitching together a doll, not leaving out a single button or seam, or a busy coach who takes time to tend to the very least of his athletes, He will not forget me.

 

Mary vs the javelin


In the dark, I nearly tripped over it. Someone had left it tucked under the lip of our doorway and as I stepped into the dimly lit hours of early morning, my foot snagged on the corner, sending a panicked shudder through my body.

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Me and the javelin.

My feet are precious to me. For five weeks, I have been trying to heal from a stress reaction in my shin (basically, a bunch of little hairline fractures running from my ankle halfway to my knee). For most of those weeks, I’ve been toddling around in a boot, which has limited my ability to do some pretty basic stuff. In the last week or so, I have been able to walk around without the boot from time to time. But it’s tricky business because my ankles are feeling pretty paranoid at the moment. The last thing I need now, I thought to myself with duffle bag in hand and tracksuit fitted snugly beneath my school sweater, is another accident.

Letting my eyes adjust to the dark, I searched for the culprit of my imbalance and made out the shape of a package. As I picked it up to place it in a less life-threatening area, I noticed it was addressed to me, from Northern Ireland.

Another shiver ran down my spine, only this time it spread warmth and excitement.

I knew what was in this box.

But I was running late and Coach will leave people behind, so I tucked the package beneath my arm and hobbled down to my car. No boot today. Today was my first javelin competition.

The story of how I went from nerd to athlete is almost as long and coincidental as the story of how I met my friends from Northern Ireland, but my transition from a hurdler to a javelin thrower is pretty simple. I got injured.

When I pulled into the parking lot at school, Marcus, Sarah and Serena were already there, waiting in their cars. Gold and red lights shone off the black pavement from the neon “Home of the Jaguars” sign above the field house entrance. I turned off my car and slid the package onto my lap. This couldn’t wait any longer.

Inside the well-taped box, tucked into layers of foam wrap, was a ceramic plate decorated with butterflies, fairy mushrooms, and a brooding castle against a wild sea. It was a plate I made last summer when I spent a wonderful day outside Belfast with some dear friends. Immediately, I was swept onto the wild breezes and grey sunshine of the Irish coast. Castles and country lanes danced before my eyes as my memory floated me back to a place I miss.

A door slammed and I saw Serena getting out of her car. Coach had driven up behind us in the school van. Time to load up.

“You guys excited?” I said, clambering into the middle seat — I had stowed the plate neatly in the back of my own car before climbing into the school van. My enthusiasm was greeted by some half-hearted smiles and a snore. It was still early.

Normally, we don’t go up on Fridays. It’s hugely impractical. Most meet events are on Saturday — all the track events, the jumps, and most of the throws. This particular weekend, hammer and javelin were the day before. Javelin happens to be my only event right now, and I haven’t had the chance to compete yet, which means I won’t be able to attend the conference championship at the end of the month. This weekend would be my only chance to qualify.

“Coach,” I had said during practice that Wednesday, “If I can’t compete this weekend then there was no point in my practicing javelin for the last two weeks.”

He heaved a big sigh, gave me an exasperated smile and then showed up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning to take me and the other four throwers to Los Angeles.

My sole ambition as a composer is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future.”
-Franz Liszt

We drove to the shed on the edge of campus to load up our equipment, fog lingering over the grassy field. Marcus had spent the better part of two weeks teaching me how to throw a javelin across this field and the stretch of lawn above it.

Leaning against the shed were our practice hurdles. Even in the excitement of loading our javelins and hammer wires into the car, I couldn’t help but feel a little tug in my chest at the sight of those rickety, wooden frames. It’s been too long since I’ve been over one, too long since I’ve been able to run at all.

Equipment stowed carefully away, we began our trek north. By the time we hit the highway, Coach had awakened enough to be in good spirits. The girls found their chattiness, too, so the drive up was mostly a lively one — Marcus slept in the back seat.

It’s been a rainy winter so, these days, the hills of Southern California are dressed in the bright yellows and pinks of wildflowers. My favorites to see are the mustard plants. They are soft, yellow bunches that grow on pale green stems. They grow tall and thin, texturing the hill with waves of brilliant bulbs of color that parade back and forth to the rhythm of the wind. From a distance, they almost look like fairies flocking the hillside.

And fairies always remind me of Ireland. Of course, there they are known as the Little Folk, as I was told by my Irish friends.

My wee little Belfast family are more than friends. They came into my life at a pivotal moment. They appeared when I was in the middle of a painful transition. Opening their home and their hearts, they served as a wayside shelter, a reminder that God provides, that he promises good to us and he is faithful to fulfill.

That is a reminder I have needed this semester, which is why the plate they sent meant so much to me.

When El Camino College finally greeted us with the open arms of opportunity, I was ready to greet it back.

For context, I have been training with the javelin for a week and half. The doctor finally approved me to do limited activities on my boot and javelin made the most sense to me. So here I’ve been, a wanna-be-hurdler with zero background in sports and a hefty injury on my right leg, learning how to throw a spear with three weeks left in the season.

Coach sauntered out of the parking garage towards the sunshine and the rest of us scrambled along behind, carrying poles and wires and metal balls (and, in my case, an enormous box of Cheezits).

Only four or five other schools showed up over the course of the morning. It was a small crowd. Track meets host hundreds of contestants, but the field side of things — especially when only half the events are being thrown — is understandably smaller.

“Should we take bets on how far Mary is going to throw today?” Coach asked. He was fully awake now and his proclivity for teasing had arisen with him.

“I already know,” I said, standing up on shaky ankles. We were sitting on the cement slab where the bleachers were set up. Across from us was a cone shaped field with a runway on one end and a hammer cage tucked away in the middle-right side. I stepped onto the edge of the red-track runway where a thick white line ran across the width of it and counted out thirteen loose footsteps into the grass. Turned to Coach, I said, “About here. This is my margin.”

Immediately, Sarah and Serena were at my side.

“But watch out for the line,” they said. “If you step over that line you scratch and your throw doesn’t count.”

My head jerked up instantly. I hadn’t heard this rule.

“You can’t even step over it as you’re walking off,” they said. “You should probably do some practice leads just so you get it.”

Lining myself up, I stepped out with my limited range of motion (even without the boot, I don’t have a lot of give on my right foot) and threw and imaginary javelin into the air. But I had to catch myself as I leaned forward and my feet ended up well past the white line.

“Scratch,” said Serena. “Try again.”

The second time I went through the motions on the right side of the line, but exited in the wrong direction.

“Scratch,” said Sarah. “Wait for your javelin to hit the grass, too.”

Suddenly, my head was spinning. I was having trouble just remembering to block and release up. Now I had to worry about the stupid white line too?

As the girls busied themselves with the Cheezits and Marcus took off to warm up for the hammer, I slipped away down the sidewalk, out of view.

For twenty minutes, I walked myself through blocking movements. Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

Using the cement blocks in the sidewalk as markers, I ran through the steps until the soccer players in the field next to me had all but forgotten there was some weird girl doing Karate Kid motions by herself in the middle of campus.

