Monthly Archives: March 2012

No Tears Fall

Words rush and flit about like butterflies that would not be caught.  Slow down you think too fast.  Something hurts but I am the one running now.  It’s a dream.  I line up at the starting line and a man sneers at anyone who takes 5 hours to run a marathon.  Inadequate.  No!  I run, and Ben runs in front of me, too fast.  Slow down son.  He won’t.  Dimples and grins and laughing, so wild and free and fleet . . . he runs.

We run to a bridge 8 inches wide; a balance beam for gymnasts, but I am not.  I peer into a gorge and the water rushes beneath me.  My chest feels cold and numb from fear.  I get down on my hands and knees and I crawl, barely in control of my fear oh please Ben come back to me.  “Someone help me!”  I cry.  And someone does.  He is strong and fast.  His chest is wide; his hair, jet-black.  He runs 3-hour marathons and he leaps over my supine figure and runs abreast of Ben.  Ben is in good hands.  I made the call.  He is safe now.

But I am not.  I am not safe.  The muddy water tosses and churns beneath me now and the sun has gone down and it is dark and cold and I am alone and still no tears will fall.  Two years into psychotherapy and no tears will fall.  No one raced ahead to catch Little El before she slipped off her family’s rickety beam bridge and she fell, so many years ago, into the depths. 

Every morning, and every night I glare at the mirror, at these cheeks too red and too thick and I repeat, “I am of great value.”  These words stick in my throat and I try to believe it when I say it.  And when I believe it, even for a fleeting moment, I want to cry and I don’t know why.

Now I am my own surgeon, my own master and my own healer.  It’s like handing the keys to the Ferrari to a 16-year boy and expecting him to drive 55.  The child, my child, heads at breakneck speed straight for the massive oak tree and the parent I am to my own child shrugs and walks away and whispers, “You’ll be okay darling,” with the tune from “Cat’s in the Cradle” playing in the background.

Mom’s paintings weren’t Rembrandts but they were a part of me for too long, wrapped inside my identity like a confusing coil or a trawling net, sucking up everything in its path.  Closure.  It’s over.  Is it over?  They’re gone now.  My parents.  Her paintings.  Their hands and words and all of the slashes . . . I took a bat to them and smashed them all up and my hands and my back hurt when I was done.  And still, there are no tears.

When your mom dies I hope you can grieve for her.  It is so damn hard to grieve for someone who lives and while living haunts and hurts you.  There is no real way to bid farewell.  Just time. They say tears fall not in heaven but this holding pattern is no heaven.  The minutes and hours and days and years will pass and the wounds will coalesce but first, dear God, first please let me cry.

Two More Words about My Son: It’s Time

It was 6 o’clock.  Ben sat at the kitchen table in his pajamas.  As punishment for throwing rocks and biting another kid, he had spread mulch outside and then received an early bath.  I glanced at my husband and said, “I am going for a run.  You got the phone?  Dr. Myers should call on my cell phone.”  My almost bald, still-handsome, barrel-chested man nodded at me and asked, “You told her it’s time?  Are you okay?”  I shook my head and leaned in for a hug and he held me tight.

I pulled on my white Brooks running shoes with the green stripes and thought about running and about what one of my friends had just said to me.  She had said, “I love you,” and I couldn’t respond.  I felt like I couldn’t say “I love you” back because I was not worthy of loving anyone.  I was a failure as a mom.  When I didn’t respond, she added, “I know you can’t digest this right now but you will sort it out while you’re running.”  I felt too cruddy even to run so at first I walked and I missed my family so I opened the laundry room door and called, “Anyone want to walk with me?”

My daughter ran outside and pulled on her white running shoes with the pink stripes.  She walked by my side on this sunny, spring evening and she talked.  Like any 8-year old, she has a lot to talk about and I am accustomed to listening but last night, I could not process her words.  She stopped talking and asked me, “Mom, are you distracted?”  I smiled.   In that moment I heard a cardinal sing and saw the pink and yellow and green blossoms and I realized that everything outside my own mind just looked and  sounded like so much static.

“Yes, sweetie, I am sorry.  I have a lot on my mind.”  Madeline rubbed my back with her reassuring little hand that no longer bears a cyst.  “You’re upset about Ben, aren’t you?”  I nodded and gritted my teeth so that I would not lose my composure.  She continued, “Don’t worry Mom, it’s going to be okay.”  I smiled and wrapped my arm around her shoulders.  “Thank you sweetie.  And please do not worry about me.  I will be okay.”  I never got to be a child so I try very hard not to lean on my own children.  We finished our walk and then I went on a run and as I ran I tried to assemble and digest the thoughts swirling in my mind.

It had been a good morning but it fell apart at noon.  The phone rang and I hung up on the other line and picked it up because the caller ID announced Terra Centre Elementary School.  I cringe when the school calls.  It is never good news.

The secretary patched me through to the Vice Principal while I squirmed.  The VP is a man who has a gentle voice and kids of his own and one of my friends nicknamed him PBJ because that’s what his name sounds like if you say it fast.  “Your son is here with me, Ms. Farris.”  I held my breath and tried to ask why.  “Well, he has calmed down some now, but for a while,” and PBJ paused to wipe his eyes, or so I imagined, “He was climbing all over the chairs.  I think maybe he was nervous?  It was strange.  Now he is sitting here beside me eating his lunch and he is helping me count the minutes he’s behaved.  Anyway, he and another boy pushed one another and apparently, Ben then proceeded to bite the boy in the finger.”

My world and his words faded as if the phone receiver had turned into a kaleidoscope of confusing noises.  I screamed one of Munch’s silent screams and I whispered, “He did what?”  And PBJ’s voice rolled and swelled and beat along and then he asked me if I wanted to speak to my son and I saw Ben’s little body and his dimples and his crazy-sweet, out-of-control smile and it was more than I could bear, this mashed-up mix of maternal love and fear and anger so I said, No,” and hit the red button on the phone and waited for PBJ’s voice to stop repeating himself in my head.  It’s time.

