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.

 

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Hello From the Other Side

Full disclosure: I’ve watched that SNL “Thanksgiving Miracle” video at least three times today and twice last night. I’m also writing this in class while my class writes their own essay, so this blog will be low on edits and insights. Birthday rights, yes? Yes.

I’m really happy today. This is big for me; most birthdays, especially for the last decade, have been fraught with unexplainable sadness and discontent while I tried to find the magical happiness formula. I usually didn’t. I wasn’t really set up to attain birthday bliss today either: I was up way too late cooking and eating a very sugary pie, but it was with my favorite person. That favorite person had to do triage on our kitchen sink, in the crawl space, in twenty-eight degree weather this morning, but neither of us were swearing as we tripped over each other, dirty dishes, and every cleaning supply we’d ever stuffed under the sink. I’m teaching four classes today and trying to figure out how to grade and wash dishes and finish some food before a birthday party tonight, but I’m not stressed out. I did do my favorite yoga practice today, got some good news, drank warm lemon water, and read kind wishes and funny memes from people who love me, but at thirty-six, I’m coming to the realization that those things are helpful bonuses, not the things that bring me happiness.

This might be a little bit of a stretch of Adele’s lyrics, but if I think back to past birthdays, I do feel like I’m on the other side of some kind of self-inflicted misery. And I want to be clear about the self-inflicted part. I had a rough marriage for seven and a half years and then two and a half hard years of personal recovery. I’ve experienced some abuse in my past that quite frankly wrecked me for a while. I haven’t achieved my publication or financial goals and I’ll probably never achieve my ideal body. My dogs still shed and bite each other and climb on the couch and eat trash whenever they can. These things happened, and in the case of the dogs, continue to happen whether I want them to or not. They led to feelings of stress and loneliness, but they didn’t create my misery. I did that myself.

This blog began out of a journey towards self-care and health, and I know that little things have been a big part of today’s happy birthday. Sleeping more and drinking lemon water definitely makes me feel better (and help prevent eating too much sugar and thus misery later). Some little practices, like learning to meditate and learning to take time to massage my feet when I’m stressed out instead of working out harder on them, have been transformative. Anti-anxiety meds don’t hurt either; I was definitely feeling less zen when I forgot to take them on Saturday. But as much as I would like to say there was one thing I did, one magic formula that has made my life good, one person who ushered happiness into my life, I know two simple, difficult things made the difference. One was listening when others–my husband, my counselor, my yoga teachers–remind me that other people are not responsible for how I feel. The second was me finally choosing to believe it.

Letting go of attachments and expectations has finally let all those people off the hook. This is the hardest part of yoga philosophy for me to accept. We’re all attached to things that we care about, and I care deeply about willing the future to turn out the way I want. I want the people I love to read my fickle mind. I want the clouds to part and a birthday cake accompanied with nirvana and a book contract to float down on me, but I don’t want to do the hard part of getting book proposals rejected, of letting go of being annoyed at the dirty sink, of responding with gentleness to my irritating neighbors (both literal and virtual).

Besides, the cake is already here. So is a little bit of bliss.  This has been one of the best years of my life, largely because I finally let so many of my demons go. Now that they’re gone, cake and bliss taste so much better, and it would be a shame to waste either.

 

Ahimsa in a Hard World

“Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus and it’s hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don’t get off is it’s still 50 blocks from where you’re going? Well I can get off right now if I want to, because even if I ride 50 more years and get off then, it’s the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I’ve had enough, it’s my stop. I’ve had enough.”

-Jessie, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman

This past semester, I sat in on a Modern Drama class at the university where I teach, and ‘Night, Mother was one of the last plays we read. The synopsis is that Jessie, a forty-something divorced woman, lives with her mother in a rural area. Jessie has epilepsy and cannot work, her son is a criminal, and she’s finally decided she has had enough. On this particular night, Jessie tells Mama that in a few hours, she will be killing herself. Her mother argues, begs, pleads, denies, bargains, basically going through the stages of grief as Jessie calmly insists this is what will happen. And at the end of the play, it does. Jessie explains herself a little more, but what it comes down to is this: Jessie is not having a good time, and has no reason to believe it will ever get better.

A former student of mine ended his life this week. I didn’t know him well, and in some ways this makes it worse, because I had him in two classes one year apart, enough time to know him better. What I do know is this: he was alternately quiet and outspoken, moody and jovial, hard-working and seemingly apathetic, depending on the assignment and the day of the week. What didn’t change–he was always intelligent and thoughtful.

When I heard via a Facebook post of his death, I searched the internet for information. I found the articles he’d written for the local newspaper and campus newspaper, as well as his personal blog. Re-reading them, I pieced together some of the difficulties of his last few semesters as well as things I already knew–his intelligence and dedication to getting the story right. As of last December, he was wrapping up his senior project on the health care law changes coming to Grant County, reporting on how the two local evangelical universities were suing the federal government over contraceptive requirements.