Pausing to give my shoulder a rest, I was struck with a feeling of loneliness. I missed my hurdlers. My distance kids. My gang of misfits and rabble-rousers. I missed warming up with everyone and running in circles around an unforgiving track, telling each other we’ll be better people if we can just survive the day. It’s been such an incredible experience, being part of a team, and having to sit on the bench for the last few weeks has been isolating and discouraging. Half the reason I signed up for javelin in the first place was just to have a reason to keep coming to meets. Anything to stay in the uniform, you know? (The other half is that I’m fiercely competitive and I don’t like being told to quit).

My perk from the morning had disappeared into nerves and loneliness. I sat back down with the girls and listened to their cheerful banter as we watched Marcus throw. They explained the finer points of the hammer event and helped me wrap my bad ankle with the medical tape in our first aid bag. It was a shoddy job, but it held together.

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Warming up.

The morning passed away serenely. At one point, I fell asleep stretched out on the concrete and upon waking up, I discovered Coach had balanced a Cheezit on my forehead.  

Coach came and went. He knows everyone, so this meet was a busy social occasion for him.

At last, the time for women’s javelin had come. It was the last event of the afternoon so the remaining athletes and coaches collected near the field to watch.

“Okay Mary,” said Coach, pulling me aside. “This is just the warm up. It’s called picking. Just practice throwing a few feet in front of you. Throw at the same time as the other girls in the line. You wouldn’t want to hit anyone.”

His deep, gravely voice was a familiar comfort. I don’t know if every coach is given an internal fear detector to help them locate which of their athletes needs a pep talk the most or if it’s just my coach, but he always seems to know when to remind me that he’s right there, that we’ve got this.

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Picking with my Lady Jags.

Serena and Sarah made space for me between them in the picking line and walked me through the process of spotting my mark and aiming for it.

The tall girl next to us was panicking almost as hard as I was. It was her first time to, but she didn’t have teammates here to help her like I did..

My last few picks were horrible. I could hear Coach from the sideline saying, “Pretend it’s your ex-boyfriend and you’re mad at him. Throw it, Mary!”

Next came practice throws from the runway. I was a mess. The javelin wasn’t even sticking in the grass when I threw it. It just sort of hit the ground and slid a few feet, like an underachieving lizard on a poorly constructed water slide.

And, of course, everyone was watching. At least in track most people are too busy watching the winner to notice the loser.

But the tall girl was struggling too, so I commiserated with her and we had a good laugh. Then I complimented some girl on her American flag muscle tape and another girl on how pretty her throw was, even though it didn’t stick (“You’re like my mom today, thanks,” she said with an an appreciative smile).

The official called us over and asked if anyone wanted the rules explained. Everyone — not just my teammates, the whole flight of javelin girls — looked at me.

“Yes, please,” I said with a sheepish giggle.

Fully aware that everyone had recognized me as the baby of the group, I held my head high. I was the first to throw — also terrifying — and I could hear my teammates cheering me on.

All I had to do was get the javelin to stick in the grass and I would have my mark, I would get to compete at the Conference finals in two weeks.

Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

I lifted my eyes just in time to see my javelin plunging into the earth, tail still skyward. Instinctively, I clapped my hands and looked for Coach amid the several dozen smiling from the bleachers.

“It stuck! Coach, I’ve got a mark!”

It wasn’t just my own teammates applauding me. The whole flight of throwers and most of the crowd were laughing and clapping their hands. Not because it was a great throw — it was the shortest of the round — but because they knew I had accomplished my goal. I got a mark. I made a start. I had begun.

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My second throw was even better, and I got another cheer when my javelin passed the first mark by a foot. The third throw swelled farther out still.

The fourth throw was flat and came down short, but at that point, I was happy anyway. Happy to be in a uniform. Happy to be part of the team. Happy to be in the sunshine doing new things in new places.

I cradled the half-empty box of Cheezits all the way back to the car. Coach said he was proud of us so he took us to his favorite burrito joint in LA to celebrate. The food was delicious and portions were big. I had already decided not to finish mine when Coach informed that I couldn’t be a thrower unless I could eat like one. My teammates nodded in agreement silently as they chowed down on burrito-y goodness, the deepest contentment etched across their faces. So I sighed, reexamined my plate, and strategically conquered the whole thing. And the throwers officially claimed me as one of their own.

With food on our stomachs and a long, long morning behind us, the ride back was fairly quiet. I slept for a lot of it. When I did wake up, in those first few moments of almost-consciousness, the jumble of the school van down California’s golden coast reminded me of another coast and the familiar bus ride that took me from Dublin’s airport to my lovely wee friends in Belfast. They, too, claimed me as their own. For reasons I’ll never understand, they just opened up their hearts and let me walk right in.

Since leaving Prague two years ago, I’ve been struggling to find a place where I belong. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken to sports so intently this year. But every time I think I’ve found my feet beneath me again, something trips me up. It’s been one injury after another for two seasons now. I’m doing everything I can just to stay fit for a race in two weeks I may never get cleared to run. All my pool sprints and now bike workouts and gym hours — I know very well it might all be for nothing if the doctor says I still can’t run on this leg when the time comes. And that’s been so disappointing.

Harder still is having to shoulder the disappointment alone. Because I do my workouts separately, I never see my kids anymore. Janet, Corey, David, the distance boys and the hurdle crew and all those rag-tag sprinters who’ve wormed their way into my affections so steadfastly this year — I don’t see them now.

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But for two weeks I have been able to train with the throwers, these crazy wonderful kids who have turned into sweet friends. I have been able to learn a new skill, one I have been interested in but never thought I’d have the time to try. I’ve walked into a whole new world, right here at the end of the season. What an unexpected gift.

It’s as if God is reminding me once again that he will never leave me empty handed. That, even though my life might not unfold the way I envisioned, it will not be barren or bleak. It will be filled with his grace and mercy, overflowing with blessings like sunshine, roadtrips and Cheezits, like friends in unexpected places and ceramic plates that show up outside your door like rainbows after stormy weather, like teammates who will cheer you on for not falling over the scratch line and coaches who will give up their Friday to drive you three hours north so you can throw a spear into the ground and make it stick.

the truth in these lines

“Hold still,” I said, gesturing tyrannically to my classmate who was giggling uncontrollably in his chair. Pen poised a breath above my sketch pad, I gave him the sternest look I could muster. “I will never get this right if you keep moving.”

It was hard for either of us to keep a straight face, mostly because not just this project, but the whole class was a bit ridiculous. I was only taking the beginning art course because I needed one more humanities class to transfer and this seemed like the easiest one.

It’s not easy.

It’s not easy because a beginner’s class is about learning the basics, and the basics are boring. We spent one class just drawing straight lines on a paper with different instruments to become familiar with their pattern and texture.

Me, draw a straight line? I’m sorry, but no thank you.

 

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I find myself continually torn by the half of me that is always teetering down the roads less traveled and the half of me that desperately needs to be the teacher’s pet. The two do not agree much in this classroom.

“My glasses are probably making this difficult,” my classmate said. His jet black bangs swept over wide-framed glasses that were indeed making this difficult. Blind contouring required me to keep my eyes on my subject without ever glancing at the lines I was tracing on my paper. I was fairly certain his glasses were not going to be accurately placed.

“Alright,” I said, removing the guard paper from above my right hand and looking down at what I had drawn.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He just nodded, a little taken aback by what he saw. It was no masterpiece, but we discovered, along with the rest of our classmates in their turn, that focusing on our subject and the nature of the line, rather than on performing the task, created an element of sincerity in our haphazard portraits.

