On Not Stealing Struggle: A look at Asteya

 

 

uganda chapel

Asteya translates to “non-stealing” and reminds us that we have all that we need; that we should act from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.” Coral Brown, Yoga Journal

I would have been very content in Uganda had it not been for the women. I would be wondering at the colorful roadside shops and the overpacked taxi buses, and then I’d see them walking along the margins of the  busy red-rutted roads, lugging a yellow tank of water. I would be laughing at the monkeys in the trees, and then notice women peeling potatoes behind the student cafeteria, a charcoal fire burning beside them where they would cook hundreds of meals for the students. Even when I was in their homes, listening to the husbands and male visitors chat, the women’s absence pestered me as I ate the watermelon they had diced and the curry they cooked. When we left the homess, the women waved goodbye, then hurried back inside to wash dishes with the water they had fetched earlier in the day.

In March 2016, after enduring three flights and a twelve hour layover in two days of travel, I settled down for a week at Uganda Christian University. I was there on a research grant to interview and observe the American students studying abroad there, and while I had never thought of Uganda as a place where I could happily live, within a few days I was smitten with the relaxed beauty of the country. Sure, the main highway through the country was a two-lane road clogged with potholes, but on the campus where I was staying, the red dirt paths were fine for walking. The water never got warm in my guest room, but it was so hot outside that I didn’t care. I swallowed pills to prevent malaria, wore light skirts to the sweltering classes and practicums, and ate inexpensive, tasty meals every day. The Ugandans on campus smiled at me as I asked questions, and the Americans grinned as they shared their Ugandan culture shock. Monkeys played in the trees, and some of the American families at the campus invited me over for dinner to their cool, clean houses. The internet was inconsistent, but it worked, and I enjoyed every visit I made to practicum sites and classrooms. I could have lived there pretty comfortably, if I could have forgotten that most of the population was not living comfortably at all.

I watched the women from the inside of the van where I was being driven to or from the airport, to or from an NGO serving abandoned children, and their struggle irritated me, similar to the irritation I feel when I see a homeless person, or kids walking to school through rough neighborhoods. These people made bad choices, the industrious American inside of me says, trying to ignore the Holy Spirit whispering there but for the grace of God go I. Uganda magnified this feeling, because being comfortable, at least in my sense of the word, meant either being very rich, or white. I was both.

The more the women bothered me, the more I caught myself trying to believe that they probably liked walking to get water, or that they were so used to it they wouldn’t want to live differently. Or maybe they had done something to get in this situation and they could choose to escape it. My logic was ridiculous. I won’t pretend to understand infrastructure in developing countries, but Uganda (as also Flint, Michigan) is a clear reminder that hard work and industry will not route a water pipe or a paved road to a family’s home, even if that family owns their own business and puts all their children through college. Usually the job of fetching water also goes to the women and female children, as does the job of building fires, selling snacks, washing clothes by hand, and raising children. Their discomfort reflected back my privilege. I didn’t like how that felt, so I simply minimized their struggle. It felt like stealing.

In yoga philosophy, the third yama or restraint is Asteyaor non-stealing. This past month in my yoga teacher training we were to meditate on this yama and think about what it means to our lives. I thought about how my use of time steals sleep and energy from myself. How my schedule steals time from my husband. How my propensity for running late steals time from other people.  I had lots of personal conviction about Asteya, but nothing stuck like the images of African women carrying those yellow jugs, Michigan families holding signs reading FLINT STILL DOESN’T HAVE WATER,  African-American families in New Orleans pointing to their abandoned home, and African-American parents everywhere mourning the deaths of their children–and the dismissive comments we can find under each photo:

“Well, if they worked a little harder . . .”

“Well, if they hadn’t broken the law . . .”

“Well, why don’t they move somewhere else?”

As if industry can make clean water materialize in your neighborhood.  As if not using a turn signal or listening to loud music means you should die. As if hard work can hold back a hurricane.

