Last week I wrote my acknowledgement page for my upcoming middle-grade novel, The Night Diary. It’s an emotional experience, because I’m grateful to so many people for so many things. But I have to remember that this act is supposed to be book focused. I’m lucky enough to have been through the process a few times and the same thing always happens. Beyond thanking those closest to the project (and I won’t mention all those amazing people here, because I’ll save it for the book), I have an urge to thank everyone who has meant anything to me, ever.
I want to thank all my friends and family. I want to thank my loving pet collie I had when I was a kid who always made me feel worthy. I want to thank my 4th grade teacher who taught us about playwriting and Arabic. I want to thank my first best friend I ever had because she showed me I could have a best friend. I want to thank my favorite babysitter who often took me and my sister after school to feed wheat thins to those horses nearby. I want to thank my “mean” high school English teacher who made me revise that essay five times until I actually learned something. I want to thank the nice lady at the bakery who gave me my first job. I want to thank the adults I knew growing up who were artists because I saw that one could be such a thing. I want to thank the boy who asked me to my first dance. I want to thank anyone who has ever invited me to a party.
There’s more, many more, but for the book, I stick to those who directly impacted the project. That’s the thing, though. Whenever you achieve something important to you, all those special people in your life, starting from your very first memories to today, are part of the achievement. They are part of the building blocks which created whatever allowed you to believe that you could do something.
Then I thought, what a great writing prompt! What a great life prompt. So for anyone who’s interested, take some time today and write your acknowledgement page. You can write it for anything you consider an achievement. Maybe the achievement is simply that you are a person who is a lot more good than bad, and that you’ve survived everything you’ve been through so far, and that you’ve cared about people and they’ve cared about you.
Maybe write it because you’re standing here this morning, ready to do it all over again, and there’s someone out there who you want to thank for that.
It happened like this. Several months ago my new book idea and I started a relationship. I saw it from across the room and I had to introduce myself. We met for coffee and I fell pretty hard. Before I knew what was happening, I became obsessed. We spent every day together and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Spring turned into summer and as the heat, endless light, and unpredictable schedules began to distract me, something shifted. We saw each other less, then not at all.
To be honest, it started to annoy me. Little things like where was the plot actually going and why didn’t the characters seem as interesting as they did in the beginning? Were the themes too complicated or perhaps too simple? The glow faded and I began to feel lost. Then it was August. The kids were out of camp and I was full on mom. September came, though, as it always does. School started and my fall routine returned. As I prepared my courses and read instead of wrote, I thought a lot about the book that came before this new idea. That book had a clear beginning, middle, and end. Though I was revising it, that book had developed characters who still captivated me. It even had a contract. Could this new book idea ever mean as much to me as that other book?
I hadn’t spent time with the new manuscript in over a month. I felt guilty, disappointed with myself, mad that I could let a good thing go like that. But I kept avoiding it. What if all those passionate feelings were really gone? What if I had just been kidding myself?
Then one day, a rainy Monday of all days, a day when I had slept poorly the night before, when the kids grumbled about school as I gently pushed them out the door, after an annoying appointment, a few tedious errands, and some work emails, I decided to open my manuscript out of the blue. As soon as I began to read, I remembered what I loved about it. It was still beautiful to me, in its broken and raw sort of way. We started hanging out again. I think it might be serious.
This is my process. Sometimes I start “dating” a manuscript, wander away for a bit, and then when I return, the magic isn’t there at all, like how could I have ever thought this was a thing not there. It’s frustrating and sad when that happens, but I stay in the game because I know I’ll fall in love eventually. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.
I'm posting this a few days after the NYC marathon and admiring pictures on social media of people crossing the finish line. Though I don't pretend to have that kind of stamina, I can relate to the finish-line moment in a new way.
Two weeks ago, I participated in the 39-mile Avon Breast Cancer walk in New York City. What did it mean to walk across that finish line? It meant a great deal to me, especially because I didn't think I actually would or could. The first 26-mile day of the walk was tough, but doable. A bunch of us ran late after lunch in Brooklyn and they bussed us back over the bridge, which was okay with me. The couple of miles I didn't walk absorbed itself quickly into the accomplishment of the long, hard day. I was just relieved that I did enough training to carry me through. Saturday night, however, proved to be a bigger challenge. As hundreds of walkers slept in pink tents (not made for cold camping) on Randall's Island, it dropped to a windy 38 degrees. The layers, hand warmers, and good sleeping bag I brought wasn't enough.