After blind contouring was a continuous line exercise. We had to map out each other’s faces without ever letting our pen leave the paper. It meshed an understanding lines with a foresight of strategic direction and was considerably harder to accomplish. We were just blocking out features, trying to find ways to connect them all, to turn our meandering lines into meaning.

My classmate seemed more nervous to draw than to be drawn. It was certainly odd sitting still on a chair in a warehouse-esque room lined with creaky easels and spattered paint supplies, letting yourself be captured by someone else’s observations. What would they find?

A lot of my life has been about lines lately. I am seeing them everywhere. There are lines that separate the lanes I run in on the track, lines that mark the places where we place our practice hurdles, lines that form stairs I can barely walk up anymore with this medical boot on my right foot and lines in my hands from the soft creases of usage.

In fact, from the moment I get up till the last glimmer of wakefulness leaves my eyes before falling asleep at the close of day, my whole world is lines. Only now I’m beginning to recognize them.

We don’t tend to notice lines because they are hidden behind shading and shadow, behind texture and depth and color. But lines are the basis for everything we see. So in my pursuit of lines for an art class I’m becoming more intrigued by, I have found myself searching the those foundational grids in my own life.

Where are my lines?

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Most of my life is taken up with track and field these days. So what lines can I find there?

I love running, I love my teammates and coaches, I love the challenge of doing something that seems impossible. Those are the basic lines, the outline that traces all the reasons I have poured so much time and energy and will into this. Those lines are shaded in by feelings of excruciating pain, immense joy and sometimes overwhelming discouragement. I keep getting injured, which has added texture to this picture I could never have imagined. The shading and color distract from the original sketch. It’s not that they aren’t part of the reality, it’s that they aren’t the foundation. The pain and frustration, the loneliness of practicing in a pool by myself until my shin heals, the agony of trying and failing are part of the reality of track. But they don’t define the image, they only add to it.

I’ve been doing this with everything in my life: school and work and friends and future plans. And in all these lines, I have seen truths I would not have otherwise noticed or been reminded of.

Once I could pin-point the basic elements, I took up my proverbial pen and began a continuous-line contour of them. How do they connect to make a picture larger than just lines? Why would something I love so much, like track and field, come into my life so late and so hugely, and then why would it remain always just out of my reach with one injury after another keeping me off the field? Challenge and the hope of victory, those flighty temptresses, floating just beyond my fingertips — how are they reconciled with my sheer delight in the friendships I have made this year, or the incredible new perspective I have gained on the human body?

I don’t even need to ask if all these things are connected somehow. With God as the great artist, there is, no doubt, no line unfinished or without purpose.

Our homework that week was to do self-portraits with both blind contouring and continuous line. Sitting on my carpeted floor with a mirror balanced precariously on some books, I gathered my paper and pencils and began what is actually quite an intimate experience: staring into the face of yourself that is presented to the rest of the world and looking for whatever is real.

I don’t look like the person I was two years ago when I moved home from Prague. I look more like a journalist, less like the vagabond I was. My face has gotten older. It’s thinner, tanner, freckled.

The sketch I drew looked surprisingly like myself, rough though it was.

Amazing how, when we stop trying to force the bigger picture we have in our mind’s eye and seek to understand what is really before us, written in the little lines, the picture of our lives suddenly becomes clearer. It isn’t prettier, necessarily, or more skillfully done, but it looks right. There is truth in those lines.

 

Stockholm Syndrom and the quest for self-betterment

It’s dark and chilly when I shove my heavy track bag into the back seat and pull out of the drive. Coach isn’t kidding when he say’s he’ll leave you behind if you show up late, and I still have to pick up a teammate.

Kae lives close and we’ve been carpooling for our early morning meets. After several reminder texts, I still haven’t received a confirmation that he is up and awake and ready to go, which is pretty distressing, but I roll with it. For the first time all semester, I’m actually on time, so that’s put me in an insatiably good mood.

The sky is still wrapped in a dark blue blanket of early morning when I pull up outside Kae’s house. I wait a moment, letting the half-a-pancake I hurriedly ate for breakfast roll over in my stomach.

Nerves.

The porch door opens and Kae comes out shirtless and carrying a bundle of blankets, track uniform spilling off the top of the pile in his arms.

“Give me a moment,” he says with a smile, racing back inside. When he comes back out, still shirtless, he’s carrying a pot of chicken, beans and rice and a handful of incense sticks.

“Okay,” he says, “I’m ready.”

I look at him, mouth agape, shock robbing curiosity of its chance to speak.

It’s going to be quite a day.

By the time we crest the hill and wind into the college parking lot, the sun has pulled away the covers of night, steeping the sky in brilliant shades of pink and orange.

Our teammates are arriving alongside us. Several laugh out loud when they see Kae get out of my car, half-dressed and eating chicken and beans.

“And rice,” he tells us.

Serina, the captain of the women’s field team, grabs a set of keys for the shed and sets out for the javelin poles. After stowing my bag onto the charter bus grumbling in the parking lot, I follow her.

“We need a table,” I say. “Coach Lynette wants something to put the food on.”

“There should be one in the shed,” she replies.

We rummage around looking for equipment and the alleged table, finally finding it covered in cobwebs behind the old barbeque.

Trunk open and windows down, with javelins and the rusty table spilling out of the car from every angle, we drive back to where the charter bus is waiting for us, Coach standing just outside the door.

“Got it all?” he asks.

Yup.

This is my second track meet ever. It is going to be a much bigger one than the last and I’m entered in two events, not just one. Our destination: Cal State LA.

I sort of sleep on the way up and when the bus finally rumbles to a stop, I feel drowsy and achy. I am currently rocking three injuries: shin splints, a pulled quad, and an old hamstring thing that resurrects itself every few months when it feels like my life is getting too simple. The bus ride has done nothing for any of my maladies and I fall down the steps onto the sidewalk feeling rather beaten.

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The team meanders through the campus, past the track and onto the baseball field where the check-in and staging takes places. Tents have been set up around the perimeter of the field and athletes are warming up around the diamond. At the bottom of a blue horizon are snow capped mountains, framed by palm trees. The breeze is cool and the sun is warm. It’s a beautiful day in California.

My first race is not until noon. It’s only nine.

We locate the women’s restrooms, spend twenty minutes tracking down milk because Coach brought two boxes of dry cereal, break the rusty table and duct tape it back together, and walk the circumference of the very large track field and its stands which are already filling up with spectators. Janet offers to braid my hair. I agree readily.

“You take care of her today,” Coach tells me, pointing to Janet. “You make sure she pushes through these hurdles.”

I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic because we all know that Janet is the mother in this situation. She’s the women’s team captain, a hurdle monster, and my personal stay for emotional and mental support.

“We’ll take care of each other,” I promise Coach.

When he leaves, I look at Janet.

“You ready?”

“No,” she answers with a smile.

“Me neither,” I say. “I’m beginning to remember how painful the 400 is. Real, physical pain, Janet.”

“I know,” she says with an understanding grin. “We all know. If you don’t feel pain, you’re not running it right. It’s just part of track.”

