We just returned from a weeklong vacation near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where we rented a lovely house nestled off a rocky trail partway up a mountain.
A few days into our stay, Tim decided that he was going to run down and back up the mountain – a round trip of about a mile and three quarters. I thought this was crazy. Not because it was dangerous by any means, but because it seemed really difficult and not at all enjoyable due to the steepness of the incline.
When he set out on the “mountain challenge,” the kids and I stood in front of the house, blowing bubbles and cheering him on. We watched as he disappeared at the end of the driveway and headed down the mountain. Sixteen minutes later he returned, sweaty and smiling. “You should do it!” he said.
I laughed. “Nope. Not going to happen.” It was intimidating, out of my comfort zone.
Early the next morning, I drove down the mountain and headed to the state park a couple miles down the road to do a solo trail run. I’ve always loved running in the early morning hours, before the demands of the day set in. It’s the one time of day that I can almost always feel quiet in my soul.
I do a lot of thinking on these runs, and on this particular morning, I thought about setbacks.
I started this year with a couple pretty lofty goals – to write at least 100 days and to run 600 miles. Ok, maybe they’re not that lofty, but for this full-time working mama of two young kids, they are.
I was doing really well with both well into March, especially running. I could feel myself getting stronger, more confident, and happier. Running always makes me feel like the real me – centered and connected to myself, to the earth, and to God.
And then one day, I set out for a 10-mile long run and had to stop about a third of the way in because of a familiar pain in my ankle. Three days later a doctor confirmed what I already knew – I had a stress fracture.
I’ve had one before, so I knew what to expect. And while I was devastated to miss the two races for which I’d been training, I accepted my fate. There was no going back, there was no “what if I did things differently?” There was only a small crack in my bone that needed to heal for six weeks.
While I recovered, I thought I’d fill the time I usually spent running with writing. But I stopped writing too. All of my creative energy seemed to whoosh out of me the day I was injured, like a deflating balloon. I felt lazy and sluggish – stuck. But in mid-May, I got the “all clear” to resume running, and I very gradually started writing again too. I still feel pretty creaky in both, to be honest.
But as I ran on the trail that morning, I thought about the creakiness in a new way – not as something to be annoyed by, or ashamed of (as I sometimes am of my perceived shortcomings) – but as something to accept and honor, a necessary step on the journey, a worthy challenge to be borne and transcended. There is no way around it – running, writing, they will both require work. Continuous, sometimes painful, and usually difficult work.
Sometimes I talk to myself when I run, my truest thoughts escaping my lips like bubbles burbling up to the top of a stream. As I ran that morning, I murmured, “I can do hard things,” almost like a mantra, a reminder that the journey can be tough, but that beauty springs from the broken places.
And I have done hard things.
I survived a failed marriage and rebuilt my life on the other side. I bought a house entirely on my own. I trained for and ran a marathon. I forgave those who hurt me, and I asked to be forgiven. I birthed two babies without drugs (though not entirely by choice; by the time I asked for epidurals, it was too late). I got through the sleepless first year with a new baby, and then once I miraculously started sleeping again, decided to do it again with a second. I made the decision, with Tim, to change course, leave the city, and move our young family to West Virginia – where we knew no one – because we knew in our souls it was the right path for us.
I can do hard things. I can work through this creakiness. I can run marathons again. I can write.
My grandmother passed away last month. She knew a thing or two about setbacks and doing hard things.
Her father walked out when she was quite young, leaving behind a wife and four small children. They were very poor, had to work hard, and did without much.
She married at just 19 and had my mother – the first of three children – when she was 20.
She too survived a failed marriage, divorcing my grandfather after their children were grown and had kids of their own. She had no real work experience, but she found a job and worked her way up the ranks, steadily building her own life.
She lost her second husband – her true love – who died just 10 years after they married. She bore her immense grief with dignity and grace.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease was especially cruel in the last six months, but her death was sudden – a massive hemorrhagic stroke that flooded her brain and took her from this world less than 24 hours later.
I was fortunate to get to the hospital quickly the night she suffered the stroke and was by her side when she took her last breaths the next afternoon. Being present when she died was a gift. In that most basic moment, I felt cleansed, stripped down to my very essence – my faults, my strengths, and most of all, the love in my heart, which was at once both very complex and the simplest thing in the world.
I saw my grandmother clearly again. Not as the sick woman she had become, but as the strong, compassionate, funny woman she had always been, even in her final days. A woman who persevered whenever she fell, who cheered me on in everything I ever did, who loved fiercely, constantly, and without judgment.
In the week following her death, the outpouring of sentiments from people whose lives she touched astounded me. Attendees at her funeral included a handyman who did periodic work around her home, as well as the woman who cleaned her house once a month. I lost count of the number of people who gripped my hand and said, “Your grandmother was such a special person. She meant so much to me.” When my mom went to the bank to settle some matters with my grandmother’s account, the teller who had often helped my grandmother came out from behind the counter, tears in her eyes, to hug her.
My grandmother lived a simple life – she didn’t travel widely or have fancy things; she didn’t receive grand career accolades. She played the cards she was dealt as well as she could, she found joy, and she never gave up. She saw people in a way that few do. She loved. That was her amazing legacy, the beauty in the work of her life.
Recently, I read Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and when I finished it, I lamented that I could write every waking hour, every day, for the rest of my life, and never write something so vivid, honest, and beautiful. And so sometimes I wonder, why even bother? Most nights, after working a long day and then wrangling my two kids through our lengthy bedtime routine, I’d much rather collapse on the couch with a glass of wine and “Scandal” on Netflix than crack open my laptop and try to write.
But I know the trying is worth it. Even if I never write a single page that’s 1/100th as amazing as the work of Mary Karr or any of my other literary heroes, there is beauty in the work, in the digging down and climbing back up.
When I had my first stress fracture seven years ago, I learned that you often can’t see a stress injury on an x-ray until after it begins to heal. The bone calcifies around the break, and that growth is what you can finally see – a whiteness where there used to be nothing, new strength where something used to be broken.
I can do hard things.
The day after my trail run, I decided to do the mountain challenge – picking my way slowly down the rough incline and laboring my way back up. It was really, really hard. But when I got to the top 21 minutes after I began, pouring sweat and gasping for air, my husband and children were standing at the edge of the driveway, waiting for me, cheering me home.