I called my friend back and she said a lot of sage and kind things to me but all I really heard her say was the same thing I was saying to myself: “It’s time, El.”  I thanked her and then I called my pediatrician’s office and left them a message and waited for the minutes to drift past but I kept getting lost in between the past and the future and I couldn’t figure out where I needed to be.  All I knew is that I wanted to hold my son and yell at him and hug him and promise him, if only someone would promise me, that he was going to be okay.

Then the phone rang.  It was the school again and it was three minutes past three and dutifully I picked up the damn phone.  The secretary patched me through to the Principal.  She is a woman with a voice as deep as her girth is wide, and she speaks really slow, which was good in this case, because she had Ben beside her and they were talking about the Golden Gate Bridge but that wasn’t really what they were talking about.  “I don’t understand what you are saying!”  My voice fractured and erupted and finally broke.  And I stopped trying to speak because I was weeping too damn hard.  “He threw rocks at a safety patrol,” Ms. Sims explained in her steady voice, “And you need to pick him up.”

Ten minutes later, I wore my aviator sunglasses and hoped that no one would glimpse my tear-stained face.  I have not cried in front my closest friends.  I don’t cry.  Except I was crying.

A teacher whom I like very much stopped me in the hallway and she couldn’t see that I was crying so she asked me, with great cheer, how I was doing, and I tried to tell her that Ben had thrown rocks at the safety patrol, and Ms. T. laughed.

Then my son and his brother and sister spotted me and they sprinted toward me and slammed into me in one big heap of elbows and knees and messy hair and lopsided smiles.  Behind them emerged the principal and she said nothing.  She walked directly at me and then she enveloped me in this hug that makes me wanna cry all over again because her huge arms swallowed my smaller body like a whale eating Jonah and she held onto me for a long time.  Just long enough, if ever is long enough when you’re a mother at her wit’s end.  And I said to her “It’s time,” and she understood.

Five minutes later, I walked aside my 8-year-old going on 28 and then I heard the noise of pebbles pelting steel.  Jim jumped up and down and then, I swear to you I what I am about to say is true, I saw Ben take a handful of gravel rocks and heave them at the gray SUV parked next to my black crossover.  I laughed and cried and friends, I screamed, I did, at this man-child of mine, and I picked him up and swatted him and he looked sad and then he smiled at me and said he was sorry.  And he kissed me and sucked his thumb and leaned in against me until I hugged him and told him I loved him.  It’s time.

It’s time.

Law, Rules and Writing, by Astrea Baldwin

The lot of a modern writer is not to toil in lonely isolation. The Internet brings writers together via sites like Facebook and Twitter. One of the central networking hubs for hard-working writers exists on WordPress, which represents the most precious of treasures: a community of lovely and talented writers. One of these treasures takes the actual form of Astrea Baldwin, who is today’s guest blogger. 

I fell upon Astrea’s blog and felt a connection to her and to her work as soon as I read a single post.  I kept reading and commenting and our dialogue grew deeper and more personal by the day.  For those of you who know me or who know Astrea, this won’t surprise you.  We are both very open about our respective pasts and about our own internal processes.  Right from the start, I could talk with Astrea about a wide range of topics.  From gardening to families to quirky stories to mental illness, we tend to cover a lot of material in a short amount of time whenever we talk.  And neither one of us likes golf.  The Masters in particular offends both of us.

I adore Astrea and I love the way she writes. Her words flow in a natural progression and she mixes self-deprecating wit with incisive and sage analysis.  Below you will find Astrea’s take on an issue I hope to address in an upcoming blog post of my own.  Please enjoy the following post and remember to follow Astrea’s blog.  Meanwhile, I love it when you leave comments!!!

Without further ado, I introduce today’s guest blogger.

Have you noticed that there are so many bloggers who are survivors of various kinds of abuse, have psychological issues of various flavors, but are also/were also in the legal profession? There’s you, then I have a pretty piece of paper that says I’m qualified to be a paralegal, but I don’t use it. Let’s add one more thing to that list; we’re all writers in our various forms and genres. Fascinating stuff. What’s the connection?

Let me back up or you guys are gonna’ be lost. That’s more or less the bones of thought to a random message I sent El one morning while my brain was going ninety-to-nothing. To explain the “we”, I have a blog, though I don’t update as often as I really should. I’m a writer, and I have the aforementioned pretty paper. And that was the day I fairly irreverently (what a shock, me irreverent?) came out of the closet to her. I think I said, “I’m an unmedicated – save for Xanax – rapid-cycling bi-polar, OCD riddled, near Aspie nut case that had a psycho-bitch for a mother. Still like me?”

Yeah, that was about it. (She still likes me, by the way – I think) So, now you and the entire Internet know, too. I don’t talk about it much because that’s just the way it is and I have embraced it, warts and all. Namaste! But, now that you have the connection, back to the subject!

What drew me to the law? I have a strong, strong belief in the power of words and thereby the law has always intrigued me. With the use of one word or another, or the omission of one word or another, laws can be bent, broken, or stand rock solid. How can you beat that? That’s power right there. Control. More control than I sometimes feel like I have on a good day, wrapped up in a neat little pile. It seemed a safe career choice for me because the law is bound by specific rules. My brain runs a million miles an hour at all times. Slowing it down is pretty hard, but rules and order help. I make tons of lists for that reason.

So, I wondered, because of our conditions, are our chaotic minds predisposed to seek out order and therefore so many of us are drawn to the law? The law should – reiterate should – be the ultimate order. Even someone not familiar with the law should know that while it has definite structure, the law is far from orderly, so what the hell was I thinking?

In the end, I didn’t choose a career in law. Knowing someone would be counting on me to use the words, the law, the rules, I knew to help them was too much pressure for my head to wrap around. What if I was wrong? What if one of the words I said did more harm than good? Words can help, but they can also hurt. Something I was all too familiar with. So, what did I do? I hung my pretty paper on the wall, went back to the boring day job, and went back to writing, where you really can’t be wrong.

There dropped the answer to the writer connection.