As I’ve written before one, of the first principles of yoga is ahimsa, or nonviolence, both to ourselves and others. Before, when I’ve written or thought about nonviolence to myself, it’s been in the realm of daily life–not beating myself up mentally when things go wrong, not ignoring my health, not, in the worst case scenarios, literally hurting myself as a way to deal with stress. Until now, I haven’t thought about ahimsa in terms of whether or not to end one’s own life. Now I am, and am coming up short when confronted with how so many of those among us feel that life is doing a terrible job of not hurting us.

When Robin Williams committed suicide last summer, the only things I could say were simple, one-step-at-a-time things. Talk to someone. If you’re on medications, keep taking them. Find a counselor. Find a friend.  It gets better. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.

And that’s all I can say now. Another student of mine asked me earlier tonight what the point is. Intelligence won’t save us, and life is hard. Why keep trying? I wish I had better answers. In our semester of hard plays, we read several on suicide, all of which confirmed to me that I do not understand the mind of a suicide. I have been depressed, but never to that point. I wish I knew the way through the darkness and back out again, but my life has only been grayish at times, with enough light to see forward. For those of you in something darker, my heart goes out to you. You are loved.

At the end of ‘Night, Mother,  Mama pounds on Jessie’s bedroom door in a desperate attempt to keep Jessie from pulling the trigger. “I was here with you all the time,” she screams. “How could I know you were so alone?” I wish I could ask the same of my student, but the truth is I did. The only question I really wish I could ask him is what I could do–present tense, before it was too late– to help him make his life better.

Life often feels senseless. The only thing I know is that somehow, our lives, and the lives of others matter. They are worth paying attention to. Tim, I wish I had paid more attention to yours. Rest in peace.

StoryCorp and Anne Patchett

Earlier this week I wrote a blog about ahimsa, nonviolence, and briefly mentioned that many students of yoga say that ahimsa extends to subtler types of violence towards others–like worrying about and trying to change them. It turns out, I’ve recently learned, you can’t change other people. There’s a huge difference between worrying about someone, and supporting someone. This Friday’s story from NPR‘s StoryCorps demonstrates support–being there for someone and listening–perfectly. In summary, ten years ago Kevin Berthia went to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump off. His daughter had been born premature and the medical bills were upwards of $250,000, he didn’t see a way out of debt, and he was horribly depressed. But a highway patrolman standing there saw him when he climbed over, and before Berthia could jump, the officer, Kevin Briggs, started talking to him. They talked for an hour and a half and eventually Berthia came back over. The part of the story that moved me the most was when Berthia said to Briggs, “I was just mad at myself for being in that situation and I was embarrassed. But somehow the compassion in your voice is what allowed me to kinda let my guard down enough for us to have a conversation.”

I love the reminder that compassion can be enough sometimes.

I’m also reading Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, the story of her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, who suffered from cancer as a child and was left with a disfigured face. While Lucy made up for her disfigurement with an outsized, boisterous personality, she also suffered horrific depression and was especially burdened with the fear she would never find someone to love her. This fear sometimes led to destructive, needy behaviors. During one of Lucy’s bouts of depression, Patchett writes of trying to comfort a sobbing, despondent Lucy.  “I was stunned by the rawness of her pain,” she writes. “I came to understand that night in the sports bar, safe from the blinding rain, that I could not worry about Lucy anymore. I knew then it was just too enormous for me to manage and that worrying about her would swamp me. If I was swamped by worry, I would be useless to her. It was even possible that I would desert her, and that was the thing that could never happen. I decided that night I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead I would try to help her.”

Patchett adds that she had been raised in Catholic school, by nuns who preached that “the world is saved through deeds, not prayer.” In situations where other people might either get sucked into other people’s dangerous actions by joining them or fretting over them, she let Lucy do her thing, whether it was spending too much money or having lots of (too) casual sex. But she also visited her at a hospital in Scotland, sent her updates about her submissions to American editors and magazines, drove to see her when Lucy went to get an abortion, and listened to her when she cried. Somehow, in a friendship that seemed to have so much intensity, Patchett balanced the fine line between support and worry and maintained a friendship that also gave back to her.

Patchett couldn’t ultimately save Lucy. She died of a heroin overdose at age 39. Briggs couldn’t save Berthia either–Berthia had to climb back over the railing onto the bridge himself and then go home to his life. We can’t change other people and we can’t rescue them either.

But we can keep them talking, and sometimes that’s enough. At the end of the StoryCorp interview, Briggs, the police officer, said one reason he was able to encourage Berthia to keep talking to him was because he’d been through depression himself. My friends who have experienced depression do the best job of encouraging me to talk out whatever manic or sad thoughts I’m trying to hide in my head. On this side of depressive anxiety and a divorce, I have an easier time encouraging my students to keep talking to me. Those who have faced and named their demons are able to sit with others while they do the same, which is why Briggs and Berthia are friends today. “You know, we’ve been through similar things in our lives and I’ve never been around anybody that’s seen me at a more vulnerable state,” Berthia said. Later he added, “And, you know, I don’t trust a lot of people. So for you to never judge me and just to have that trust, that’s what keeps us afloat and different from any other friendship.”

You can read and listen to the whole StoryCorps narrative here: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/06/390970491/ten-years-later-two-strangers-revisit-what-might-have-been-lost%26live%3D1?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150306