We do this all the time, even to people we love. One of my students lost a close friend in a mass shooting. Three months after the event, her father asked her why she wasn’t “over it” yet.  A woman in my community was brutally raped in her home a few years ago; shortly after the fact some people in the community began trying to frame the assault as somehow “consensual.”  When I was going through my divorce, I heard a family member say that I probably left my husband because I couldn’t handle getting yelled at occasionally. This logic comes at the expense of other people’s dignity. When we try to minimize the suffering of others, or even blame them for their suffering, we are robbing them of their sorrow and struggle so that our abundance makes us feel less bad.

And we do this the most to people who already have a difficult life. I was riding in a taxi back to Entebbe airport when I looked at a woman on the side of the road and caught myself minimizing her hardships in order to feel less bad about my indoor plumbing. I tried looking away, and realized that approach was doing the same thing. No one in Uganda was asking me to carry water, but just to realize the miles are long, the water is heavy, and the jug will be empty again tomorrow.

 

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Only Time for Satya

guiness-fish
Self Portrait 

My husband’s one pet peeve of my driving is that when I follow a too-slow driver that I cannot pass, I unconsciously pulse my foot on and off the accelerator as I creep closer and closer to the bumper. I guess I think I can will the car in front of me to move faster with my own gas pedal. It never works, and only leaves my husband seasick, and me irritable that I cannot make the Lincoln in front of me drive my speed.

I often treat my husband like that poky Lincoln when we are running late. At 5:45 in the morning, when I am trying to get us out the door for my 6:00 a.m. yoga class, he is putting on his pants and checking the weather app on his phone. I am reluctant to order him around (because I do not want to be Bossy Wife ever again) so I hover, dropping comments (are you ready yet? Can I do anything to help you? I really don’t want to be late) because I hate being late. But yet, I often am. It is easy to blame him when we show up late together, but I know the truth: I would still be rushing in at the last minute even if it was just me.

My mother says I have always tried to pack every day full. On my seventh or eighth birthday, my family managed to throw me a birthday party, went shopping, and saw the Christmas tree lighting on the square in my hometown. She said I still cried afterwards because there was one more thing I wanted to do. As a young adult in college, I always tried to make one more thing happen. I see my college self in my current students who run from workouts to class, breathless and sweaty, dripping coffee on their sleeves. I see it in my student who, at the last minute, signs up for twenty-one credit hours, then flustered and overworked, drops them, one by one, until she is down to thirteen credits and has to take extra courses in the summer to make it up. I see this, because these are all still things I do. The only difference is that in 2017, I have a smart phone that lets me contact students, colleagues, and friends when I am running late for meetings and coffee dates. Which is often.

This semester I began with a goal to be at least ten minutes early to my morning classes. I failed at that immediately. The first day I told myself I had time for a five-mile run because I could get ready in twenty minutes. And I did—but had to skip coffee and a real breakfast. What I sometimes forget to tell myself is that my husband is the one who keeps me fed and caffeinated; I also sometimes forget to tell myself I need these things.

When we studied satya during my two-hundred hour teacher training, we talked about being so honest with our time and commitments that we never had to apologize for not making our deadlines. The idea of being able to live this way blew me away. I had been saying “I’m sorry, I’m running late” so long that I had almost gotten used to it. In faculty meetings, I often hear a colleague talk about margin—leaving enough time between events to get from one place to another. I used to think of margin as time to spend, as I used to think of food and sleep as something to skip. Maybe I could get away with my ignorance then, but the more I learn about holistic health, and the more I honestly observe my own body, the more I know see my unhappiness and stress when I shortchange my sleep and my time. Just because I can get ready in twenty minutes, or go to work on four hours of sleep, doesn’t mean that I should. I know that now, and ignoring this satya will be detrimental to me as well as the people in my life.

In learning the truth about how to care for my body, I’ve also been confronted with my own tendency to not speak the truth about my relationships. In my last marriage to an irresponsible person, I often found myself resentfully cleaning up messes and trying to “mother” him out the door so that we wouldn’t be late. In public, I put on a smile and came up with excuses for why he didn’t have a job or why we were in debt. Instead of saying what I wanted (please clean up your messes; please respect my time) I would internalize the words—because they would lead to a fight I couldn’t win—and express, passive-aggressively, my annoyance. That didn’t work. In this marriage, I sometimes still fall into my old habit of trying to make him do what I want instead of honestly expressing what frustrates me, and what I need. Giving myself margin means I have time to realize I have a safe relationship, and can be truthful even if it means an uncomfortable conversation. Satya, it turns out, is not only about not lying but actively telling the truth.

