The Bracelet

Even though I have a penchant for exaggeration, I did not make up anything in the following story.  I even have a witness.

On Friday, September 16, 2011, I woke up early, kissed Fred as he walked out the door to go teach, and finished packing for my long weekend in Taos with my friend Marty.  I walked the dog, watching the sunrise.  It was a perfect day for a long drive.  The aspens were just beginning to turn in the high country; the clouds shifted constantly and with them the light on the mountains.

As much as I like a long drive, packing is not my strong suit.  Maybe because of, or in spite of, having traveled extensively, I now seem to pack like a Kardashian, minus the Louis Vuitton luggage, publicists and personal assistants.  I took enough clothing for a three-week trip that might include hiking or running in snow, rain or sweltering heat, none of which were actually planned, plus a few cowgirl chic barn dance outfits and the odd black cocktail dress.  While I no longer drink, packing for this weekend trip indicated otherwise.

Once I was on the road to Marty’s house in south Denver, a drive I used to do five days a week, the sea of traffic parted and what used to take at least 40 minutes, took only 19 and I wasn’t speeding.

Marty packed a perfect, tiny suitcase and as I opened the trunk I said, “You know, I want to wear my mom’s jewelry for the trip.”  Marty loves Indian jewelry and I know she wanted to see those bracelets as much as I did.  So after I dug around in the trunk and found Mom’s Navajo squash blossom bracelet, the one she bought in 1954 when she was 20, and her Hopi silver cuff, I slipped them on my wrists.  I always feel closer to her when I’m wearing those bracelets.

We drove out onto I-25 and Marty said, “Hey do you want to take the scenic route down 285?”  Looking at the traffic heading south down the Front Range, I said, “Sure, we’re not in a hurry,” and we headed off on Hampden.  Good conversation and the long, beautiful drive through South Park and the San Luis Valley loomed ahead.

At the base of Kenosha Pass, we were halted by construction for at least forty minutes, maybe longer.  But once we started back up again and the traffic thinned out, cresting Kenosha Pass, with the breathtaking expanse of South Park before us, made us both smile widely.  We passed fresh-cut hay rolled and ready to put up, at least five herds of antelope grazing, and red tail hawks drifted high above us.

We even forgot to put on any music because we were talking, with occasional interruptions to look at the shifting light on the mountains, the rolling rainstorms, yet another herd of antelope, and more hawks circling our journey south.  In no time we were at the junction of Highways 285 and 50, and Marty said she’d never been in downtown Salida.  It was 11:23 a.m. and I took a left towards town.  Sleepy little Salida is no more; and we could not find parking anywhere.  As we circled back away from downtown, I pulled into a side street and parked in the last spot I could find.  We stretched and noticed a small, Italian restaurant across the street.  We walked over and asked the elderly couple sitting on one of the benches outside when the restaurant opened.  “About thirty seconds,” said the woman.  Then she looked at Marty, “What an interesting ring.”  And she noticed my mother’s turquoise bracelet, “Did you know that is Navajo?”  I said I did and asked where they were from.  “Arizona,” she replied.   And with that the doors opened and we all went in.

Marty ordered her food at the cash register and sat down while I went to the restroom.  Then I ordered and, as I was walking towards Marty, I passed the elderly couple’s table.  I don’t pretend to know what prompted me to stop.  I just did.  And I asked them, “Where are you from in Arizona?”  The woman with the snowy white hair smiled and said, “Northern Arizona.”  “What part of northern Arizona?”  I said, now curious.  “Winslow and Flagstaff.”  So I said, “Did you ever know a woman named Nancy Martin?”  The woman looked at me hard and replied, “She was my best friend.”  I smiled, incredulous, and said, “I’m her daughter!”  The man with her laughed and said, “Look at her, that’s Nancy’s smile, of course!”  Turning to me he said, “You look just like her!”  My voice was gone, but then I croaked, overcome, “Oh my God!” and burst into tears.