Noon rolls around quickly enough and I find myself warming up around the baseball diamond with athletes from colleges and universities all across Southern California. It’s intimidating. I feel like a tadpole in a pond full of frogs with really big legs.

From the staging area, we are escorted onto the field. I’m in heat five and I’m freaking out.

I have never run a flat race before. In fact, it’s been weeks since I even practiced the 400. A quarter of a mile is a long way to sprint, even if it is just one lap around the track.

Agustin is standing behind the fence looking out over the field. I walk over to him after the gun sends off the third heat.

“I’m so nervous, Auggie,” I say. He and I were captains of the cross country team last semester. He is different now. More light-hearted. Being just one of the team has made him more laid-back, but I still lean on him when I need some captain-y advice. He’s still got the good stuff.

“Remember,” he tells me, “it’s okay to come in last. Just make sure you look good when you cross the finish line. Keep your form, keep your technique.”

I laugh. To keep form you need to have it. I run a bit like a drunken sailor.

An eternity of very short seconds later, I’m curling into my starting blocks, waiting for a gunshot I hope would never come.  

How many times had I run this race in my head this week? Dozens, at least. Only in every quiet moment of my mind. Push into the curve. Maintain along the straight-away. You’ll feel tired at 250, but so will everyone else – keep going. Hug the bend. Sprint the ending. Finish. Dear goodness, please finish this race.

There was the gunshot. The rest is a blur. My most vivid memory of that race, and it’s not very clear, is the distinct feeling of my quads seizing up during the last hundred meters.

I cross that white line and nearly faint.

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Corey, that dear soul.

Corey comes over, wraps his arm under my shoulders and helps me off the field, back to our tent.

“You did great,” he promises me. “Even Coach said so.”

“What was my time?” I ask.

“Seventy-four seconds.”

I moan. I was shooting for seventy.

At the tent, I can’t get my heart rate down. My breathing is heavy and my body seems to be revolting against me.

“Do a cool down run,” says Janet.

I can barely stand, but I pick myself up and jog lightly along the outfield till I reach first base. Then, isolating myself to a corner near the mesh fence, I plop myself resolutely in the dirt.

My breath slows and my vision becomes hazy as shadowy figures jog past me on their course around the baseball field.

Why am I doing this? I ask myself. It’s a good question. One I have been avoiding for a while. I am no good at track, it would seem. It isn’t a career for me, or even a way to secure a scholarship. It’s just something I’m doing. Something I’m strangely addicted to. But why?

I’m not here because I’m overly competitive, as some have suggested. I don’t tend to do things I’m bad at. Just ask anyone who’s tried to get me to play volleyball. If I was just here to win, I’d have walked away several injuries ago.

And I’m not here because I don’t know when to quit. No, I’m not a quitter, but even a rational person knows when it’s time to move on. So there must be some rational reason for me staying, right? So what is it?
At the end of cross country season, I told myself I was a better person for having chased impossible dreams. That doesn’t seem to be a good enough answer anymore. How is this making me a better person. What am I really learning here?

Why am I spending so much time and energy on something so painful with so little reward? Yeah, I can understand shedding your blood, sweat and tears if you’re in line for a gold medal. But I’m just trying to drag myself across the finish line. And for what?

“Are you okay?”

Kae is warming up around the diamond and sees me sitting in the dirt on the edge of the field.

“Do you need water?” he asks. I shake my head but he comes back around with a bottle for me anyway.

My second race is at 3:30 and it comes too quickly. I have no energy. I’m still shaken from the ‘open four’ and even getting through the warm-up seems like a challenge. My shin splints are practically singing and my hamstring has joined the chorus. All I want to do is lay down and hibernate for a few months, but I have a race to do. A race with ten ominous hurdles.

Janet walks me to the staging area and we put on our spikes. She’s heat one, I’m heat two.

“I’m ready for this to be over,” she says with a chuckle.

Me too.

Her heat takes off quickly and here I am again, pacing out my blocks and waiting for the call to stand at our marks. I’m in lane eight.

Lane eight is for the slow kids. It’s also the blind lane because you can’t see where everyone else is on the track until they pass you or you reach the final hundred meters. But I practiced in lane eight all day on Thursday and it feels familial and welcoming. This lane and I have something in common: we’re both kind of on the outside of this whole thing.

Pop. There’s the gun.

Off I go, with all the grace of a driver who’s been pulled over for a sobriety test. Every time I jump a hurdle, I fall a little into the lane next to me. I have zero energy left and I can feel myself slowing down. Immediately, I realize I am never going to beat my time from the last race: 1:31.

But as I round the second bend, I see hurdle seven lying down in the track. Someone knocked it over in the first heat and it was never righted.

I panic.

Do I jump over it anyway? Will I be disqualified for not having a hurdle?

My pace slows down considerably as I finally decide to hop delicately over the fallen obstacle, but the damage has been done. I am running too slowly to jump the next hurdle, which is standing up as it should be.

My lead leg mostly clears the top but my trail leg decides, in this pivotal moment, that it would much rather do a tango with our hurdle instead. We collide.

Both the hurdle and I come crashing down onto the track, which is still warm from a day in the sun, and my cheek rests gently on the rough, red surface. My knees and hands are burning but I barely feel them. My mind seems to still be racing though my body is pinned beneath a hurdle. All I know is that, for these two seconds, my body is no longer hurling through the air, racing a clock it cannot beat. I’m just chilling on the ground, and it feels pretty good.

The respite is brief. Following a collective gasp from the spectators and fellow athletes around the track, I hear calls to get up, to keep going.

As if I would quit.

I pull myself up and try to pick up enough speed to make it over hurdles nine and ten, which I do, barely.

Later, I my mind would return to those last two hurdles and the complete lack of firepower in my legs and I would think, What kind of spell are you under that you keep coming back to partake in this misery every day?

I sprint wobblingly to the finish where Coach is waiting for me with a grin on his face. As Janet picks me up around the waist and Corey comes over with water, Coach looks into my exhausted face and says, “The first time the hurdle draws blood is your birthmark, everything after that is a battlescar.”

And that’s it. That’s all he says. Now I’m a hurdler.

We go back to the tent and I fall asleep for a while. The rest of the evening passes in din of chatter, trail mix and homework assignments. Eventually, I drag Corey to the stands to watch the men’s 5000. We both agree we’re much happier as mid-distance runners.

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Napping, stretching, eating, doing homework. #tracklife

I’m still feeling defeated. I’m a little ashamed of how relieved I am that I fell over the hurdle, because I needed those two seconds on the ground, because I’m not sure my body could have kept going, because I was worried my time would be so much worse than last week.

I’m still feeling a little detached from this whole experience, still feeling like I don’t belong, feeling like maybe I’m wasting my time here. Maybe everyone’s right – I’m twenty-five and working two jobs. I’m years behind in getting the degree. Why am I frittering away my time with college athletics. Isn’t it time to grow up?
Corey and I climb down the bleachers and cross the field to the start of the 4×400 relay race. Our girl’s team is a bit sparse. Runners one and two are short-distance sprinters. They don’t run the 400 very often. Runners three and four have already done two big events today and they’re tired.

But there they are, all lined up and ready to go.

It’s the same routine.

On your marks, set, gun shot.

I stand there on the side of the track and watch four young women do something incredible. They run together.