I write fiction, Urban Fantasy to be precise, and have done so since 1994. When I sat down last year and decided I was going novel length with my work for the first time, I started out by just vomiting up eighteen years’ worth of stored up words. My inner editor is a killer, so ignoring my beloved rules – the ones I already knew – was hard stuff. Somewhere along the way I started actually reading and studying the rules of writing for the first time.

Wow, and I thought law was hard?

Once the words were down, I immediately began looking for order and applying those rules. No, that paragraph should be moved to a few pages earlier. That reaction is too soon, move it to later. Dingy, you said he had brown hair on page 42, but on page 97 it says his hair is red. Um, I don’t think “reek” is the right word for right there. Gods, your grammar sucks. Fix it.


I was breaking rules left and right – I really dislike the word gaze and think the whole “no disembodied body parts” thing is a stupid rule – and having to go back and fix those things began to flat wreck my nerves. Not to mention, piss me off. So much so that I wondered what the hell I was thinking about writing as a career? I was as baffled about my choice to write on a large scale as I had been about my choice of the law, but I got over it. It’s just too much fun.

They really are similar in the vaguest way, though, don’t you think? The law and writing. Order – Structure – Rules. Some writing rules can be bent, some broken. Some you just can’t get around. So, in writing, like law, are we also trying to escape the chaos and have some measure of order and control? I think more so.

Sure, there are rules, structure, and order in writing, but there is also absolute freedom. It’s your world, your rules. If you want the sky to be red, it’s red. Is the mayor secretly a weretiger? Cool. If you want to burn down an entire city block because the barista at the Starbucks on that corner once gave you a bad latte? Do it in your story. Did something terrible happen in your life? You can rewrite that unhappy ending. If you want to go back and visit a place you love, but can’t in the real world, you certainly can as often as you wish in your writing. You can be, through your writing, anyone you want to be. Shed burdens, draw love close. Smile when you don’t think you can, cry when you didn’t think you could anymore.

Writing is a freedom to be who you are deep inside when the real world sometimes doesn’t understand you. It’s an escape. Into chaos, sometimes, but it’s a chaos created and managed by your own mind. You have created this world and you are master and commander, judge, jury, and executioner. That’s power right there. Control. It’s all you, princess.

Not everyone is going to like what you write, but that’s just the way it is. Two things are certain; someone will like it and you can never be wrong.

Unless your eyes wander across the street. Because that’s just against the rules, dammit.

Some things About Me?

Good morning my friends! So, I am going to answer a few things about me today.

What is my favorite ice cream flavor? Starbucks Java Chip.

Favorite football team? The Colts . . . except now I am dazed and annoyed about Peyton Manning.

Favorite hobby? running.

Children? yes, three of them.

Married? yep, happily.

Career? ex-lawyer; now, full-time writer, if there is such a thing.

Sense of humor? Sometimes.

Political party? Oh come on, you didn’t really think I was going to talk politics! Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a Libertarian/Objectivist and sort of a moderate Republican who is pro-choice.

Religion? I’m Christian, but I am beset by doubts and terminally confused.

Favorite writers? F. S. Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; J.D. Salinger; Ernest Hemingway (sometimes); Ayn Rand but Atlas Shrugged is a disaster as a novel; George Eliot; The Bronte sisters . . . right so I could go on and on about best, worst and indifferent writers for days.

And if you want to hear more about my writing influences and how I started up Running from Hell with El, please click here to visit my good friend at mynewfavoriteday, which is where I will be hanging out all day.

Petals Running Across the Street

Petals at Rest

The March wind blew and Ben squealed with delight. “Look, Jim, the petals are running!”  Ben’s voice carried at 120 decibels and I gripped Ben’s hand and while the breeze rustled my older son’s wavy, dark blond hair, my throat ached and I worried that my youngest child would scream about the petals for the rest of the morning.  So I held his little hand and watched the petals running and part of my brain laughed with Ben; and yet, I lectured him in a stentorian tone that he needed to “behave in class.”

“Dolly!”  Ben spotted the neighbors tan, nondescript new not-puppy and raced across the street after her.  My neighbor is my age but she manages to look like a grown up every time I see her and today was no different.  It’s hard to explain but when I am near her I realize I never really grew up.  I don’t know why.  She always knows what to say and when to say it and yet I stood beside her and another mom and wanted to cry, “Watch the petals run,” but Ben yelled it for me.  She nodded, cheekbones set in a kind but serious way and she took the leash for Dolly from her daughter and never lost a beat in the conversation she was having with another mom.

“BUS!!!!”  Screamed a sixth grade girl at the top of her lungs.  She does this every damn morning, and it makes sense when the bus arrives early and the safety patrol needs to sprint two blocks to catch the bus but on mornings like this when we’re all standing two feet away it makes no sense so I tightened my jaw and hugged first my daughter, and then my eldest son, and then I came to Ben.  He was turned the wrong way and hopped up and down and the wind kicked up again and he watched the petals running . . .

“Ben.  Ben.  Look at me, Ben!”  I leaned over and cupped his face between my adult-size small hands Tulip Tree in Bloomand his eyes followed the petals while my eyes followed the sun glinting off the massive tulip tree between my house and our neighbor’s colonial “Five, four and a door.”  The tulip tree’s leaves were blooming today, not yellow, but the lightest shade of green I’d ever seen and it looked and felt so damn gorgeous against the clear blue morning sky . . . I tore my eyes away and focused on my son.  “Ben!  Look at me, Ben.”  One eye shifted to me and the other eye followed the petals.  “I need you to pay attention hun.  And give me a hug.”  I gripped his shoulders and propelled him from the back of the line toward the bus and I waved at him but he didn’t wave back because he didn’t see me.  He only saw the running petals.

My neighbors spoke to one another in quiet, grown-up tones and one of them mentioned the brisk wind and all I wanted to do was watch the petals running.  I shoved my hands into the pocket of my old jeans that fit just right and the wind gusted and the petals careened in a circle dance in the middle of the street.  Then about Running Petals25 petals rolled end over end from the other side of the street toward my house and it could have been a team of cheerleaders performing cartwheels until the petals glided to a resting position beside the white, concrete curb.