I tried to compose myself, but that wasn’t happening.  “My name is Marie Drake, it was McHale.  Can I sit down here?”  Which I did and then I jumped back up to tell Marty I’d just met my mother’s best friend.

Their names were Lorraine and Gerry.  I sat with a thud in the extra chair at their table.  “When did you know her?”  Lorraine said, “From the time she moved to Winslow around age 10 until the time she went to the University of Arizona at Tucson.”  1944 to 1951.  Eight years.  I couldn’t control my tears.  It was like something was wrenching loose, something I didn’t even know I was holding onto.

Lorraine teared up too.  She told me her father and my grandfather, Step Martin, worked together on the railroad.  I countered, “Yes, he left the railroad when he got injured, that’s why he was called Step, you know, from the limp.”  “No, no, no”, she said, “He was fired for his drinking and he was a big drinker.  And Nancy’s mother Ruth drank too but I think they called that ‘nervousness’ back then.”

Lorraine talked and told more stories.  The heaviness in the center of my chest, the thing that formed and defined me in so many ways the morning my mother left us in the Philippines when I was ten, started to feel differently, lighter, as if I’d been doing a bunch of backbends in yoga.  Even eating Italian food for lunch, I felt lighter.  So I smiled and cried at the same time, because the world was cracking open.  Here was my mother’s best friend telling me stories about a tall, smart, well-liked girl with who was funny, had friends and dreamed big dreams.  So I listened.  For once.

Jerry said, “Your mom had all that trouble with alcohol and drugs and then the last we heard she was a ski bum.  I couldn’t understand it.  She was so smart and could have done so many different things.  You know your mom had a big crush on me in 8th and 9th grade, but she wasn’t my type, she was so tall and smart and us boys were all scared shitless of her.  Lorraine is my type.  You know Lorraine and I met again at Winslow High School’s 50th reunion of the Class of 1951 and got married in our 70s.  And Winslow High’s 60th reunion is next weekend.  Do you want to come down there and speak to all of us?  Also, I made a DVD for the reunion and Nancy is in it—and at all the reunions she is always on the Gone But Never Forgotten wall.  No one will ever forget your mother.  I’ll send you a copy.”  “Thanks” was all I could manage.  Then Gerry left for a previous commitment.

Lorraine kept talking and I started crying again, falling apart in a small Italian restaurant in Salida in front of people I didn’t know.  But I did sort of know Lorraine.  And she knew my mother when Mom was young and probably happier than most of time I knew her.  Hearing Lorraine talk about the fun they had started to round out Mom’s childhood for me.  The few stories I’d heard about childhood were not good ones.

Lorraine interrupted Gerry leaving and my blubbering, “She was my best friend.  She was a great friend.  I wish we’d stayed in touch more after her first year or so in college in Tucson.  You know she was fearless, right?  When we were sixteen, she drove me to the worst bar on Route 66, where all the Mexican knife fights happened.  She walked right in, bought a bottle of wine from the bartender and walked out.  We drove somewhere and got drunk for the first time.  God she was so smart too, you know she was valedictorian, right?”  “Yes.”  I’d become monosyllabic.

“She was already a drinker in high school,” said Lorraine.  “I’m not surprised,” I managed to say.

Marty decided to go scout art galleries while Lorraine and I sat on the bench outside the restaurant and talked for nearly an hour.  As we walked outside, she looked up at me and said, “My, aren’t you a great big girl.  How tall are you?”  Well 6’1” Lorraine.”  “Nancy was about that size wasn’t she?”  “Yes, 6 feet.”

