I haven’t written here in over a year. I started thinking I had nothing left to say, or more accurately, nothing that anyone would care to read. But then I randomly met a former blog reader named Liz, who said if I wrote something, she would read it.
So I thought about that for a few weeks.
And just like that, I found something to say.
So this blog is for Liz.
On November 4th, my friend Katie and I ran the NYC Marathon. We committed to 26.2 immediately following the Winter Warrior Run Challenge, a local contest that involved running outside everyday in January, sub-zero temperatures be damned. After dodging black ice in snow pants and ski goggles, a marathon was just what we needed to keep the self-torture streak alive.
As training partners we were simpatico: our see-how-we-feel-today pace, our non-stop chatter, the commitment to getting it done early in the day as to leave time for Starbucks. Both proud owners of bladder slings, we respect the need to pee behind a tree, and/or shove a prolapsing uterus back in.
We woke up at 4am on race day with our typical text exchange about coffee, pooping, and weather-appropriate layering. The gun finally went off for our wave at 10:45. The weather was perfect and the crowd was incredible – but the whole experience from the beginning was a bit overwhelming in a sensory overload kind of way.
The race itself did not mirror our training runs – between the cacophony of the crowd and the navigation of the water stops, it was impossible to find a shared groove. We kept pace with each other, but often with other runners in between.
By mile 18 Katie started to lag behind me. This never happens. Between the two of us, she is the stronger runner. Katie is a formidable athlete all around – she actually won a triathlon. I am just a chick who runs away from her own crazy. So, I was slow to process what was happening.
“I don’t feel great,” she said. “I may need a bathroom break.”
So, we stopped at a Port-o-Potty. Then a few miles later, we stopped again. Shit was unraveling. Literally.
By mile 23, she stopped. “I need to walk,” she said.
I tried to fight the panic as I slowed to a shuffle. I feared walking at this point would cause every lower-body muscle to seize up, ass to ankle. I tried to breathe clarity into my muddled, tired brain.
But making good choices at Mile 23 of a marathon is like trying to parent with a stomach bug. It’s tough to be your Best Mom Self while lying on the bathroom floor. So, your Mediocre Mom Self plants your kids in front of the TV with a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch so you can puke in peace.
This was me at Mile 23. My mitigated self wanted a quick fix. But I didn’t have a TV or Cinnamon Toast Crunch or the nice, cool bathroom floor to lie on. All I had was a warm packet of peanut butter in the pocket of my running pants.
“Here,” I said to Katie. “Eat the peanut butter.”
She looked at the smooshed packet in my hand, turned a little green and said: “Um no.”
“Maybe it will help, just try it.”
She tried. She gagged.
Now what? Thinking was hard.
I am not sure how long we hobbled along, going back and forth Abbot and Costello style about whether I was staying or going. I said stay, she said go. Stay. Go. Stay. Go.
She said: “I really just want to suffer alone.” There was enough finality in her voice for me to believe her.
“Promise me you’ll call me if you puke or pass out, ok? Because I’ll come back.” Because calling someone while unconscious and running backward in a marathon both seem like solid options.
I knew with that first stagger-step away from Katie that I would regret this decision. Everything about it felt wrong in all the ways your body tries to tell you it is: pit in the stomach, heart in a vice, lump in the throat, hot tears behind my eyes. The world around me shrunk to a narrow, silent tunnel of shame. I kept my eyes fixated on the trees of Central Park up ahead, listening to the only sound I could hear, which was the voice in my head: You are just straight up a bad person.
I crossed the finish line in a fog, then stood there, dazed. The finish line officials tried to usher me along: “Keep it moving, keep it moving, collect your medal, blanket and water, just keep walking straight ahead.”
The word “medal” triggered the tears. This was not how I pictured this ending. It felt like a birth plan gone awry; a water birth-turned-c-section.
“M’am, keep moving please.” The race official man was getting testy with me.
“I can’t,” I whimpered, teetering on the edge of full-on ugly crying. “I have to wait for my friend.”
He sighed. “Ok whatever just go stand over there,” and shoved a medal into my hand.
I stood on a curb and fished my phone out of my running belt. I saw a text from my friend Shelly and immediately responded:
Shelly and Terri are friends from home who traveled to NYC to drink Bloody Marys and cheer us on, in that order. Shelly, conveniently, is an ER nurse, so I knew Katie was in the best possible hands. I tried to breathe deep. It’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok.
And it was. Shelly and Terri got her to the finish, and we were reunited.
Katie immediately let me off the hook: “I would have left you, too,” she said. “You gotta let it go.”
But I couldn’t let it go.
In the week following I re-played the events of Mile 23 over and over in my head. I could not stop crying. I wanted to stuff the memory of the marathon way down to the bottom of my mom purse, under the ticker tape of CVS receipts. I put my suitcase back in the closet with my medal still in it.