I smiled.  The wind blew again but I did not feel cold.  Ten more soft pink-white petals danced up and down like horses prancing with delicate, shod feet in a dressage competition.  I don’t know how you make a horse dance like that but I know now that soft, pretty petals from a massive cherry tree will dance and run across the street all morning if the wind blows just right.

And about a mile away, a 5-year old named Ben is sitting in class, grinning with mad élan, as he imagines petals running across a dark grey, almost black asphalt street.

One More Word? Yes, He is My Son

This afternoon, I walked away from the lunch table at my son’s school and a woman’s voice followed me.  “Is that your son?” I held the back of my hand up.  Was it rude of me?  I didn’t care.  Not one more word.  I had heard enough.  She had already tried to talk to me and I had ignored her, this Spanish “lunch lady” with the wide cheekbones and the light in her brown eyes.  I had already heard about it.  Ben, 5, had crawled under the table and kissed a girl in his class and yet another freaking note had come home from school that day.  But when I asked my child why he kissed this girl, he asked me a question.  “Mom, why did you give me a pink thermos?  All the kids made fun of me.”  I had stared at him, astonished, and felt relieved as he added, “And Rachel defended me.  She told them to stop making fun of me.”  After I took it all in, I smiled.  “So you kissed her?”

The notes and phone calls keep coming like junk mail or telemarketers who call at dinnertime.  Yesterday he got sent to the Vice Principal’s Office after he used his finger to shoot another kid.  The school has a no-tolerance policy for fake-finger guns.  And my son distracted all his classmates.  His table tattled on him because if he got them in trouble, they wouldn’t earn enough points to receive lollipops.  And he called a boy on his bus a “diaper head” on the way home from school.  He had a very, very bad day.  So my husband made him spread mulch as punishment, and I insisted that my dimpled mess of a son apologize to each and every soul he hurt first thing in the morning.  And I planned to show up unannounced for lunch.

And I did.  I entered the school and immediately I spotted a little guy with baggy jean shorts, skinny legs, massive calves and a rust-colored long-sleeved t-shirt.  He wore a vacant, frightened stare on his face.  I tried to breathe but his fear and pain were palpable and it hurt me to see this little boy because he is mine.

Then he saw me.  And hope entered his eyes.  He tried to smile and then looked behind him for his teacher.  He took his odd little hop, skip and dance-step and followed me with his eyes as I circled behind him to check into the office.  He did not scream “Mama” out loud but his entire body leaned toward me, into me, as if we were the opposing poles of a magnet.  I winked at my man-child and barked at his teacher, “Where will you be next?”  She told me that they had lunch in fourteen minutes.

A minute later, I caught up to Ben.  Standing in the elementary school hallway by the bathrooms, he appeared lost and so little, and so did his tiny classmates.  I felt their confusion and uncertainty and fear and I wanted to put their inchoate voices out of my mind.  A little boy spoke.  “Ben’s Mom?”

I nodded genially.  “Yes.”

“Ben is bad.”  Then another little boy exclaimed, “Ben is bad!”

A female creature heard that I was Ben’s mom and she said, “You’re Ben’s Mom?”  I tried to say I was and she cried, “Ben is bad!”

A darkness descended and my vision blurred.  I imagined my hand slamming through the glass window and blood dripped.  I closed my eyes and I counted to ten and I tried to think but I spoke without thinking.  I was running on reflex and running from anger and deep-seated rage at what happened to Little El.  She was “bad.”  She was very very bad.  Not my son.  “No, Ben is not bad.”

“Yes he is,” argued another little girl.  “He always gets in trouble.”

The glass is shattering and Little El screams.  Shhh.  It is okay sweetie.  I am holding you.  “Perhaps he does bad things sometimes, but he is punished, was—“

Another boy chimed in before I could finish explaining that actions have consequences in our home.  “Ben is always bad.  Are you Ben’s Mom?”  I shake my head in frustration and try to answer but shards of glass are stabbing me.

His teacher walks toward me and starts to correct one of the boys.  Before she can start in on me, I mumble, “Did he do anything wrong today?”

“No, not at all.  In fact, he apologized to the entire class this morning, first thing.”  His teacher is a veteran, and she does not put up with much, so when another kid interrupts and starts to tell Ben’s Mom that Ben is bad, she shakes her head at him, but my voice carries.  “Right, so at least 5 kids have already told me that Ben is bad.”  The teacher shakes her head and scoffs.  “We don’t use that word.  We say he is weak.”

“My SON IS NOT WEAK.”  I am not yelling but my body is torn.  It’s like my heart is bursting out of my chest.  Ben often tells me that he loves me so much his heart is bursting with love.  I feel that now for him.  My son raises his hand, and speaks with outrage, “Jason says my Mom is mean.”  I glare at Jason and then I recall that he is 5 and I try, very hard, to smile and I do, sort of smile.  It’s funny.  I smile so often, so easily, most days but now my heart hurts too much.  But I smile anyway.

His teacher finds me in the lunchroom and she grabs my hands and she promises me that she didn’t mean he was weak and I believe her, I think.  I tell her how hard we are trying, but all I want to do is buy Ben his pretzel.  And I want the glass to stop breaking.  And I buy our pretzels and we eat and I hug my man-child and he sits on my lap and the time passes.

That’s when it happens.  She asks me if Ben is my son, and I can’t take anymore, but one thing I am not is rude.  I stop.  I turn.  And I look her in the eyes and I respond, proud but grim, “Yes, yes he is my son.”

She smiles.  Her eyes are full of light.  “I love your son.  He is a lovely boy.”  My chest stops aching.  The glass stops breaking.  And she keeps talking to me, “He has such a sweet soul and the girls will love him.  A sweet boy—your boy.”  I hold his lunch box and for the first time in an hour, I feel warm.  “Thank you.  That means so much to me.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Yes, he is my son.”  I leave the lunchroom and I tell my son again how much I love him and I go home and wait for him to return to me.