After sitting down Lorraine said, “I can tell you love her so much.”  I nodded.  “Now didn’t you have a younger brother and sister?”  “Well, no, Mike is 3 years older and Kate is 18 months younger.”  Then I told her how proud I am of them and the families they have and the lives they’ve created.  Lorraine invited us all to come to Salida and spend time with her and with Gerry.  “You know Gerry would never say it but he won multiple awards from the Federal government and the Navajo tribe for his work with the Navajos.  He worked on the reservation for thirty years, maybe longer.  If he set his mind to it he could have been a millionaire!  But he has too big a heart.  Wasn’t your mother teaching on reservations?”  “For a while,” I respond.  “We couldn’t believe she became a ski bum.”  Silently I think about what could have been, but I feel now I was supposed to grow up how and where I grew up.  I finally feel like everything that happened, especially all the painful stuff, gives me so much in the way of experience to help other people.  Plus Mom wanted to have fun, and to impart that to us.  What better way for her to do that than to move to a drug-filled, no boundaries, ski town in the 1970s?

I was thrilled at every tiny bit of new information about my mother.  Lorraine was so generous.  I wanted to ask her everything she could remember.  It was like Mom was standing silently by, playing a loving little trick on me that day, here in the heart of the Rockies she loved.  And just when I was least expecting it, not that I could ever expect something this good.

After nearly an hour I hugged Lorraine goodbye and walked to the gallery where Marty was buying an oil painting of two deer butts.  It was a nice painting, as deer butts go.  We went by Safeway for drawing paper and while I stood in line at the Starbucks there, I saw Gerry again, who told me he was going to send me the DVD he made for the 60th Winslow High School Reunion.  Then he said, “Nancy was a queen, did you know your mother was a queen?”  I shook my head.  Was he thinking she was like a queen because she had a regal bearing I never noticed or was it just the fact of her being six feet tall?  “She was a homecoming queen at the University of Arizona down in Tucson.”  “Really?”  “Are you sure you’re thinking of the same woman?”  I’d never heard this before.  No one in the family had.  Then Gerry added, “You know the last time I saw your mother she was in graduate school at Northern Arizona University in the early 1970s and I was teaching there.  She was going through a bad divorce and told me your dad loved his planes more than he loved her.  I wish we had connected more.”  “Me too Gerry.”  For the second time in 90 minutes we hugged each other goodbye.

The next morning I woke up at 4:30 a.m., unable to sleep.  I’d been thinking about this encounter, my mother’s life, how fleeting our time is here, and how I wished I’d known this younger, happier version of her.  Sneaking out of the motel room, trying not to wake Marty in the next bed, it appeared there was nothing going on in sleepy little Taos at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday.  So I bought bad coffee at a gas station and watched the sun rise.  Then my phone buzzed with an email.   It was from Gerry.  He had attached a beautiful, two-page letter of memories of my mom, two pages that he’d written after meeting me the day before.  He wrote, “

“I want you to know the minute you told Lorraine and me that you were Nancy’s daughter it gave us such joy to reach back and capture once again, for only a short time, that persona that was your mother —a wonderful and unique example of what the crucible of Winslow has produced.”  He added, “I most often clearly see your mother that day in 1947, standing aside one of those little diners prevalent throughout the Southwest.  As I drove those many miles across the Navajo rez I entertained myself with songs that brought back fond memories of Winslow.  “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” (Sinatra’s song about his wife/daughter} was a favorite and always brought a vision to mind of your mother and for some reason, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from Broadway’s “Finnegan’s Rainbow” also brings her back in my heart and mind.  It was later in life that I learned your Mom was Homecoming Queen at the University of Arizona that I reevaluated my chance to have been closer to your mother.”

Well I’ve reevaluated my chance to have been closer to her too, Gerry.  What could I have done differently?  Turns out a lot.  But I wanted to grow up and find my own way.  I was exhausted by her, exhausted way before she had cancer or fell into the deep crevice of her drug addiction, the one she never did climb out of.  I’d been taking care of her for a long time in many ways.  We all had.  Parents with mental illnesses mostly don’t mean to do that to their kids, but I sure felt seared with responsibility at young age, and by my late teens I was flat burned out.  I wanted my own life.  I was growing up, which meant growing away from her.  It’s just too bad that occurred in her last years, and that neither of us knew how to talk about it.  Plus I had the epic denial of the young; I assumed we had years and years ahead of us for interesting trips and visits, long talks on the phone, and eventually living in the same area again.  But we didn’t.  And she would not have wanted me to swim around in a sea of endless recrimination, I know that.  It’s a form of self-indulgence too.  So if there ever was a time to forgive myself, it might be now.