Because I’m being honest, I know I still have a problem with time (I wrote the original draft of this with twenty minutes to spare until my deadline), and a problem with tailgating. I would still prefer it if everyone operated at the same pace as me. But the thing about honesty is that once you see it, it’s hard to go backward. Now, rushing from one thing to the next makes me feel almost sick to my stomach, giving me some empathy for my seasick husband sitting next to me in the car.

 

Donald Trump Teaches Me Ahimsa

gun-knot

Ahimsa: the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of nonviolence towards all living things.

The week before I started my 300-hour yoga teacher training, a portion of America picked Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. Fifteen months of ugly public discourse ended not with the sane, flawed candidate I hoped would be elected, but with a man who has used words as violence towards women, minorities, immigrants, veterans, disabled people, his opposition, and the press. I thought after the election our nation would reset to the more passive-aggressive, shrouded language of public decency I was used to. Even if everyone wasn’t happy with Madame Clinton, I thought the more outspoken racists would retreat to the shadows. I could stop arguing with so many people on Facebook, and quit worrying about the what-ifs that came with Mr. Trump’s daily Tweets. I was, clearly, very wrong.

The day after the election I re-posted an article to Facebook that a family member found offensive, so this person called me a bigot. To say I felt hurt was an understatement;  I cried in the bathroom at work when I should have been supervising my students workshop their essays. I spent the rest of the day either crying with distraught students, or trying to talk about the election like a mature grown-up in my classes; anything to avoid obsessing over this rift with my family member. But by the time I got to yoga class that night, it was all I could think about. Teardrops fell on my mat during every downward dog. During my 200-hour teacher training we had discussed ahimsa, the yoga idea of nonviolence. In the book The Yamas and Niyamas  by Deborah Adele, she points out that one way we are often violent towards ourselves and others is by worrying.  We don’t trust ourselves or them to handle the situation, so we hurt ourselves by obsessing over it. I knew this as I cried through each chakra, but I couldn’t figure out how to let go of my worries.

The next day it became clear that no one was going to figure out nonviolence for me. The next night when I posted a statement asking the president-elect to denounced racism, my phone lit up with objections: why wasn’t I talking about all the Trump supporters getting beaten up? What about the people hating Donald Trump?  I started to feel the shaky feeling that comes from this kind of confrontation, and then instead of replying, I muttered, “Not today Satan,” and deleted the Facebook app off my phone. I grew up learning that “A soft answer turns away wrath,” but I seldom saw people model it, or the biblical idea of heaping coals of kindness on an enemy’s head. So three hours later, I went for as much kindness and burning coals as I could manage in my response, and ended my response by wishing the most belligerent respondent a blessed day. The comments stopped. I stopped feeling sick and angry. As I meditated on ahimsa over the last month, I found I could give myself a few extra minutes, and a little more charity, before I responded. This has worked in my internet life, as well as in my real life, where I work, worship, and spend family holidays with people who believe and vote very differently from me.

But the violence I’ve encountered since the election has been nothing compared to that of people of color. Two weeks before Christmas, an African-American student at my university woke up to find a note on his car saying that “people” at our college campus were tired of his presence and if he came back “action would be taken.” He live off campus, so the person who did this figured out where he lived or knew he was a student. No one knows yet who this individual is, and when my students asked me what they could do, I told them it wasn’t their job to go hunt down suspected racists on campus (some of them looked disappointed). Instead, I gave them notecards and told them they could write an encouraging note to the student. When I gave him the notes a few days later, his face lit up with a surprise and a “Thank you!” Sometimes ahimsa means silence. Sometimes, however, it means a very intentional choice of words.