© March 23, 2012 E. L. Farris

Not a Post about Abortion–It’s About Me

Did you ever yell at someone when you were mad at someone else?  Or write about something or someone and realized after the words rang out with indignation and frustration that you weren’t really writing about that someone or something?  That’s what happened last night.   I spent the day reading about legislation since withdrawn in Virginia that requires a woman to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound (“TVU”), which is the latest attempt by the party I consider myself a part of to restrict a woman’s access to abortion.  See Virginia Legislation.  The bill was softened and now requires a transabdominal ultrasound.  I oppose this bill as well but it does not raise my hackles as much as a TVU.

But this blog will not include a nuanced and scholarly argument regarding the constitutional ramifications of the Casey decision.  I wrote plenty of those essays in law school and as a Constitutional History undergraduate, and they drain me.  And I won’t change anyone’s mind.  For the record, in my opinion, requiring any sort of ultrasound seems to impose an undue burden on a woman and under Casey, such requirements will not survive court scrutiny.  That said, let the lawyers and judges figure it out.

I want to explain why I got so angry.  Before I hit publish on last night’s blog, a dear friend reviewed what I had written and called me on the phone.  She asked me a series of questions and challenged a few of my assertions and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was holding a massive powder keg of rage inside.  OK, why am I so angry?  So I was raped.  It was more than 20 years ago.  So I was molested but now I am married and we have three children together.  The walls that hold our love for one another are strong and have weathered many storms.  Why am I so full of rage?

The inward match lit when I read this blog by an anonymous doctor who characterized TVUs administered to women requesting abortions as “rape.”  I have had two of these procedures and the first one did not bother me, I suppose because a woman inserted the plastic probe inside me.  The second one occurred in September 2005.  I had just gotten pregnant with my third child, who I nicknamed “Hat Trick” until we determined that he was a Ben, not a Cassandra.  My husband drove with me to the ultrasound appointment.  The nurse told me to lie down on the metal examining table.  She tucked a sheet into my khaki shorts, which I rolled down beneath my belly button and she rubbed cold, blue-green all over my belly.  Then she rolled the rectangular block over my belly and all three of us watched the screen.  Nothing.  Nada.  She left the room.

My husband rubbed my forehead to reassure me and I grinned at him and talked really fast to calm him down.  An eternity later, an old male doctor walked into the room and without further ado, he ordered me to spread my legs and shoved a hard probe into my vagina.  He spent the next several minutes talking to my husband as he rotated his wrist in all directions, and each rotation sent a jab of pain into my private parts.  My eyes welled up with tears but neither my husband nor the doctor noticed.  It hurt and I felt trapped and I wanted to scream and cry and I wanted my husband to punch this stranger in the face and at some point I left my body and observed the doctor chat, as casually as if he were at a roadside bar, as he moved the probe in all directions inside my vagina.

I didn’t really see what they saw on the TV-like monitor.  A baby, my baby, appeared on the screen but I was no longer an adult, a mother of two, soon to be three children.  I was a little girl and a man shoved something foreign inside me and there was NOTHING I could do about it.  And I failed, again, at the hard job of protecting myself.  That sounds crazy doesn’t it?  It was a medical procedure but it felt like rape.  It felt like the first time a man touched me without my consent and just like the first time, I blamed myself and felt deep, dark shame.

Even crazier, I felt betrayed, not so much by the doctor—by my husband.  We got out to the car, and he said to me, with a happy smile, “I liked that doctor.  He seemed nice.”  I glared at my man and called the doctor a bad name and refused to talk the rest of the long drive home.  And in my mind I replayed the rape.  Which rape?  I didn’t know which rape.  At that point, it was all the same.  The first time, my birth mom called me a “slut,” and that word played like a bad pop song again and again and so did all the horrible things that my folks had ever said to me.  I raged in silence.  And the rage hurt almost as much as the TVU.

Seven years have passed since that post-traumatic day in the sonogram room and I have been through extensive therapy.  I’ve done the work, my friends, and have bid my birth family farewell.  I am doing well.  Most days.  Every once in awhile, however, something hits me hard and stirs up some old feelings.  Some hurts are strong and lasting and permanent and there is not much I can do about it except to weather the pain and know that I am safe now.  I am safe now.

A Weekend with a Friend

At the bus stop this morning, my neighbor said to me, “So has your friend headed back to Seattle yet?”  I nodded and felt a little sad.  “Yeah, we took Sam to the airport in the afternoon.  But we had a great visit.”  I smiled and thought about how Ben had shoved one of his favorite toys, a model Goodyear blimp, in her green duffel bag and told Sam that he had “put it there so you will have to visit again and return it to me soon.”  Sam and I had both smiled at Ben, who had declared within five minutes of meeting Sam that he “loved her forever.”

My neighbor asked me how I had met Sam and I explained that we had become friends via Facebook and our Nike running group.  “No way!”  He exclaimed.  “You two looked like long lost friends!”  I laughed.  In a way, that is what Sam seemed like to me too.  Maybe we had not met in person until I swung by Dulles Friday morning to pick her up from the airport, but we had talked for hours via Facebook’s private messages about everything from running to our children to movies, literature, politics, philosophy, mutual friends, more on running, and a slew of other topics.  In fact, as soon as Sam tossed her duffel bag in the back of my crossover and we exchanged hugs at the airport, we resumed the conversation we had never really finished.

“We’re looking for Route 28,” I murmured.

“Okay,” she chuckled.  “I will look for it, but I don’t know where we’re going exactly.”

I scanned the road signs and checked over my shoulder and then giggled.  “I’m always the driver, so I never know where I’m going.”  I felt the leather steering wheel under my fingers and relaxed as Sam quipped, “So I am the navigator but I don’t know where we are.”

“Yep,” I laughed.  “Oh look,” we said at the same time, “There’s Route 28.”  And so it went, this meandering talk, as we headed back to my house.