When I arrived at my office the Tuesday after the weekend in Taos, there was a package waiting for me from Gerry and Lorraine.  In it was the DVD Gerry made for Winslow High School Class of ‘51’s Sixtieth Reunion.  I watched it right away.  There was mom in a plaid skirt and bobby socks, in Thespian Club.  And again there she was in the group photo for the staff of the student newspaper, The Meteor.  And, to my surprise, a photo of the commencement program from the spring of 1951.  It said, “Nancy Ruth Martin, Valedictorian.  Her commencement address was titled, “Onward with Democracy.”   Finally, there was a photo of her in cap and gown, the future stretching out before her.

The class of 1951 had 76 kids in it and they include whites, Hispanics, two black kids, Navajos, Hopis and mixed bloods.  Lots are gone now sixty years later and I wish Mom wasn’t one of them.  I think they’d better start having a reunion every year.

This is not a story I can tell yet without crying.  And I find each morning, whether I put on a suit or jeans, I wear my mother’s bracelets, bracelets that were on her tanned wrists through thick and thin, from the early 1950’s on.

On the drive back to Colorado, Marty said to me, “Maybe this isn’t about some sort of healing gift for you, maybe it’s about a healing gift for Lorraine and Gerry.  Maybe you’re the gift.”


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Mamá, todavía te extraño.

Mom, I still miss you.

Twenty-three years later I still do.  I miss your laugh that started low and built up into something loud, contagious and hard to ignore, especially in public,  your ranting about how Reagan ruined the country, about the growing, callous disregard for the working poor which I’m sad to say continues, and the goofy way you danced at Grateful Dead concerts embarrassing us. I miss your talks about migrant workers needing help with pesticide and herbicide poisoning, education for their kids and access to basic hygiene.  I miss your anger about Native Americans and genocide, rich hippies and hypocrisy, gender discrimination and radical feminism.  I miss the wistful way you talked about a man who asked you to marry him in an Iowa cornfield and then died in a river in Vermont.  I miss your huge, impossible lists for the book mobile, and your huge, impossible lists of great books we had to read.  I miss your analysis of the failed promises of the 1960’s and the social change you were still waiting on.  I miss your loneliness over friends you thought you had who weren’t there for you.  I miss how you tried to insist we all learn Spanish because One Hundred Years of Solitude was so much better in that language.  Two of the three of us did and I wish I had.  I miss your self-righteousness about eating organic food and supporting organic restaurants and farms, your love of the Mother Goddess and your confirmed suspicions about hypocritical self-declared, California gurus who were really just sexist egomaniacs.  I miss the way you buried money in mason jars and and then forgot where you buried them and how you cooked pinto beans in the cast iron Dutch Oven on the roof of the station wagon in Baja because it was that hot.  I miss the way I caught you looking at me once, when we camped with Katie in the desert under huge palm trees near the only water for miles but not too close, because you wanted to make sure the desert animals had comfortable access to it.  In your look I could see, and I knew how much, you loved the three of us and how deeply you felt you failed us.  I miss the “No Bozos Allowed” bumper sticker on the Buick station wagon, the affirmations and Zen chants and prosperity thinking. I miss the beautiful clothes you sewed from seconds at LL Bean woolen mills, the faith you had in us and the impossible demands you made that tested the faith we had in you.  I miss your sense of adventure and the way you started surfing in your 50’s when the cancer went into remission.  And I miss your notebooks filled with long lists of people you needed to forgive for firing you, humiliating you, rejecting you, hurting you, especially the ones who fell out of your life once you had cancer.  And on those lists was even your father, for shooting your half coyote puppy when you were a tiny girl and for what he did to you and later, to us.  And how you never allowed him to see us again, until almost 20 years later at Mike’s wedding when we were grown up.  I miss the way you said, matter-of-factly, “If I don’t forgive them, who will?”