I felt an echo of this student’s surprise myself when three friends sent me messages to say they valued what I have been posting and writing since the election. One specifically referenced how “gracious and warm” I have been. I have seldom felt gracious and warm on Facebook, but if my attempts at it are making a difference, then I will continue down this path. I am still negotiating how to speak against injustice while maintaining ahimsa in my responses; I especially still struggle how to stay calm and non-violent inside myself when I see one of Mr Trump’s tweets or hear a clip from one of his speeches on the radio. But what I have learned is that intentional words of kindness, and more often than not, intentional silence, has been the first step in bringing a little more peace and justice in my world.

New Essay!

I woke up in a rather foul mood today, but some of that was alleviated when I saw an email from Topology Magazine letting me know they would be publishing an essay I submitted last month. The essay is called “How the Light Gets In” which is a short essay made up of short segments centered around light. Topology’s call for submissions was on the theme of Sabbath, and each section of the essay is about finding brief respites of light in dark and cold places. I hope you enjoy it.

http://www.topologymagazine.org/essay/how-the-light-gets-in/vermont-lake

What I’ll Say When I Stop Crying

trees-in-yellow-wood

Today was hard. I’m still working on articulating my grief, which is complicated as well as painfully simple, but in the meantime, I tried to articulate my sadness to my students, many of whom are black, Hispanic, immigrant, and Asian. Statistically, some of them may also know, or someday realize, that they are a sexual minority. For these students, it did not take them long to realize they did not quite fit in at our campus, which means today quickly became extra difficult for them.

So , I give you two things. The first is the email I sent my freshmen classes tonight. I extend this message to any reader and friend feeling isolated or hurt.

 

Dear Students,

As some of you might have gathered, today was a difficult day for me, not because “my” candidate lost, but because of what President-elect Trump came to stand for and endorse over the last 15 months. I hope his presidency will be a different story, but right now, I am very troubled by vitriol from this election, as well as the lack of civility that now exists between me and people that I love. I’m working through that now, but it all came to a head this morning during our class. I’m sorry I was not very present for many of you today. For those of you who saw me ugly-crying at the end of class, thank you for your hugs and kind words. It meant a great deal.

After class, I met with a student of color who was terrified by this election. We had a long, sad conversation about fear and faith. The hardest part was when she looked at me and asked, “Do minority lives matter?”

I want you all to know that the fact she had to ask me that question made me cry a lot harder, and the answer is yes, a thousand times over. If you are someone considered a minority at this university because of your race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, I want you to know that your life matters. You are a child of God and you are loved, and I am on your team. Please tell me what you need. If you do not fall into that “other” category above–if you have always known that your life matters– know this: your life also matters to me. You are a child of God, and you are loved, and I am on your team too. You also have a responsibility to your classmates who are suffering today. Please be kind to them. Please speak out if you see or hear of injustice. Please listen if they tell you why they are struggling right now; this week is not the time for platitudes or cliches. Listening and praying will go much further than anything else.

This Friday, we are going to have a discussion of the election and how to move forward in a way that respects the most vulnerable people in our community. This will not be a time of argument, but a time of careful listening and lamenting that an election can hurt so many people so much.  I hope by then I am done crying so that I can talk coherently. But I wanted you all to know my thoughts tonight, and know that I want to be a safe person for you. That honor has to be earned, and not just given, but I hope this email can be a way to begin earning your trust.

Thank you all for being in my class. Much love and peace to you tonight. 

***

Secondly. Today in my Creative Nonfiction Class we talked about where to go from here. Part of that journey will involve  reading more poetry, for, as JFK says, “Power corrupts. Poetry cleanses.” The poem I selected, which I could not manage to read but my Canadian student read beautifully for us, is Langston Hughes’s “I,  Too, Sing America.” For whoever needs this–here. Laugh, eat well, grow strong.