Not all of our conversations were that goofy.  Neither one of us ever gets bored with running.  If a Desi Davila Picturenon-runner were in the backseat of my Mazda or in the kitchen of my family’s house, their eyes would have glazed over as we talked about all things running related.  We discussed: black toenails, running clothes, favorite temperature for running (43 degrees by consensus), best shoes (she runs in a shoe I cannot name because she is a tester but I can say that she is partial to minimalist shoes; whereas I run in Brooks neutrals), running routes, best and worst races, racing tactics, predicted paces, running buddies, running gear, favorite runners (Desi Davila is fab, but I love Joan Benoit) . . .  and on and on and on.

If I had to describe Sam, I would tell you that she thinks she is “most ordinary,” but in fact, she is most extraordinary.  She bore triplets 22 years ago, and do you know how rare that is?  No worries.  I remembered the statistic: there is a 1 in 68,000 chance of a woman giving birth to triplets.  What else?  Sam slipped on some ice and cracked two ribs last year and she never stopped running.  What else?  She raised four children and home schooled her brood when homeschooling was not nearly as well supported as it is now.  What else?  At the age of 45, she took up running.  She ran more than 2,000 miles last year.  She encourages other runners online with kindness, a positive attitude and a huge dose of humility, and when she missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon not once but twice by a minute her first two marathons she accepted this with easygoing good cheer.  She is as literate and well read as any of my friends . . . and she types 120 words a minute.  You get the idea, I hope, that she is no ordinary woman.

When I jogged up the hill and across the finish line at Saturday’s marathon, I felt so happy to see a friend waiting for me with an outstretched hand.  Sam ran the last few clicks with me and handed me her Gatorade bottle.

“You okay?”

I took a swig and nodded.  “Sort of, maybe, but I am on the edge of heat exhaustion.”

“How about a bar?  I saved one for you.”  Sam explained that they were running out of food when she finished and so she had grabbed a protein bar for me.  I chomped down on the chocolate granola bar and felt energized by the first bite of real food I had tasted in several hours.  I mumbled something in gratitude.  As I ate, we limped back to the SUV and laughed at the way we were walking.  Indeed, we spent a lot of time laughing at our own decrepit bones.  Or as Sam’s doctor explained, “You suffer from much Crepitus.”  In case you’re wondering dear reader, Crepitus is a medical term that describes the grating, crackling or popping sounds and sensations experienced under the skin and joints.  Sam and I crack, pop and crackle a lot.

After we got into the Mazda, we went Guerrilla driving.  Every exit we tried out of RFK stadium was locked and finally, with much frustration, I drove up a ramp and paused in front of a locked gate.  I contemplated slamming through it RFK Stadium with surrounding parking lotsbut thought better of it.  Accident repairs are expensive.  Then we spotted a 4-inch curb and a grassy median.  “Shall we?”  I asked.  To my surprise, she replied, “Hell yeah, let’s go 4 wheeling,” so I jumped the curb and in front of two cop cars, drove over the median.  One of the cop cars turned on its lights and followed me and I laughed out loud.  “Sam, they’re going to have to catch me to stop me,” and she made a funny face.  “I think they will get one look at us and wave us on, don’t you?”  I did, and the police car accelerated past us.  It was St. Patrick’s Day and both Sam and I are part Irish.  I reckon we had some good luck coming to us.

Later that night, as we stretched out, I mentioned how “nauseated” I still felt, and she exclaimed, “Thank you!  It kills me when people say they feel ‘nauseaus.’”  We agreed on the importance of grammar and went on one of our long list-making digressions.  We do that a lot.  Digress and talk about our favorite or least favorite of one item or another.

I could go on and on about what a great woman and a dear friend Sam is, but I must say goodnight to my children.  I will close with one final glimpse of Sam.  We hugged tight and said goodbye and then Sam walked away and got on the escalator.  She waved over her head and I felt sad but happy she was going back home to her family.  And then in a gentle, funny voice she looked back and grinned and said, “I’m sinking . . .”  And then she was gone, and I was grinning too.

Friendship, Racing and the Missing Marathon Mile

Friendship, Racing and the Missing Marathon Mile

            I jogged up the hill and spotted Sam R. about 10 yards in front of the finish line and we grinned and exchanged high-fives.  Sam’s Rapunzel-like, silver-blond, braided hair glinted in the bright sunlight and her easy smile warmed me.  A few strides later, I crossed the finish line and frowned.  I felt no elation.  Not yet.  My marathon was not over.  My watch read 25.86 and though I had added as much mileage as I could during the last 3 miles, I still had not made up the missing mile and damned if I was going to stop.  I grabbed my medal and jogged past all of the empty food and liquid stations and slowed down as soon as Sam rounded the corner and limped toward me.

“Come on, wanna run my last bit with me? They cut a mile loop off the course without telling us, and they wouldn’t let us go back and run it, and I only made some of it up before the trail car caught me and told me I had to run to the finish line or else take a ride.”

“WHAT?” Sam exclaimed.  “And sure I will run with you, assuming I can.”  She grimaced and we both laughed at our aching legs.  Sam trotted along beside me, around a corner, down an alley, and we traded war stories regarding our time on the course.

It all had started more than 5 hours earlier, when I crossed the starting line at 8:30 a.m.  Or maybe it started on Friday morning when I swung into Dulles airport and picked Sam up by the Virgin Atlantic door.  Perhaps it even started seven months ago when we signed up for the inaugural Suntrust Rock-n-Roll Marathon.  I promised via Facebook that, “it will constitute a fabulous Boston qualifier Sam!! It is almost completely flat and it will be cold on March 17th, just like it was during the 2011 marathon.  And you can stay with me and we’ll have a blast  . . . come on Sam!!  Let’s do this!!!”

Months later, a week before the marathon, I had this dream.  In it, I was running in a marathon but I saw a dangerous-looking house and so I stole a police car, drove a mile, and after parking the cop’s car, continued running.  Then I realized that I had cut a mile off my race, and fear, shame, dread and a sense of dishonor flooded me, so in the dream, I figured out how to add the missing mile before I finished the race and woke up in a puddle of sweat.  It turns out that this dream may have been a premonition of sorts; at a minimum, it gave me the mental training I needed to handle an otherwise unforeseeable obstacle on the day of the real marathon.