Phil tried to put things in perspective: “It’s a marathon! You have to run your own race! She would have felt worse had you stayed!”
And while I wanted to believe him, I couldn’t absorb his words. So I continued to obsess and cry, then obsess and cry some more. I was in the Shame Cave. In retrospect I think maybe I was also a little dehydrated.
Fortunately, I am 41, which is too old for many things, like crop tops and wallowing. Nothing good or productive happens in the Shame Cave, because no one lives there but me and the cast of Law & Order SVU. And the Real Housewives. There’s a big TV in the Shame Cave.
For me, the beauty of middle age has been the realization that no one can save me from myself. The only exit I have found out of the Shame Cave is to be my own best friend – to say to myself: I LOVE YOU GIRL, BUT ENOUGH WITH THE I SUCK SOB STORY. Then, I put on clean(er) yoga pants and focus on doing the next right thing.
Next Right Thing #1: Ask For Help. Because I appeared to be stuck in a do-loop of self-loathing, I called in the big guns: Gerry. Gerry was our marriage counselor in Philly, but over the years has morphed into more of a Shaman/Jesus/Mr. Rogers figure. Since moving to MA, I think of him as my Phone-A-Friend lifeline. That I pay for.
I spilled the whole story to Gerry who listened without interruption. After a thoughtful silence he said: “So basically you left her in a foxhole to die.”
“Yup,” I said.
“And this feels like a huge betrayal.” Gerry gets me.
“Exactly! I keep asking myself: What kind of person does something like that?”
“Well,” he said, “that kind of question suggests that you are only one kind of person. When in fact there was an internal conflict between the ‘You’ that wanted to run and the ‘You’ that wanted to stay.”
See what I mean? Gerry should have his own hotline.
“You know of course,” he continued, “that this is not just about the marathon.”
I laughed. “Is it ever?” That’s some therapy humor.
I won’t bore you with a catalog of my deepest wounds and darkest secrets (unless you buy me a drink – then I probably will) but the bottom line was that while shame thrives in the cave, it dies in the light. Like a Gremlin. And the only way to shine some light on that bitch was to ask for forgiveness.
Now, one might argue that I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Phil said: “You two should have discussed this scenario before hand. Next time, you need a pact about how you will handle something like this.”
To my brain, this sounds like a tidy solution: A pact! That is what we need! Then no one feels guilty, confused or conflicted because we have a PACT!
But my heart knows that the real pact was not made with words.
The pact was made in those pitch-black 5 AM track workouts. It was made on a 16 mile run in 98 degrees, when we kept each other going even though our arms were crusted in salt. It was made in the hundreds of phone calls and texts reminding each other to hydrate or drink the recovery shake. The pact was made in Target when I bought not one but TWO adult sized llama onesies to wear over our running clothes pre-marathon. The pact was made in those post-run swims in the ocean, fully clothed.
It was never my race. It was always our race.
Next Right Thing #2: Ask For Forgiveness.
I was shopping for a kid’s birthday gift at a local gift shop when I saw the hat: fleece lined, navy blue, perky pom-pom. The inside was warm but soft like a rabbit.
I bought the hat, wrapped it, and left it on Katie’s doorstep. Inside was a card – the rambling handwritten message serpentining front to back – in which I clumsily but wholeheartedly apologized for leaving her in the foxhole.
Back at my house, I still had my coat on when my phone rang, the name “Emergency Contact” flashing across the screen.
***Yes, Katie is my Emergency Contact. Phil was fired from this post the day I received an IV iron infusion and my arm blew up like a balloon animal. When I called him in a mild panic, his voicemail lady said what she says to me at least once a week: “This mailbox is full and is not accepting messages at this time. Goodbye.” Katie picked up on the first ring, so she was hired. And yes, I abandoned my Emergency Contact in an emergency. The irony is not lost on me.***
“I’m coming over,” she said. Some things are too much for text. (Is this a thing? TMFT? If not we should throw this into the acronym rotation.)
Next Right Thing #3: Receive The Forgiveness
She walked in the door, made a beeline for where I was standing at the kitchen island, and gave me a good, strong hug – the kind of hug that speaks without words. I cried AGAIN, but from relief this time.
“Here,” she said, handing me a small gift bag. “I saw this at a shop in Duxbury and thought of you.” It was a tea towel that said “Na’mastay in Bed.” I snorted but the tears kept coming, because the real gift is knowing that you have someone who thinks of you while shopping in Duxbury.
Phil poured us each a beer in a frosty mug (he will never be fired as the bartender). We shot the shit for a bit, and with another good hug, she went home to make dinner for her kids, aka. order a pizza.
