Note: It isn't often that I share poetry publicly, so please be gentle. This emerged from a "failed" long run yesterday in which I wound up with an incapacitating IT band strain and had to quit two miles short of my goal. But the events started me thinking about the effects of time, not just on our bodies, but how we see ourselves and our challenges.
The first two miles pound out in creaking joints and calves of jelly.
Gratitude for the gift of a red light, stretching at the signal with the feigned impatience
of a real athlete
The old woman in the body sheds the imagined decades with the miles, each stride kicking off the dust of time.
By the time I cross from the downtown realm of the elderly, my chronological age and I are one again.
Sweat drips between my breasts, on my right, the apartment where my virginity and I parted ways – two decades ago, now. Woman grown, wife, mother, my head turns and I see the girl holding naked hands with her lover on the brown couch, afraid to ask,
“What does this mean?”
She never asked, and the question is gone, answer blown off in the miles behind.
Over the freeway, decades falling away into light steps that blow across the asphalt pass with the frail feathers of almond and cherry.
Mile four and nearly twenty again – twenty, but for the two undergraduates sprinting by, knees reaching nearly to their upright breasts, feet kissing the ground like fairy metronomes.
The audiobook plugged into my cortex speaks of shame, compassion, and messages. I dig from my brain thoughts of love for the nymphs leaving me with the blowing pollen and for my own body – stronger in its scars than that of the girl who never asked and never received.
Loss doesn’t care if we risk. But, reward won’t come uninvited.
Six miles and only bicycles and shadowy cows spreckle the landscape. The unwelcome tension of a bladder pushed, prodded, stretched, and squashed by three pregnancies knocks against the present mind.
Tap. Tap. A bush over there.
Tap. Tap. Trees?
Not shielded from the path.
Time and body converge. The twenty year old would have risked a rupture. I weigh the balance.
The British voice from my phone notes my slowing pace. Judgmental bastard. The female voice would have understood. Phone app gent doesn’t get it. He could just whip it out at that olive tree over there, relieve that tapping tension, and be on his merry old way, no one the wiser.
“12.2 minutes per mile. Average pace 11 minutes 4 seconds per mile.”
Plummy prick. Leave me alone.
Spring sky sits empty, cloud-free and bird unburdened. They rustle and whistle from the olive trees and long grasses, crossing over the audiobook’s words:
Can one feel shame about being ashamed? The pressure beneath the belt of my waist-pack leads me off the path of philosophy and behind a clump of fallen branches and low-hanging trees.
Crouching knees, bare ass, and fears of wet socks trump the esoteric.
A car shoots past, then a male cyclist.
I pretend to tie my shoe and make myself invisible. A grey haired woman on a bicycle looks my way a just long enough for the rays of judgment to scorch my hair and shoulders. I think the tree above me is a fig – leaves not yet unfurled.
I pull my underwear and shorts about me as I stand – one smooth motion, I think. Until the invisible key locks my right knee.
Lurch. Stagger. Adjust waistbands in time for the next bicycle wheel to crest the hill. I flex my leg a few times. Ten miles. Okay, I’m on the Golden Gate Bridge, says the part of the brain tracking the marathon course map. 11 weeks.
I try to feel salt winds on my face but have to skip down onto the gravel shoulder as a car sails round the bend.
The 42 year old knee doesn’t like this game of chicken. Tendons that had adjusted to the stretch and contract of an even pace are rebelling against the break, the squat, and the pavement chopped like toffee.
Mother shame, says the audiobook. Caregiver shame. Body image shame.
Is there shame in a middle-aged woman, slogging alone down a country road?
“Oh, that’s why you have such killer legs,” said a friend meeting me around the bend of a trail.
I have killer legs, I tell them, as the knee screams and the ankle whines in sympathy. Not even 11 miles.
The knee doesn’t care. We compromise. You can walk to the next bend, I say.
I cheat, picking up the pace before the road curves away. Small betrayals don’t go unnoticed. Unkept promises return until fulfilled.
12 miles – Off the bridge, into Sea Cliff. Rolling hills, says my mind to the flat fields and orchards around me.
Invisible gremlins are at work on my knee with an ice-pick. Stop.
Can’t stop. Not even half way.
Walking. A truck passes. A minivan with pressed children’s faces. An elderly sedan.
How stupid you look, trudging along the crumbled edge of the road – blatantly not running in your fluorescent gear and purple shoes.
That is the voice of shame – not from magazines or enemies, but from the imagined places where whispers of past follies hide.
Fingers twitch at the microphone of my headset. So easy to call. My husband would ride up, a knight upon a silver minivan.
Follow the road. It’s the miles that count.
Pace: 17 minutes per mile. Average pace: 12 minutes 24 seconds.
It’s the miles. Just do the miles. It doesn’t matter how fast.
The run shuffles off into the lurching jog of a zombie with places to go. Half a mile, I tell myself. I manage about 200 yards.
Breath floats in and out with the ease of the whispering dewy grasses. Lungs and left leg could go for miles.
Sinister persists. I am betrayed by the right.
Walking now, I’ll run up the overpass, I think.
Four strides and a whimper. Toy cars buzz below. Downhill will be better.
Fire and ice shoot across my knee. The wrinkled, square face of the balding man pedaling up the hill sees the weakness. His gnarled legs push past me in silent disdain.
Fingers press the microphone.
“I’m not going to make it the full way. Can you get me at the AM/PM when you come through?” Shadows hide behind the question. Bibbed runners pass in my head, dreaded letters paint in ghost ink next to my name in the marathon lists
Did. Not. Finish.
Purple vetch laces the hillside at our feet. Girls cluster like flowers blowing at the summit’s edge. One looks at my clothes and laughs, “Did you run here?”
“Well. Most of the way. But my knee gave out.”
Something passes below the laugh. “Oh. I thought you were going to say ‘Just kidding.’ You really ran?”
We stand at the top of the spring world. Knee flexes. “Yes, but I overdid it a bit today. I think the answer is not to be 42.”
They laugh as only 13 can, free of the imaginary ailments of middle age – aches, and rent, and taxes.
“She’s training for a marathon,” my daughter tells her friends.
Goats dance on a distant hill. A toddler staggers with purpose among the purple.
“Today didn’t work, but I can do it. I have 11 weeks.”