A serious challenge greeted us on the morning of the 17th: near-record heat.  Each of the first eight marathons I have completed has taken place at sub-50 degree temperatures.  The average high temperature in our area on March 17th is 56 degrees; the low, 36 degrees.  Saturday morning dawned with a low of 60 degrees and it heated up within a couple of hours to 76 degrees, with high humidity.  Neither Sam nor I had trained in warm weather and we both reckoned that the heat would slow us down.  In my case, I was coming off the flu; was running with a few extra pounds and for the first time had undertrained (rather than over-trained) for a marathon.

At the starting line, we parted ways with a nod.  We had been talking more or less nonstop for hours but we both had real serious looks on our faces as we searched for our corrals.  I talked with two sisters and a few other runners in my corral.  The one sister, a tall brunette, had qualified for Boston with a 3:30 marathon and she and I tried to convince her little sister to sign up for a marathon too.  Today, like the vast majority of runners, they ran the half-marathon.  We, in the middle of a vast sea of runners, at least 25,000 strong, crossed the line at 8:31 a.m.  Sam had crossed the line 20 minutes ahead of me.

Sweat poured off me at the two-mile mark.  At the first water stop, I grabbed a lime-green Gatorade, a water and poured a second cup of water over my head, which I would repeat for the subsequent 10-12 water stops.  At the three-mile mark, I passed by a table containing salt packets and shrugged off the need.  Too much salt makes me feel ill, and I felt nauseated almost the entire race, except for the rare moments when we passed through tunnels.  One of the medications I take makes me more susceptible to heat exhaustion and the almost constant sun exposure taxed my reserves from the very start of the race.

A few months ago, the Rock n Roll series took over the Suntrust Marathon, which had been a small, regional event, and they marketed the hell out of it until they sold out the race.  Just as in Las Vegas, the Rock n Roll event organizers proved unprepared for the crowds, the heat and needed supplies.  In DC, for example, they promised 7 gel stations but only provided 3 gel stops, and none between 15 miles and 23 miles, when runners need it the most.  And they ran out of water and Gatorade for the slower runners at some of the later water stops.

At least in DC the Rock n Roll organizers did not serve water that made runners ill as they did in Vegas.  As one friend said of the Vegas race, “Something went wrong with the water and made a great number of people ill.”  Indeed, the Vegas Rock n Roll event was, in the words of another friend, “a great debacle.”  As a runner who has completed untold races I am honor-bound to add that the DC Rock n Roll marathon amounted to a great fiasco as well.

What else happened?  Without adequate notice prior to the start of the race, they cut the time limit from 6 hours to 5 hours and 30 minutes, which is barely adequate for many runners during normal temperatures.  I learned of this at the 14-mile mark and the news of it shook me, since I had followed an unusually conservative first half strategy; indeed, I included walk breaks from the 2-mile mark to guard against heat stroke.  Another veteran runner in a violet tank pointed behind her and told me that the tail car stalked us and was sweeping folks off the course, which made no sense.  At no point had the course organizers advised us of any “sweeping” strategy in advance of the 20-mile mark.  From the 14-mile mark to the 25-mile mark, the tail car drove back and forth from a few miles behind us to a few miles ahead of us and ordered some runners into a white van.

I was furious and as sick as I felt until then, adrenaline soaked into my system and I upped my pace and tried to reduce walk breaks.  No one is tossing me in any damn van.  They would have to hit me over the head to get me off this course.  Occasionally, I stopped sweating and a motherly voice in my head whispered, “Walk, El.  No ambulance rides.”  And I have run through much harsher conditions.  I knew I was going to be okay as long as I did not push too hard.  Meanwhile, I kept reviewing my calculations, checking my sports band and I realized that I was on track for a 5:40 marathon finish.  So long as the 5:30 time limit included an additional 45 minutes for the last runner to cross the starting line, I was nowhere near “sweep-worthy.”

The course had thinned out after the mass of half-marathoners veered left and the full marathoners turned right at the 12-mile mark, and the course was so poorly marked that at times, I searched for other runners.  I had run almost the same course last year and worked in DC for several years and still, it was hard to follow the route.  Very few course volunteers directed runners.  At times, the only thing that demarcated the course and out of bounds areas were orange cones.  And despite a multitude of ramp-mile checks in the first 14 miles, from mile 15 to the end of the race, no mile checks existed.  In other words, someone could have received a ride from mile 16 to mile 25 and still have been counted as an official finisher.  As it turned out, this is almost exactly what happened.

I coasted over a bridge and passed mile 21 at a reasonable clip.  I remained on track for a 5:40 finish according to chip time, which would have me across the line at 6:10 approximately.  Ahead of me stood a line of orange cones.  Runners headed towards me and turned left (their left or my right) but the only way I could go was to my right.  I followed the course and after about a quarter-mile I gasped.  I saw the 23-mile marker.  I glanced at my sports band, which has been calibrated and had tracked the course mile markers accurately until then, but now it read 22 miles.  I was confused.  I ran a few more steps then stopped and dithered for a few minutes.  Then I turned and started back, thinking I could retrace my steps and find the 22-mile marker.  I almost ran into this other runner, a juggler, who said to me, “They closed the course to us.”

“What the hell?”

“They said we could try to run it but we could get lost and there will be no police around.”

I glanced around at the post-apocalyptic environs surrounding me on DC’s famed SE side and shivered.  I am not a very large woman.  I kept running in the direction of the finish line and cursing and trying to figure out what to do.  I was missing a mile and I felt like a fraud, a liar, and a cheat.