And just like that, I stopped obsessively re-hashing the race like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, inserting different scenarios and their potential outcomes. There was no more self-flagellation; no more treading water in a pool of my own moral depravity. I felt only lightness and gratitude.
In the past, if I heard someone refer to forgiveness as “a miracle,” I would roll my eyes at such hyperbole, just like I do when James Lipton calls another actor a genius on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
But when I compare who I was before Katie came over with the person she left standing in that kitchen, the transformation is nothing short of miraculous. I felt healed in a Christian Tent Revival kind of way.
Last summer, one of my best friends from college, Krystin, came for a visit. We met in the freshman dorm 20 years ago, and it was love at first bong hit. During her brief stay in Scituate, we took my dog for a walk on the beach. In the midst of shooting the shit about nothing and everything, her upbeat and confident voice became uncharacteristically shaky.
“I want to tell you something,” she said, still walking beside me but a half step behind.
Ruh-roh. My catastrophizing mind was off to the races.
“I want to apologize for bailing on you sophomore year,” she said. “For choosing not to live with you.”
As freshman, Krystin and I planned to room together the following year. By the end of the year, however, Krystin changed her mind, for reasons that had everything to do with me being a total basket case who subsisted on vodka, cantaloupe, and mustard packets. She ended up living with someone else, and I lived alone.
I stopped in my tracks and turned to her. “Have you been carrying this around all these years?”
Her eyes filled up, then looked down. “I just feel like I abandoned you.”
“Listen to me,” I said. “That was the right thing to do. You were a kid. I was a liability with a capital L. Sure, I was bummed to not live with you but I never faulted you for that for a second. If anything, I abandoned you by falling off the deep end! I was a walking disaster and you set an appropriate boundary.”
“But you had to live alone,” she said softly.
“Uh, yeah that’s what happens when you do five shots of Jaegermeister and throw up in your roommate’s hamper. It’s called consequences. And that year was good for me. I had to learn to be ok with my own company. So, you did me a favor. Are you hearing me? It’s ok. Are we good?”
“Yeah,” she said, as we resumed our walk. “It just felt…shitty.”
“That’s because you’re a good person,” I said. “And because you missed my alpaca sweater/hippy skirt collection.”
“It’s true,” she said.
On that walk with Krystin, I offered up a quick prayer: Whatever just happened here is important….so, thank you. Standing in the kitchen with Katie, I felt the same intense presence and gratitude – for this perfectly vulnerable exchange of asking and receiving. And when a human connection yields instant relief and lightness – well, that feels pretty miraculous to me. It feels….whole. Complete.
I think there is a depth to forgiveness that defies logic…a place inside us where the right or wrongness of a situation is not always the point. Even though I had jumped into that foxhole headfirst, Krystin still carried the weight of leaving me there. And while other people in her life – her family, other friends – may have reassured her that it was ok, in order to fully heal, she needed to hear it from me. She needed to feel it from me.
It can be scary to ask for forgiveness, because there’s no guarantee you’re going to get it. But there is healing in the asking, and peace in knowing you did the next right thing. Sometimes we are forced to do the hard work of forgiving ourselves, even when the other person cannot. The wound still closes, although maybe not as cleanly as we hoped.
Glennon Doyle writes:
Healing is so painful. Thankfully when we turn away from someone who would have helped us heal (or they turn away from us), God sends another. I don’t think He punishes us. I think he gives us lots and lots of tries. God is forever tries.
I asked Gerry: “Is forgiveness a universal healing agent? Kind of like a Spiritual Aquaphor?”
“Hmmm…” he said. “Go on.”
“Well, if a person forgives you, does it help heal the times someone else didn’t forgive you – like when you take an antibiotic for strep throat and it inadvertently clears up your infected toenail?”
He laughed. “I’m not sure it works exactly like that. But the more we experience forgiveness, and understand the depth of how it works, we stop being the victim of our own story. Then we are rooted in compassion, and our ability to forgive others comes from a deeper place.”
This is where James Lipton, with eyes closed and hands in prayer position, would say: “Genius.” And this time he would be right.
When I give up being the hot mess of my own angsty ABC Afterschool Special, I create the space for compassion. I make room for mistakes. I think the transformation happens when you can own your shit without believing that you are your shit. No one is 100% hero or villain – we play both those roles, sometimes all on the same day. Or, in the parenting world, the same hour. We are only human, baby.
Anne Lamott explains how forgiveness fills “the swiss cheesy holes inside us:”
Over and over, in spite of our awfulness and having squandered our funds, the ticket-taker at the venue waves us through. Forgiven and included, when we experience this, that we are in this with one another, flailing and starting over in the awful beauty of being humans together, we are saved.
Let’s keep saving each other.