Every blood-bursting second of excruciating effort, they push through with unshakable will. And more than with their individual events, they lay out their spirits here because there is a girl at the end of the lap waiting earnestly for them to pass the baton.

This is teamwork.

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Even from the sidelines, I feel myself flying along the track with them and I want so much to be a part of it. I am reminded of why I got into sports reporting years ago, why I feel so strongly that athletics are an important part of our community, why I filled out a request form to join the school’s cross country nine months ago.

This is does make us better people. This turns us into people who are not afraid of pain. This teaches us the irreplaceable value of working together. This inspires us to dream, and then insists that we work to reach those dreams. And if our hopes are disappointed, it teaches us to hold our heads high, walk it off and say, “next time.”

This is whole experience – the pain, the practice, the teamwork, the hopes, the hopes crushed – has made me a fuller person. I can empathize with the human experience in a way I couldn’t before. My perception of people and what drives them has broadened. I have been taken from my high-horse, I have been humbled, I have been broken and rebuilt.

And yet, none of this is why I have stayed in track. We can get life experience anywhere.

I’ve stayed because I love it. For whatever unexplainable reason, I love this.

The grueling three hour practices, the indescribable pain of pushing every muscle to its farthest fiber, the agony of defeat and the alluring promise of a brighter tomorrow, and this team. These people. My coaches and friends.

Maybe it’s a luxury I can’t afford, to spend so much time doing something with no practical impact on where I plan to go in life. But at least I know why I’m here.

When this very special season of my life comes to its early end and I have to say ‘goodbye’ to this team I adore so much, I will hold my head high and find another race to run, another team to love, another impossible dream to chase. Because this is life, the unending search for joy and self-betterment.

 

Mary vs the fear of falling

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I’m deathly, gut-wrenchingly afraid of falling.

Coach knows this.

He also knows that I like a good challenge, which is why, on a golden day last week, he called me over to work with the hurdlers at track practice.

“Warm up with these guys today,” he told me in his deep, rich voice that always seems to be laced simultaneously with layers of amusement, preoccupation and expectation.

Coach is the predominate reason I found myself on the track team this semester. And even though I got to know him well when I ran cross country, I’m discovering quickly that he is a different beast during track season. When it’s time for play, he leads the charge. But when it’s time to work, you don’t mess around with Coach.

At the end of the soft red track, nestled on the outer curve of the bend, a heap of hurdles were stacked on the grass.

It had been raining – you all remember the deluge, right? So the grass was green, and the mountains across Otay Lake were gorgeously carpeted in pear-colored sprigs. The sky was blue, the lapping waves on the surface of the lake were silver, the breeze was clear and golden. What a day to be outside.

Our team has been training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista since our own track was ripped up and turned into a dirt path over Christmas break.

I’m not complaining. This place is gorgeous. The equipment is top-notch and we always see Olympic or professional athletes from other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, practicing alongside us. Already I know I will never forget this for as long as I live.

“C’mere, Mary,” said Daniel, the very tall, very friendly guy who first taught me how to run a three-hundred without dying from butt-lock. “I’ll show you how to get set up for the hurdle stretch.”

He helped me shimmy the hurdles around and lift my leg up and over them.

Some of the other guys jumped in and added that I should keep my toes pointed up, or keep my knee pulled in tighter. Janet, my friend from cross country season, just gave me looks now and again to correct my form or attitude. With just the nod or shake of her head, that girl could change the tides of the ocean. She can also hurdle like nobody’s business.

Eventually, after my make-shift lesson in stretching and warming up, Coach meandered back in our direction, his great shadow stretching long and wide.

“Are you all about ready?” he asked, swaggering over from the middle of the field where he had been talking with the jump coach, the layer of preoccupation casually at the command deck of his voice. “Do four 300’s with the last three hurdles.”

“Not you,” Coach said to me, not even looking down. His eyes were still assessing my companions, all lanky-limbed and agile, as they made their way towards their lanes. “Go set up a hurdle down there. Take the top off. We’ll practice.”

I scampered away and quickly followed directions, a tiny knot beginning to form from the threads of my stomach. How was I supposed to actually jump over one of these things?

From the middle of the field, at the end of the jump zone, I had a clear view of everything. Everything from the pole vaulters at the bottom corner of the field to the sprinters practicing in their starting blocks. All around me was a whir of people, activity and sunshine.

Coach doesn’t stay in one sport during practice. Not ever. He watches the sprinters, keeps tabs on the hurdlers, talks with the distance coaches, and makes the long walk over to the throwers in the other field. And just when you might think he’s not paying attention, you can hear him bellow across the track, calling you by name, to tell you to dorsi flex or open your stride.

By the time he finally made his way back to me, my hurdle was set up and ready to go. Frankly, it was doing a lot better than I was. I was a nervous, jittery wreck.

Did I mention that I’m scared of falling?

Coach walked over to one side of the dismantled hurdle, top barely a foot from the ground, and said, “Go ahead, jump.”

And I did. Piece of cake.

He raised the top slightly and we repeated the process. Each time, he gave me a new instruction to follow – knees up, lean forward, use momentum. Each time I had to shake myself off and mentally give my face a little slap before sizing myself up before the baby hurdle.

A few yards away, Janet and Daniel were whizzing past, jumping over actual hurdles. I watched in awe. They made it look so easy, graceful even.

When my baby hurdle had grown to racing height and I had successfully gotten over twice, Coach said, “Alright, now go join them.”

I gulped. The hurdlers were running three hundred meters and then leaping at full-speed over literal obstacles in their path and, miraculously, not dying. I had not expected to get thrown in with the big dogs so soon.

But you don’t mess with Coach, and worse than angering him is disappointing him, so I picked up my feet and found the starting line just beyond the vaulters.

“You got this, Mary,” Daniel said with his ever-reassuring chuckle. “This is easy.”

There was nothing to do but go for it.

Red rubber track slid away beneath my shoes as I gathered speed down the first hundred meters. The second hundred meters makes up the bend in the track and then, then come the hurdles.

Something happens when you jump a hurdle.

When you run, the world rushes by in a blur of color and muffled sounds. But the second you leap into the air, your body slows down just enough for the world to look noticeably still. Objects in your peripheral vision become clear and sounds land crisply in your ears until your feet touch back down and you shoot off again. For a second, just one second, at the crest of that hurdle, it feels like time stops.

At least it did the first time I made it over. And it was a miracle I made it over that hurdle at all. I hit the next two and basically body slammed the last one.

A few more tries running around the track left me more out of breath, my shins beginning to splinter from the pounding, and the hurdles still an elusive foe.

Sometimes, I would get all the way up to a hurdle and then just stop, unable to make myself jump over it. My whole body would jerk to a halt or rear up backwards like a skittish horse. There was, unfortunately, a fair amount of yelping and shrieking involved in all of this as my life flashed before my eyes at each approach.

“Mary,” Coach called from the side of the field. “You have to make it over the hurdle.”

“Yes, Coach,” I said, smiling dumbly as my shin splints began a new chorus of screams.

On the walk back to the starting line, I ran into one of the hurdle boys. He stopped me for a moment.

“The hurdle, Mary” he said, “it’s all in your head. We’re all scared of it. But you have to trust your gut.” He pointed to his head, “You have to beat it up here first.”