What should I do?  What can I do?  Again and again I thought it through.  For two more miles, I considered my options.  I had to keep running and once I got to the finish line at RFK stadium, I would keep running until my calibrated sports band read 26.2 miles and maybe a bit more to be safe.  But could I, should I, not run over the finish line?  What about the medal?  Should I take it?  Even without a real time?  Of course I would complete the full marathon within a few minutes of receiving the medal, so would it be wrong to take a medal?

As I tried to process all of these options, I struggled with heat exhaustion.  No gel packs and not enough fluids in near record heat left me at a mental and physical disadvantage.  And then I saw my friends with the violet tank running towards me, so I turned and joined her.  “Are you trying to add the missing mile?”  I asked.  “Yes, but they keep threatening to pick me up,” she replied, and nodded toward the tail car a half-mile behind us.  I gave her a fist bump and continued running in the opposite direction from RFK for about a quarter-mile, until the tail car passed me again.

I glanced at my watch.  I had picked up a half-mile and I did not want to get too far from the finish line in case they swept more runners, so I headed back toward RFK.  And then I saw a van holding runners stop.  A woman wearing a Rock n Roll shirt jumped out, opened the door, and let several runners out of the white van.  One of these swept runners joined me and cussed over and over again.  “They swept me.  Should I take a medal?  I haven’t run the full race.”

I reasoned with him.  “Then run the extra distance after you grab the medal.  Or double-back and make it up.”  He went off on how they had shortened the cutoff and he was so bitter, I had trouble understanding him.  Off to my right, a woman staggered but the race organizers ignored her.

Meanwhile, I slowed to a walk because I was not sweating.  Many folks were walking it in.  Even Sam had to walk the last two miles in due to excruciating heat cramps.  And then a race organizer screamed, “All walkers will be picked up.  Anyone not running will be swept in.”  They were shaming us, all of us warriors mind you, into running when our bodies could take no more.

Flabbergasted, I stared down a male race organizer.  “What the hell are you thinking?  Do you not care about liability?  If you pressure someone who has heat exhaustion into running and they die, you realize you will get sued don’t you?”

In a nasal voice he droned, “We did a bunch of these people a favor by dropping them off a mile from the finish line.  Now they can cross the line and get medals.”  I used some choice language and yelled, “You’re offering medals without accomplishment.”  My voice rose higher and higher as I continued to question their honor and their humanity.  “Why hold a race?  Why let people across the line who have not completed the full course?”

Lamely, he replied, “I can understand how you would think that.”  I held the back of my hand up in disgust and continued running.  All I could think of was the Marine Corps Marathon.  They sweep the course Medals for Little Leaguersand drive people who are unable to reach the 17.75-mile mark and the 20-mile mark in a bus to the baggage claim area.  No one who fails to reach these cutoff times is allowed to cross the finish line.  The Marine Corps treats its runners with honor and fairness.  As long as a runner beats the cutoffs, he or she is treated with as much respect as the man or woman who wins the overall race.  Unlike the Rock n Roll marathon, the Marine Corps does not treat non-finishers like Little Leaguers who deserve the same medals and treatment as bona-fide finishers.

In retrospect, I cannot keep this medal.  I did not cheat.  The course organizers cheated me and they cheated all of the folks who ran the marathon without missing the 23rd mile or without hitching a ride for part of the race.  And while I completed my 9th marathon on March 17th, I want nothing to do with a race that lacks honor and respect for all of its participants.

Epilogue: I officially alerted the Rock and Roll authorities that my chip time is inaccurate due to their unannounced altering (and shortening) of Saturday’s DC Marathon course. I still ran a complete marathon by doubling back and adding mileage after I crossed the line. Now I am looking into contacting the press and the USATF to file a grievance re course infractions.

How to Talk to a Friend in Need

A dear friend contacted me this morning with a question.  A problem really.  He read my blog on rendering assistance to strangers or friends who are suicidal on social media and he got confused and made a mess of things with someone he loves dearly.  And he needed me to explain how to fix it.  In short, his wife got upset during an argument and she confessed that when they fought, it made her want to hurt herself.

            A word about my friend.  Let’s call him Gary.  I’ve known him since my undergraduate days and he is a good guy.  He is a scientist and if you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, he possesses the classic scientist’s personality: INTJ.  Which is to say that Gary reminds me of Spock.  He is logical.  And he is a good man.  Smart, funny and loyal.  But Gary is not sensitive and he is not subtle.

            Gary heard his wife, “Joan” utter the words, “I want to hurt myself” and he immediately thought of what I wrote about suicidal threats.  He assumed she was suicidal.  So he asked her, “Does that mean I need to call the police?”  Needless to say (and I am chuckling now because Gary and Joan hugged it out tonight), this wasn’t the best response.

What do you say to someone like Joan in this sort of situation?  Most of all, you listen to what Joan has to say.  Sit down beside her.  Ask if she needs a hug.  Remain calm and try not to overreact.  Joan may just need to vent.  She trusts you enough to tell you she is in pain.  Whatever you do, do not abuse this trust by blaming her for feeling depressed.  Give her the gift of time and be patient with her.  Be honest with her but remember that she cannot process too much right now, so keep it simple.

After she tells you what is wrong, thank her for talking with you.  That may sound odd, but it took a lot for her to reveal her vulnerabilities to you, and she won’t feel as guilty or scared if she isn’t worried about how you will react.  A simple “thank you” will help ground her and let her know that you do not resent her or think that she is weak.

Tell her you love her and you are concerned about her.  If you can, sit with her for a while.  I know you must be busy (we all are busy) but time is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone you love.  Ask her if she is okay.  If she asks you if she is going to be okay, promise her that you will always be there for her, and if you believe she will be okay, tell her.  Never lie, but I for one appreciate reassuring words.

Finally, remember that you must take care of yourself as well.  Give as much as you can to Joan, but realize when you are over matched.  If she avers that she is feeling suicidal, ask her to call her therapist or her psychologist.  If Joan is suicidal, please do not leave her alone.  None of us are an island right?  There is a time when you must act as a bridge.  If you cannot help Joan, please do not hesitate to help her call a professional, a suicide hotline or offer to drive her to the hospital.  You are doing God’s work.  Know this.

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