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Mosquitos

eka-pada-padangustasana
Image by Nikto Shlavić https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikto_shlavic/14388414546

“There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.” –Annie Dillard

I started teaching again the day after Labor Day, and even almost two months later, the shock of that transition killed my writing “schedule” (my writing schedule over the summer was, “Try to write some words” once a day. I had middling success. The recommendation to pick a time and location to write every day exists for a reason). Recently I’ve had to revisit my old strategy of just writing for ten minutes at a time. It’s kind of like my meditation strategy: I can concentrate on anything, even something as boring as my own writing or my own breathing, for ten minutes. So before my second class of the day, I set my timer for ten minutes and write. While my students take a grammar quiz, I write. Later in the evening, before I Netflix and Chill with a stack of essays, I’ll try writing for ten minutes again.  At the end of the day, I will have written for thirty minutes, which is thirty minutes more than I will be writing at any other point this week.

But the last few months have been good publication months, both for my resume and my confidence. Since July I’ve been notified of four publication opportunities: the first, an essay on yoga and my divorce, was published by The Other Journal. I revised an old piece about Uganda for Topology magazine that was published this summer, and recently I got another yoga essay accepted by Windhover Journal (out later this year). Finally, my friend and fellow Indiana Wesleyan University alum Christin Taylor, who edits and oversees Annesley Writers, asked me to write a blog on being single after a divorce. This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve had to craft, at least in the beginning stages, largely because of my own doubts about my experience. While divorce was hard, the singleness felt easy after a hard marriage, and it was made easier by having wonderful friends, one of which became my husband in May of 2015. I wasn’t sure I had anything valuable to contribute to the discussion. I also wasn’t sure how honest I wanted to be. Divorce and its aftermath seldom brings out the best in us.

But my writing professor in undergrad taught us in Creative Nonfiction to “try really, really hard not to lie” and with her words in mind, I sat down to write. Over several days I wrote three different drafts, all very different, all written with the ten-minute freewrite strategy, before I came up with the final piece, which was ultimately about realizing the absence that comes with an end of a marriage, and mourning those moments even as you know the end of the relationship has to happen. Once I found the right collection of moments to write about, the piece almost wrote itself (that never happens for me, and I don’t count on it ever happening again). The piece, which I eventually titled “Orbit,” went up last month, and I got some great feedback on it. Blogging is wonderful and dangerous this way–the sensation of immediate positive feedback is a little bit of a high, a carrot to keep me writing. But what about the days when I’m writing for ten minutes between stacks of essays? What about the days I write blogs that no one reads and essays no one accepts?

Bryan Kest, one of my favorite yoga instructors, has a line he uses when teaching eka pada padangusthasanaor Extended Hand to Knee Pose: “If you can touch your big toe in this pose, don’t be happy about it. You’re no better than anyone else. And if you’re only happy when you see something you like, what happens when you see something you don’t like?” I’ve been thinking about this line a lot. All publishing runs come to an end. All periods of great success also come with periods of rejection and failure.  I’ve felt those before, especially when my more successful, more published fellow alums come back to campus for readings. I used to spend those events furious that I was grading comp essays while they were doing book tours. All I wanted to do was poke holes in their lives so that mine equaled out, and somehow, I would feel less bad about their success. That’s a miserable way to live.

Bryan also says, “And if you can’t touch your toe, don’t be sad about it. You’re no worse than anyone else.” What if, he says, your hamstrings are longer than someone else’s? What if your arms are shorter? Keep your eyes on your own mat instead.

I wish I had more Bryan Kest and Annie Dillard in my life in my early twenties and thirties to remind me to keep my eyes on my own mat and kill all those mosquitos. I wish that when I did have them, I had listened closer, and remembered my eka pada padangusthasana lessons when I got rejected from jobs, publications, relationships, and my own to-do list, and then had to sit through one more success story of someone my own age.

But now I’m remembering those lessons, and sometimes, when I experience failure, or someone else’s success, I stay calm. I remember to write, and breathe, for ten minutes. Sometimes I’m even happy for my peers’ success. And this is good. Because last week, one of my former students (Mary Nolen–read her book!) came back to campus for a reading. I did the welcome for her talk, and didn’t even have to kill any mosquitos first.