I know quite a lot about how much some battles are fought in the mind. All of last semester, the cross country team trained on hills. I can get up a hill just fine, it’s the coming back down. It’s the staring down a long drop that rushes at your face as your tired body plunges seemingly toward the earth. It’s that fear of falling. There were some days where I would sweat my way up a hill just to get stuck at the top, heart pounding, mind screaming, throat tightening into unreasonable sobs. I knew I wasn’t going to fall down those hills. No one else had. But there was some invisible hand holding me back, pressing my mind into the dust, leaving me weak and shaking.

But I got over it. After a whole season of fighting that hand, I finally won. Now I run down hills, not because I’m no longer afraid of falling, but because I am stronger than it.

At the end of last season, when Coach asked what I wanted to do for track, in my mind I thought, anything but hurdles. Because even the thought of hurdles gave me that same heart-pounding, mind-numbing ache.

But I like a challenge, and Coach knows this. So when I asked if I could do the 400 hurdles, he said “Okay” without a single note of preoccupation or amusement. It was all expectation. Expectation that I would push myself, live up to my commitment to the team. He expected that I would learn how to jump a hurdle. And you don’t mess with Coach.

I knelt at the line, gave myself one last big pep talk, and shoved off. But as I rounded the bend, I was suddenly smacked with the view of a bare track. The hurdles were gone!

“Coach!” I yelled, continuing to run, though somewhat flailingly without a target hurdle to jump.

“Hey!” Coach shouted, amusement and expectation in his voice both battling for the upper hand. “Where are my hurdles at? Where’d you guys put the hurdles? She’s still got to get over them!”

The Papa Bear chuckle in his voice caused a string of giggles to erupt from the side of the field as the team scrambled to put the track back together.

I was ushered back to the start where I had to regive myself the “just do it” pep talk before beginning.

At this point, most of the team, the jumpers and sprinters, had completed their workouts and the commotion had caused a fair number of them to criss-cross over to our side of the track. I could hear them cheering me on as I lifted off and rushed toward the first hurdle. But Coach’s voice, now determined and expectant, was the only one I listened to.

“Faster,” I could hear Coach say. “Get those knees up or you aren’t going to make it.”

“Lean in, Mary!”

“Control your arms!”

“Dorsi flex!”

My mind tried to grasp what he was saying, but literally none of it processed. I had one thought and one alone: don’t trip over the hurdle. Don’t fall.

In a blue and white flash, the first hurdle came and went beneath the current of movement I had created and I barely noticed it. The second one clipped my knee, but I crossed it as well, losing my balance for just a moment before pulling myself toward the last obstacle.

By this point, the team down by the last hurdle was just as intensely drawn into the trek as I was. I could hear them even in the faintness of the rushing track and the roaring road beneath me. But the only sound I listened to was my own little voice, a voice that is growing stronger, the same one that begged me to just pluck up and run down all those hills last semester.

Just get over the hurdle, Mary. Please, just get over the hurdle.

And I did.

It was truly something else. Once my toes were off the ground, it felt like they belonged in the air. That golden sunshine seemed to pave a road for my feet and in the split second that I found myself crowning the hurdle, I felt like I had wings.

It wasn’t a technically beautiful jump, and Coach was the first to say it wasn’t perfect, but perfection will be a lesson for tomorrow.

That day, I was content just to walk off the field a hurdler, knowing it wouldn’t matter that I was afraid of falling now that I knew what it felt like to fly.

‘welcome to track’

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Fall semester was behind me. I had left it in a parking lot with a couple B’s I didn’t work hard enough to deserve and nine traffic citations I didn’t pay on time.

Things looked bleak in the haze of San Diego’s dreariest winter.

The school was empty when I drove back onto the familiar campus, past the baseball field to the very tip of the last empty lot, and parked. Serious athletes don’t take winter break, I’m told. They train off-season.

I want to win. I want to win and I now have a very realistic perspective of just how difficult that will be for me, a new athlete and practically a fossil in terms of college-aged competitors.

I told Coach when cross country finished that I wanted to run a quarter mile in under a minute. He said if I work hard, we might be able to get it down to .64 seconds.

Ok.

So I showed up to my first track practice hopeful, fearful, and incomprehensibly underprepared.

Coach wasn’t there.

If anyone gets credit for my being able to survive a semester of college cross country, it’s Coach. He is unreasonably cheerful nearly all the time. He’ll push you, he’ll make you work hard, but he does it with a big, goofy grin and a joke on his lips. He’s never shouted, never even raised his voice. That’s not necessarily the norm in the world of athletic mentors. Occasionally, he would invoke my title as women’s team captain to get me to work harder, a little dig or a guilt trip or just a name to live up to, I suppose. It worked. Coach believed in me more than I probably believed in myself, so I ran my hardest not to let him down. As far as coaches go, he’s as “good cop” as they come.

My first impression of the track coach that blustery day was that he must be the bad cop to Coach’s good cop. Not super bad, just the sterner, more serious cousin. All I had seen of the track coach so far was some rather straight-faced concern.

Short, lean and sinewy, the track coach stood with his hands folded across his chest, a cap low over his eyes. He talked in calm, even tones, watching us with serious, hawk-like vision. I immediately added impressing him to my list of worries for the season.  

I didn’t see anyone I knew during the warm up. No one from the cross country team had shown up and, although I recognized some of the track athletes from the locker rooms and such, I didn’t know any of them personally.

Warm-up was a mile — that’s nothing for a distance runner. I laughed when I saw the track athletes try to cut off the last lap without the track coach seeing. He did see, and told everyone to get back on the track and finish the mile.

Then we did dynamic stretches and some other weird stuff, and I was panting and out of breath in minutes.

It was cold outside and the field looked grey and tired. I was wearing my cross country shorts and noticed that most of the track girls had on long, weather-appropriate pants. I made a mental note.

The track coach parsed us into different groups when the warm-up finished. He stuck me with the mid-distance runners and pointed us towards the starting line for the 300.

“Do three of those,” he said, “and then three 200s.”

This can’t be so hard, I thought to myself. In the fall, we’d pick up and go nine miles, up and down hills in 90 degree weather. I could handle a few laps around the track.

“What do you run?” a tall, lean boy with a nose-stud asked me.

“Quarter mile, I think,” I said. “I’ve never done track, so I’m just doing what Coach tells me to right now.”

“Nice, okay,” he said. “Quarter mile is fun. You should try it with hurdles.”

“Don’t scare her,” said the girl next to him with a grin and a groan.

Hurdles. I’ve heard about those.

Our feet found the line in the grass and my companions bent low into start positions. I sort of stood there, wobbling indecisively about which foot to begin on.

The track coach let out a yell and they took off. It took four steps for me to realize they were running a lot faster than I was, four more to realize I wasn’t going to be catching up. The bend in the track couldn’t come soon enough and by the time we approached the straightaway, I could feel my glutes burning. Actually, everything was burning. The cold air had scorched my lungs, my arms felt hollow as I tried to pump myself faster along the track, and every strip of muscle in my legs seemed to be singing in agonizing, disjointed harmony.

We finished, me coming in several seconds behind, and collapsed onto our knees. I was panting so loudly the sprinters down the field could hear. Someone made a joke about the new kid.