When I woke up on Sunday morning, shivering in my tent with maybe an hour of sleep behind me, after walking for 12 hours the day before, the thought of walking 13 more miles seemed absurd. It felt like the last possible thing I could ever do. I already did it, I thought to myself. I raised the money, I showed up, I survived yesterday. Why do I need to push myself? Why do I need to finish the walk?
When and why do we need to push ourselves to the finish line? Sometimes the right answer is letting something go. Sometimes the right answer is not finishing and being okay with that. That morning I didn't know what the right answer was. All I can say is that you have to try and listen to yourself, truly and completely, without the noise of other people's judgements. Other people will come in and out of your life, but you have to live with you, forever.
My sister and I hunched over our hot breakfast, now in the freezing outdoor dining tent at 7am, trying to warm ourselves up with little paper cups of coffee. As we watched the better prepared or just heartier women set off for the walk, I resigned myself to boarding the bus that would bring me to the first rest stop and shave off about 4 miles. There, we would walk a bit, and then hop on the bus when we peetered out. This wasn't a race. Other people were doing it that way. I did what I set out to do, didn't I? But I didn't. I wanted to know I could push through something really hard and rally. I wanted to know I was that strong, or at least I wanted to know I really tried. If my mother could get through two rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, and radiation, I could do this. Still, my hands and feet felt numb. The coffee wasn't helping enough.
My sister, Shana Hiranandani, who is also a life coach, saw me looking wistfully over at the walkers. The crowds were starting to thin.
"Look," she said. "We may have to wait a while for the bus. Let's just start and see how we feel. We can take a bus at the next rest stop if we're really miserable."
Suddenly it seemed clear--"Let's just start and see how we feel." I nodded, grateful that I had my sister at that moment to help point me in the direction I needed to go. Usually when we're at a crossroads, we do need someone to help us get where we want to go, whether it's letting go or pushing through. I do that with writing all the time. I certainly don't finish every story or novel I start and I usually consult with a trusted person to help me make my decision. I got my achy self to standing and we started walking, simple as that. We came here to finish something.
When the sun finally hit my face that morning and I was again part of the pink-clad crowd heading down the east side of New York City, I felt joy and energy bubble up through me. Shana and I walked all 13 miles that day. We were greeted proudly by our families at the finish line, who would have been proud no matter what, but my sister and I had made the right decision. Maybe, though, in a different circumstance, getting on the bus that morning and feeling good about what I managed to do would have been the right decision.
This time, knowing I rallied has given me the courage to think about bigger goals and bigger possibilities for myself. But it also showed me where my limits were, and that limits are okay. The trick is knowing if you've hit a real limit or not. If we don't have that hard, quiet moment over a cup of coffee with a trusted person to figure it out, we may not hear ourselves. Rather than coming up with a bigger, newer challenge, doing the walk has ultimately made me want to go deeper into the things I already love, the things I've already chosen to challenge myself with--my writing, my teaching, my parenting, my marriage, and all my important relationships. I want to spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff and a lot less time thinking about what other people think of me.
I don't believe I'll ever run a marathon. And that's okay. There are a lot of things I won't do. I'm at the point in my life where, though I believe in the phrase "it's never too late," I also believe that narrowing things down and truly committing to what I already have, what I already do, with a depth that can only come from more days lived on the planet and a growing awareness of the fragile and fleeting nature of life, is going to be my greatest marathon.
Thanks to everyone who supported me.
During my training walks for Avon 39, I've been thinking about my feet. I really like my feet. They're not particularly beautiful. They're kind of big. They have a tendency to get dry and sore around my heels, but I like them. They're the one part of my body that's purely functional to me, the one part of my body I'm not critical, or precious, or self-conscious about. Yes, I'll dress them up with polish for fun, but ultimately I'm happy with them however they are. They've carried me through life for forty-four years and I hope they carry me through another forty-four. First, they need to carry me along my 39-mile walk in October.