 

An Expanse

On Ohio mornings on the farm, I can see three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon, broken only by barns, clumps of trees, and a bulb of yellow-pink sunrise. My grandmother says she can’t live anywhere but this prairie now—if mountains or buildings close in her view of the horizon, she tenses, scanning the skyline for a way the sunrise or sunset can break through. This horizon has been the background for every morning run and bike ride at my mother’s house since I was twelve. Outside in the driveway, I pause to stretch overhead, then begin to shuffle, eventually run down the driveway. Farm trucks and tractors on their way to irrigate tomatoes or pick sweetcorn swerve aside, waving. A big silver or cream Dodge Ram indicates my grandfather is coming. “How’s my little girl?” he asks from the inside of the truck, tugging on his Santa Claus beard. Once I start teaching college, then go to grad school for a PhD, the greeting changes to “How’s my little professor?” We never talk long: grades, high school track meets, where I’ve been, when I am leaving again. The brief interlude comes to feel like a blessing, especially the more infrequent my visits home.

The prairie stretches for miles in Indiana too, but where I live, I’m surrounded by fences and other houses. At the most western edge of Eastern Standard Time, our mornings are dark. When at 5:00 a.m. on May 2nd I see the text message from my mom saying, “call me,” I can see to Ohio and know what has happened. My grandfather is due to have a surgery to remove blockages in his arteries that day. He has been on oxygen for a month. The gamble with his heart stretches back to the early 1980s when, like his own father, he suffered a heart attack at age fifty. But unlike his father, he has lived for another thirty-some years. Today he has died.

I know this but don’t immediately call her back. I have been fearing his death since his open heart surgery when I was sixteen. I get up from the couch where I’d be dozing during an all-night grading session, brush my teeth and take out my contacts. I take a deep breath.

When I hang up the phone and go to bed for the first time in thirty-six hours, I don’t cry. I rehearse the details in my head—he had gotten up to go to the bathroom, had fallen, Grandma and Uncle Ben were there with him. My mother is sad; my sisters are overcome grief. But all I feel is a tight, hollow space in my chest, like the contents of rib cage had been vacuumed out and replaced with lead. My husband, sleepy from his own grading all-nighter, wraps his arms around me as I stare at the wall for a long time, wondering at the strange emptiness around my heart.

This is a story I keep trying to write in past tense—ran, lived, drove, died—and cannot. It is also a story I have tried to write all summer—first for his funeral, then for June and his strawberries, then in July for his birthday. Now it is August, the month of perpetual sky and hot blades of grass and dry riverbeds and the always-present-tense task of keeping the last things alive. All I can do in the face of oncoming September is to write like this is perpetual too.

grandpa run

One of my first memories is flying to Washington DC to watch Grandpa and my father run the Marine Corps marathon. I fly with my Raggedy Anne doll and my parents, while my toddler of a brother, Levi, drives with my grandparents in the motorhome. Throughout the flight I stare out the window, convinced I see them on a highway below us. I don’t remember the marathon, but I do remember driving up a dark lane where scarecrows flanked the car. Is this real? Does it make sense? Does it matter? Later, when I start running marathons, Grandpa tells me he hadn’t liked that marathon because a section at the end is cut off from spectators, meaning he had to run alone in the last and hardest miles. My grandfather didn’t like crowds, my uncle says at the funeral as a way of explaining Grandpa’s absence from church, but I know he didn’t like running marathons without them.

My other earliest memory is a photo of six-year-old, pink-shorted me running flower to flower in Grandma’s flowerbed, sniffing each one. She’s standing somewhere behind me, hands on her hips, her hair dark, like it still is today. My grandfather isn’t in the picture. Maybe he took it. Maybe he was sitting on his recliner in the living room, wagging his feet as he watched the news or a tennis match or painted his first watercolors. It doesn’t matter. This photo is thirty years old, and my grandparents will always be here, pulling weeds, watching TV, surveying the fields, mid-fifties and unstoppable.

grandparents

I grew up a mile and a half from this house, and as soon as we could walk or ride a bike we were commuting back and forth through the fields. As soon as we could reliably use our hands, we were pushing quarts of strawberries out towards the grasping hands of customers in the market. In early June, pushing the quarts of berries, cleaning squashed fruits off the floor, and making cardboard boxes for customers to carry their purchases in was a full time job, and small children were perfect for it. We all loved strawberries in late May when the first pink berries turned scarlet. We hated them by the end of June when our fingernails and bottoms of our shoes were stained red.