“You should stand up,” said the boy. “You don’t want to cramp up.”

He pulled me to my feet and the girl joined us as we limped back to the starting line.

“Man, this really works the hammys and the glutes, huh?” I said between gasping breaths.

“Yeah, it does,” the girl laughed. “You’re gonna look great when the season’s done, just you wait and see.”

A breeze had picked up and rustled through the trees that encircle our makeshift track. We practice on the grass because the rubber on the track has cracked, split and hardened so badly that it’s dangerous to run on. But we’re in good company, sandwiched between raggy soccer fields and a forgotten softball diamond.

“On your marks,” we heard the coach call.

I don’t even remember hearing him say, “Go!” Everyone just took off. I refused to let my pace slow down, but the burning was noticeably worse. When I crossed the finished a minute later and stooped over to find my breath, I felt the muscles in my legs tighten. I gently reached for my toes, hoping it would stretch them out, but it did little good.

“C’mon,” the boy was calling to me. “Walk it off.”

“How do you guys do this?” I called out, trying to raise myself off the ground, feeling an indescribable pain in my hindquarters that was, embarrassingly enough, starting to bring water to my eyes. “You’re like superhumans.”

The girl just laughed and came over to help me.

“I’m going to be honest,” I said, hobbling along beside her, “My butt is not handling this well.”

I was laughing as I said it, but the pain in my glutes had intensified and real tears were welling up in the corners of my eyes.

“You’re probably cramping,” she said. “Lie down flat and I’ll stretch you out.”

She took my legs and bent them toward my chest one at a time. It felt so good.

“Distances runners don’t use the same muscles that we do in track,” she said. “It’s pretty common to get back-leg cramps when we do this kind of running.”

I nodded my head to let her know I had been listening as she hoisted me to my feet. Immediately, upon being righted, the cramps returned.

My face contorted in pain and I let out a little “Oof.”

“Maybe you should sit this one out,” she said.

I plopped back down on the grass and winced through the onslaught of tightening muscles, which seemed impossible to stretch, while she trotted over to where everyone else was gathering for the last lap.

I knew track was going to be different. Coach had already kindly warned me, with a self-amused laugh, that I’d have to relearn how to run if I did track, that it would be hard work.

I’m not scared of hard work, but I’m definitely a little scared of pain. And this hurt. I’m scared of being the new kid, and I certainly seemed to be one in that moment. I’m scared of being a failure. And Coach wasn’t here today with his firm, friendly smile to gently say, “Come on, Captain, keep pushing. You want to be a quarter miler, don’t you?”

I could hear the track coach tread the green till he reached my spot of turmoil on the grey grass.

“Do you have asthma?” he asked, bending slightly at the waist, arms still crossed over his chest.

I was still panting pretty hard, and the tears streaming down my face must have painted a pathetic picture.

“No, Coach,” I told him between unsteady breaths, trying uselessly to stand and bracing myself for the scolding I deserved for sitting out a lap. “I’m fine, I promise. It’s just that… my glutes really… really hurt.”

He looked at me for a moment with his sharp eyes, which I noticed for the first time seemed to have Coach’s same cheerful glint. Then his face burst into a smile and he laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh. It was one of relief and amusement. To my surprise, he let out a bellowing sigh and nodded his head understandingly.

“Distance runners don’t get that much, but here we call it ‘Butt Lock,’” he said, holding out his hand to help me pull myself up and start again. “Welcome to track.”

refusing the bitter cup

I could barely open the door against the rush of the highway and the gush of the winds that raced along the brush of California’s most beautiful coast. Rain slammed the shoulder of the road and I slammed the door, both of us in foul moods. Pulling my coat tightly across my chest, I trudged around the front of my car to inspect the tires.

One was flat. I may not know much about cars, but one tire was definitely flat.

I stood there on a flooding highway halfway between Oceanside and Orange County, suited in twenty five years of disaster experience. I know how to handle misadventures.

Call Dad.

That’s always step one.

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It was only noon, but the sky was so dark it felt much later. A single split in the horizon let in streaks of gold through the grey and purple clouds that insisted on drenching the hair had I so carefully coiffed that morning.

Slipping into the passenger side of the car, I pulled out my cracked phone. His cheerful voice filled my ear like a guardian angel.

“Hey kid,” he said.

“Dad, I have a flat tire,” I said, getting right to the chase. He didn’t sound surprised. He has twenty five years of co-piloting my disaster experiences.

“I’m on the 5 heading North,” I said. “Camp Pendleton area.”

“What are you doing up there?” he asked curiously.

“On my way to a little high school debate reunion,” I told him. “Sam and some of the old gang are in town and we were all going to get together. Looks like I’ll be a little late now.” My tone was snippier than necessary. I’ve not been a very nice person lately.

“I’ll call AAA for you,” he said.

“There’s a rest area up ahead. I’m going to pull in there.”

We hung up and I waited for the whooshing traffic to thin before braving a trip to the driver’s side to get in.

The rest area was on a little hill overlooking the Pendleton valleys with tall reeds growing along the curbs and a steady stream of visitors parking, using the facilities and then continuing on their journeys.

I walked around my car several more times, getting a good look at the tires. The left front seemed low as well, but suddenly I worried that maybe this is just what tires look like. Maybe it wasn’t flat. Maybe I was being a panicked female who didn’t understand auto mechanics. I surveyed the bevy of people coming and going around me.

Two chummy looking bikers were chatting by their wheels and I took a step in their direction.

“Does this tire look flat to you?” I asked without so much as a ‘hello.’

They both meandered over, leather stretching and chains jingling, and kindly began to examine my car.

“Naw,” one of them said, scratching his scraggly red beard. “It’s low, but you’ve got some miles on it.”

The other biker knelt down by the tire and pushed a metal something-or-other into a knob on the inside of the tire and listened for a sound none of us heard.

“Nope, this one is actually flat,” he said. “No pressure at all.”

He then proceeded to check the rest of my tires for me and show me where my spare was. The left front was indeed low as well. I silently padded myself on the back for spotting it earlier.

“Have you called a tow?” they asked. I assured them one was on the way. They wished me good luck and I thanked them profusely as they hopped on their bikes and rode out into the storm.

The rain had somewhat settled but the wind was tossing like a frightened horse. I found shelter inside my car while I waited for the tow truck.

I had texted Sam to let him know I had gotten a flat tire, and at some point in the flurry of the last twenty minutes he had called to say he was sorry I was missing the first part of the lunch reunion but that the group hoped I would still be able to meet up with them.

Sam and I go way back. Nearly ten years, we recently realized. He’s one of my few friends from high school with whom I have genuinely stayed in touch, though that’s more his doing than mine. He is the kind of person who is intentional about friendship. I’m the organic, wherever-the-wind-takes-us kind of friend. We get along pretty perfectly.

Two summers ago, I flew out to New York City where he has been working so we could bus ourselves up to Buffalo for Evan’s wedding. Evan just recently moved back to L.A. with his wife and baby girl. Everyone is growing up.

Everyone but me, I thought to myself as I tried to fix my make-up in the mirror. I had been nervous about this lunch anyway. Nervous about seeing all my old friends with their spouses and hearing about their careers and plans, and then getting to tell them all my glamorous stories about community college.