I said I'd post every week about my walk training, but there hasn't been much new to say. I've mostly been doing daily three-mile walks. The longest walk I've been able to fit in is five miles. It's a challenge to find the time, but I'm planning to attempt a ten-mile walk tomorrow and one fifteen-mile walk before the big day. I figure if that feels okay, I'll be good to go. Showing up is the most important thing. I'm also proud to say I've raised $3,200 towards breast cancer research, so far. It's still not too late to donate! Just click here. I promise it will feel good. I'm looking forward to writing about my post-walk experience. I'm sure my feet and I will have plenty of stories to tell.
As I try to get in shape for the Avon 39 Walk to End Breast Cancer in October, I’ve been thinking about stamina. I think some people have long-term stamina, and some people have long-distance stamina. Some lucky people have both. Great athletes probably have both. Sometimes I tell my teen writing students that a big part of what makes people grow as writers is not miraculous talent, but the will to just keep doing it, little by little, or bird by bird, as writer, Anne Lamott, says. I think I do have that kind of stamina, long-term stamina.
Unfortunately, I don’t have great long-distance stamina. I was on the swim team in high school. There were two types of “members.” Those who simply joined and those who made varsity. Guess which one I was? But I was happy to be part of a team that accepted everyone, not a common occurrence in my athletically driven town. I wasn’t a very strong swimmer, but I put in my time and showed up. Over many years, I might have become a decent competitor. I only swam for two years, and though I absolutely grew stronger, I rarely placed in races. I also hated the longer races and refused to do the 500 freestyle, which is a 20-lap race. I preferred the sprints. I did not think it was possible to maintain my strength for that long and feared if I actually did it, my time would be the slowest ever recorded. One meet, though, my coach wanted to put me in the 500. I must have looked so frightened, my refusal must have been so adamant, that he backed off and he was a pretty tough coach. I think he was afraid I might drown.
So I never did it, and still avoid things that take that kind of stamina. That’s why a 39-mile walk is a tad intimidating. When I’ve had to push myself in the long-distance realm, pull an overnighter for a deadline, or work on a project for very long consecutive days, it takes so much out of me. That’s why I make sure I stay disciplined and avoid a big push. I would be happy to walk three miles daily to train, even four. I’m a bird by bird kind of person, but for this, I might need to be a gorilla by gorilla kind of person, at least sometimes.
Last week I did five 3-mile walks. The thing about walking is that it takes a long time. I’ve been trying to figure out when I’m going to fit in 5 and 10 mile walks, even just once a week. I’ll get there, I hope. This week I plan to do a five-miler this Friday at 6am. I’m saying it here so I’ll be accountable. I planed to do the same thing last week and I didn’t do it. But this week, well, it’s a new week. I guess this time I’m going to do the 500, even if I come in last.
You might be wondering how all these things fit together. So am I. But somehow, these recent influences in my life have converged and inspired me to write this post. So bear with me as I try to weave together how this happened.
First, I’ve been listening a lot to Mark Maron’s WTF podcast while I walk in the mornings. I love listening to him banter with comedians, writers, and actors about how they've gotten to where they are. The journey is never pretty, but it’s always funny. The more I’ve been walking, the more I’ve been listening. It inspires me to look for the funny in life. Because if we can’t laugh at it all, then what?
I also love listening to audio books and I recently listened to the book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a beautifully rendered and somewhat tragic account of a man who decides to walk over 600 miles to visit his old friend dying of cancer. If Harold, a 63 year old man who barely gets up for tea, can walk 600 miles, I can walk 39—even though Harold is not a real person and never walked 600 miles at all.
And last, two weeks ago, I went to Kripalu with my sister, a yoga retreat in Massachusetts, and somewhat of a life retreat center in the best sense. There, I started reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. I’m only at the beginning, but her thoughts on the courage to be vulnerable are hitting a note for me. I don’t let myself be very vulnerable. I want people to think I’m doing okay, that I’m not a mess, that I’m making good choices, that I’m successful and have lots of friends. That parenting and marriage are going fairly smoothly except for the typical annoyances, like why my kids are so loud. Like why my husband leaves his shoes in the middle of the hallway and forgets to unload the dishwasher. You know, silly stuff—those typically annoying things that we’re lucky to be able to complain about. I’m so lucky, what could I ever be frustrated, sad, angry, insecure, or depressed about? But I’ve been all those things, and will find myself there again, over and over and over. Sometimes I feel like giving up and just being the failure I try so hard not to be. But I keep going and many days I see why it’s so worth it. Other days, I don’t get enough work done, nap, eat chocolate, yell at my kids, argue with my husband, drink red wine, and call it a day.