Grandpa was everywhere. He coasted around the market in his truck, observing how many quarts were left. Later in corn season, he’d watch the wagons of corn from his truck, estimating when we would need another wagon. He’d yell at the stockboy to push the corn out of the middle of the wagon and empty the buckets of corn husks, and then head to the café for a chocolate ice cream cone or a shake.  When I was old enough to work in the U-Pic strawberry fields, I’d hear conversations between him and farmhands on the radio. He’d simultaneously give orders, get updates on irrigation, and yell at someone for messing up his job. Then he would drive off and say nothing for hours. He might replicate this pattern in a friendlier way at birthday parties and weddings. He could talk nimbly with strangers and old friends, then suddenly have to walk away. Words came at a cost.

No wonder, for he had so many other things to love—sports (archery, cycling, wrestling, football, basketball, running, track and field, tennis), his grandchildren, his grandchildren’s sports, Grandma (he used to enlist me or one of my sisters to help him buy her Christmas presents), painting, farming, PBS broadcasts of Riverdance (“You girls would be good at that” he told my sisters and I when we were high school ballerinas), Ohio State, traveling, and eating. An athlete through high school, he coached my brother and cousins in wrestling, growling if they showed any slack. On his afternoon nap breaks he watched whatever sport was in season. He ran two marathons and multiple half marathons. Many years he ran the Strawberry Festival 10K (a festival he helped co-found) and feasted on his own strawberries and watermelons at the finish line. On summer evenings he played tennis in the park in Tipp City or Troy.

On winter evenings he would sit in his office in the two-story white farmhouse on route 202, and paint watercolors. He surrounded himself with stacks of papers, weight equipment, seed packages, a treadmill, and his watercolors. He painted photos of my sister astride a donkey, my brother in a kilt, waterfalls in Jamaica, the farm against the backdrop of summer, and me, age six, picking daisies in a field.

katie painting

In 2011 my grandfather gets weaker and in 2013 I get divorced. Our frailness begins to show. Several weeks after I leave my now-ex husband, I drive through the winter-killed Indiana-Ohio horizon to my conservative family. It is a mild January weekend and everyone is gentle with me. I sit for a long time at the kitchen table with my grandmother while she asks questions and feeds me. “Well, I knew something was wrong,” she says. “Every time you came over to see me you looked like you had been crying.” She never suggests I go back even though the faith we grew up espousing would have. Towards the end of my visit, I walk into the living room to see Grandpa in his recliner. For years I’ve been watching him; the eternally fifty year old man is now in his late seventies, and has a heart that frustrates him. He spends a lot more time in his recliner than in his silver Dodge Ram. “I’m worried about you little girl,” he says. “Should I be?”

“I think I’m OK,” I say, holding his large speckled hand in both of mine.

“You know what you’re doing?”

“I think so.”

My grandmother walks up behind us. “She’s just spreading her wings,” she says. “She’s about to do great things.”

Have I lived up to my grandmother’s fortune telling? Only if happiness equals greatness. In May 2015 I marry a man who loves farms, and running, and me. “If you want your grandparents there,” my mom says, “you’re going to have to have the wedding in Ohio.” We had the reception in the farm market where I’d pushed quarts of berries and buckets of corn stalks as a child and teenager. My grandfather stayed for the whole wedding and reception, talking to my new in-laws, grinning at all these people admiring his farm. Our wedding photos were set against a backdrop of fields and endless Ohio horizon, my grandparents’ house a blink of white in the background.

timkat walking away

The morning of his funeral, my husband and I lace up our running shoes and head down the lane for a run in the sunrise. At the end of the driveway when we turn out on to the road, I feel like something is missing. It isn’t until we are running back up the truckless driveway that I remember again, and again, what is finally gone.