I had tried to make myself at least look like a grown up. I fixed my hair, did my make-up for the first time in weeks. I even put on uncomfortable shoes! Sometimes I wonder if prim-and-proper high school Mary would be disappointed in my life choices these days.

Staring at myself in the tiny frame of the car mirror, I realized how fake I felt trying to impress everyone.

I love where I am. I love my local college. I love that I get to teach and write about sports and compete on a college team. It’s just not the path I had planned on traveling when I was in high school and we were all dreamers together. Certainly not where I thought I would be at twenty-five.

In high school, which I’m realizing now was much longer ago than it feels like sometimes, I had pretty much everything figured out. I knew I was going to get a steady office job, save money, buy a car and eventually an apartment of my own. I figured by this time I would have a husband or steady someone and maybe even some kids. I’d be a grown up. Like the rest of my high school friends are now. The ones waiting for me to join them for lunch.

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The tow truck pulled up just as sunshine broke across the sky.

A nice, older man helped me check my tires again and declared my spare “too flimsy.” So I climbed into the truck and watched my little car get hoisted onto the back bed. In minutes, we were sailing back down the highway to Oceanside, farther away from lunch and my impending destiny with my past.

The tow man was quite nice. I feel like the girl I had been in high school would have had all kinds of lovely questions to pass the time with and make his job a bit more pleasant, or at least less monotonous with some light conversation. But I found I had little to say, so we drove through sheets of wet green hills and grey-gold sunlight in silence.

He delivered me and my car to a tire repair shop of the Old Coast Highway and I was told it would be a two hour wait.

I almost cussed. Two hours. There goes lunch.

I’ve been almost cursing a lot lately.

Actually, I’ve just been cursing. As someone who has staved off the habit of swearing for a quarter of a century, the few times I’ve let a bad word slip from my mouth have been more of a surprise to me than to the people who have heard it. It never tastes good coming out, but it’s the overflow of a bitter spirit so what is one to expect?

Just a few days earlier I had been playing pool with some old college friends who have all moved on with life, who I rarely see anymore. As the evening wore down, so did my facade of general gaiety. Finally, someone just asked me out right if I was okay, to which I responded, “This has just been the worst [expletive] Christmas.”

I immediately regretted saying it, but I tried to look natural and composed. I tried to look like I was just over it all – the lights, the fuss, the happy people with happy plans.

“It sounds so much harsher when she says it,” my friends were laughing, still a little awed by my slip up, though not impressed. They curse all the time. I hadn’t done anything except take the sourness in my heart and pour into my mouth. They kept playing their game and I kept stewing in the corner, wondering how I could have gotten here, feeling so far away from the ever-hopeful, ever-gleeful, ever-principled little girl I was in high school.

Mind you, it wasn’t just the curse word that made me feel like I had drifted into unknown waters, like I was becoming someone I hadn’t planned on being. No, it’s been a year of marked choices. A year of giving up ground or giving up hope in small ways, ways I didn’t think would make a difference. But there I was, a stranger in my own body, a ghost in my own future.

From the tire shop, I texted Sam with the update, grabbed a stack of unfinished Christmas cards from my trunk (because it’s never too late to send out a Christmas card), and walked down the street to a diner.

As soon as I stepped in, I knew I had made a good call (one which, frankly, I don’t think high school Mary would have made).

A Mexican-American-Greek menu took up most of the wall surrounding the counter, wrapping around a corner and over the door where a little bronze bell hung fastidiously from its post.

It was nearly one o’clock, but I still hadn’t eaten breakfast so I passed up the huevos rancheros and the gyros and ordered french toast and a coffee.

It was a good choice.

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There I sat, next to a large window overlooking a drab street in late December with a plate of buttery french toast and a stack of cards to people I miss.

I felt so at home. For the first time in a very long time I felt a little bit like life was back to how it should be. Back to me ending up in strange places through a series of misadventures. It felt like Prague, like Madrid, like that sleepy town in Ireland where I accidentally found my great-grandmother’s cottage, like that island mountaintop in Greece where I watched snowflakes dance on lonely winds before disappearing into the nether.

I was alone, but not lonely. I was wandering, but not lost.

I’ve been struggling lately. For the first time since I moved back to San Diego from Prague, I have time to think. Since the summer I came home, I’ve kept life so stock full of things to occupy my mind with I haven’t had time to miss the place I left, except in little moments here and there. But as the semester ended, a fresh wave of heartbreak swept back over me for something I left behind a year and a half ago.

It’s a wound that keeps opening back up, that refuses to heal, no matter how much I smother and stifle the emotions that keep it exposed to the sting of bittersweet memories.

It’s been especially hard with the holidays bringing everyone back to town. Everyone with their families and careers. Me without Prague. Without a clear purpose.

Presumably, these are my own insecurities projected onto dear family and friends, but I have this nagging fear that people will see where I am now and raise their eyebrows, or worse, extend to me their sympathies. I’m afraid people will see me at community college working two part time jobs and think, “I guess she peaked in high school” or “Maybe she didn’t belong in Prague either.” I’m not where we all thought I’d be. I’m not where I thought I would be. And worse, I’m not who I thought I would be.

To guard against these doubts of my own creation, I became something I swore I would never be. Bitter.

It’s been building up all year in little increments, propelled forward by my poor choices and in every step I have taken off the Path. Little ways to guard my affections and feelings that started as sarcasm and a few exaggerated sighs turned into cruel judgments and stony expressions.

I don’t like who I became this Christmas. I don’t like who I’ve been turning into all year.

And, not surprisingly, it didn’t protect what was soft and precious and hurting inside. The bristles I used to surround my heart turned inward until I felt hardened all over.

There was not much pain, but there was certainly no joy either.

I walked back to the tire station feeling a little better. French toast and good coffee will do that to the spirits.

They gave me my keys and I called Sam. The group was finishing up and I was still an hour and a half down the road.

“I’m just going to go home,” I said. “We have family plans tonight and I’ll never make them if I get stuck in traffic. But let’s do this again!”

Radio on, engine purring, and clear skies beginning to turn a soft pink, I headed homeward.

And then, because this is me and when have I ever told I story where I didn’t end up crying at least once, I just completely broke down.

I cried from Oceanside to Del Mar. Every bottled up emotion from the last eighteen months came spilling out.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it at least every other blog post: it feels so good to cry.

And as my car found its way down the coast, racing the sunset, I realized I would rather endure the pains of life than be the person I’ve been for the last few weeks. Even if it means hurting and being disappointed, even heartbroken, I’d rather keep caring, keep hoping, keep pressing on with joy. Is that not what we’re called to do as Christians? To hope, to trust, to rejoice always?

But I also realized that it’s a choice we make, not to be bitter. And that’s something I don’t think high school Mary would have understood. As a girl, I had no large exposure to loss, rejection, disappointed hopes, crushing heartbreak, the foils and betrayal of life’s unexpected turns. I have lived through those things now. So I may not be the bright-eyed idealist I once was, but I am better equipped to navigate this winding road God has put me on, this road that looks nothing like I once thought it would.

And if bitterness is something that creeps up slowly over time by natural evolution, a change brought on by our environs and life experiences, then that means that the battle to keep it at bay must happen over and over again during the course of our lives, however long they be.

It will be a choice we make every day to choose to start again, fresh and full of hope.