Are you still with me? Are you getting the themes of humor, honesty, stamina, and vulnerability here? Okay, here’s the meat of this post. Get ready.
So a few months ago, my sister and I signed up for The Avon 39 Breast Cancer Walk in New York City on October 18. A year before that, my mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She's in remission now, thankfully, but it was a very hard year which included two surgeries, two rounds of chemo, and one round of radiation. It was mostly hard on her and my unflappable dad who drove her to almost every doctor’s appointment and held her hand through all of it. My sister and I tried to hold their hands as much as we could, but he was her rock. He is a true hero. He knows the double meaning of that.
It was a hard year for everyone who loves her. My mom is such a generous, funny, creative, and loving person, through and through, top to bottom. I don’t only love her because she’s my mom, but I really like her. If I met her as a peer, I would absolutely be friends with her. I love her that much.
Now we're on the other side for a little while, which is all you can know in life. Actually you can’t even know that, but let’s pretend, shall we? I haven’t even touched the surface of how hard it was to watch her and wonder what was going to happen. Now I’m also terrified of my own mammograms. It’s a dark, thorny road which I don’t really want to go down right now, right here, but I did want to acknowledge that.
After the past year, my sister and I wanted to celebrate being on the other side. So of course we decided to train for a 39-mile walk. Usually when I celebrate something, it involves champagne and rich deserts which make me regret my choices the next day.
This time, I’ve got the opportunity to spend the next three months regretting my choice. I joke. Sort of. See, I wanted to do this walk in honor of what my mother went through, and in honor of one of her closest friends, as well as one of my mother-in-law’s closest friends, as well as my husband’s aunt, all of whom didn't get to the other side. These women were all amazing women and nothing I can write here will adequately express the sadness I feel about their lives ending way too soon. I wanted to do this walk for all the women who will face this disease, and all the women I know (way too many) and don’t know, who call themselves survivors, and all the women who can not.
There’s a small problem. I’m not very good at exercise requiring a lot of stamina. I’m a moderately active person. I like short, frequent amounts of exercise that don’t cause too much suffering. An occasional 45-minute spin class is as strenuous as it gets. So the thought of taking 10 and 15-mile training walks makes me want to crawl into a ball and go to sleep. Seriously, who has time to take a 15-mile walk? But one must if one is planning on walking 26 holy moly miles in one day and 13 the next! Are marathoners laughing at me right now? Go ahead. To me, this is like climbing Mount Everest.
Today I walked 3 miles. It was hot. My hips started to hurt. I was thirsty and my hands felt swollen. It took me a little over an hour. It seemed like a really long walk and it’s just the beginning. It’s the easy stuff. I’ve actually been debating giving up, which is why I’m writing this post and will continue to post weekly about my progress or lack of it. I want to raise money. I’m fully invested in this cause. But I’m not sure I can do this, both for stamina and time’s sake. I guess when people start donating money, I’ll have to fully commit. I hope that doesn’t sound manipulating. I mean it without any irony.
In some ways it’s an arbitrary commitment. Why not just get people to donate money without all the fuss? Why put ourselves through this? Haven’t people suffered enough? But our most rewarding experiences usually come with some suffering and a lot of wondering why the hell we’re doing it at all. So maybe this walk and the training is a metaphor for that, and just by the nature of the act, it will hold tremendous meaning. Or it won’t.
But I said I was going to do it. My sister said she was going to do it with me. I told my mom I was going to do it. Now I’m telling whomever is reading this blog. I’m hoping that’s reason enough to keep going and if I really wanted to give up, I would have already, right? They might pick me up in a truck (would it be a truck? Maybe a van? Or an an ambulance?) half-way through, but I will have raised my $1,800 for a great cause, a cause that has become increasingly personal. I know this is a strange way to inspire people to donate, but you will be giving to an important cause, that I know.
I knew I couldn’t find my motivation unless I approached it honestly, vulnerably, and humorously. So wish me luck, and please donate (here's the link: http://info.avonfoundation.org/site/TR/Walk/NewYork?px=7818416&pg=personal&fr_id=2406). I don’t know if I’ll finish, but the money still counts.
Until next week…