I miss it all, even the shit storms of unmedicated manic insanity and the inevitable crashes into debilitating months-long depression, because if I didn’t have those parts of you too, I didn’t have all of you, and it was worth it to have all of you.  I wish I had made that more clear to you.

Mama, todavia te extrano.  Viente tres anos.  A blink of an eye.  I’d like you to know I’m working on forgiving everyone for everything too.  Once in a while, sometimes for just a moment, it feels as though I even have.


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New Habits Die Hard

I’ve subscribed to a fantastic blog, Zen Habits, by Leo Babauta.  He recommends getting up a little earlier each day, until one has enough unfettered time in the morning for exercise, writing and/or a spiritual practice.  Because he seems like a really cool guy, I decided to take his advice.  Plus I’ve been lately, as in the last few months, steeped in some dangerously ungrateful, free-floating  feelings of dissatisfaction, chronic hurriedness and Luftwaffe-strafing-take-no-prisoners-irritability.  Good times.

On my new schedule, I am showered and dressed for work, minus work shoes, by 5:45 a.m.  That way I have a leisurely 45 minutes to wallk and run with the dog.  It’s too cold to sweat and although my hair is often smashed down by a hat, it seems to make more sense, for now, for me to be ready for work before I exercise.  I tried it the other way and due to some sort of morning time warp, I found myself constantly in a hurry, trying to simply make it to work on time.  I suppose if I start running more than walking I will have to try the reverse again.

With daylight savings time I was sure I would ease into this new routine with minimal effect.  Instead of waking up a little earlier each day as Leo Babauta suggests, I naturally just set the alarm for an hour earlier and got up like I joined the military.  The ole “Buck Up” approach.  And it’s not working all that well.

But today I had a fun walk-run with the dog as the sun rose in the first November mist.  Granted I looked a little odd in a wool skirt, tights and running shoes, with a wool blazer topped off by a ball cap, but it was dark, then barely dawn.  Maybe my inner Babushka needs to come out to play.  At any rate I came home in  plenty of time to drink coffee, eat some oats cut with quinoa and a tablespoon of almond butter, and drive off to work so early I was stress-free.  But it was in my blissed out Zen state that I misplaced my cell phone, drove back home, still couldn’t find it and drove off to work, barely making it, all the while saying the F word repeatedly.  Not very Zen of me.

Now I just need to figure out how to incorporate writing into this new schedule.  Leo Babauta has advice on that too.  He is a writer who never copyrights anything he writes-not his blog posts nor his  his books.  And yet people are buying his books by the thousands, taking his seminars and signing up for his blogging bootcamps.  This is a man with, if I read the numbers correctly, over 200,000 people subscribing to his blog, Zen Habits.   I don’t understand.  And he appears to sail through all of this with what I perceive to be astounding serenity.

Back to my new habit of arising long before dawn.  It’s not working all that well because I seem to need to go to sleep around 8 p.m., which is not practical given my burgeoning holiday social schedule.  And I am fatigued much of the time, but that might be because I recently started eating about a pound of organic kale every day.  Superfoods can make you detoxify and detoxification can make you feel tired.  Then you become Super Food Girl.  While I’m only on day 4 of my delicious kale plan, I already feel better.  I am also so full of kale I don’t have an appetite for things that aren’t good for me.

My fatigue starts to set in just after 10 a.m. now that I am trying to be like Leo Babauta.  And as a 6’1″ woman, it is difficult trying to be a short, bald man from Guam.  Plus fatigue early in the day is not practical since there is an expectation by my employers that I will work at least seven hours past 10 a.m.  Maybe it will just take a few weeks to get in the swing of this new schedule and the kale munching, but I am determined to build these small changes into habits.

Also, if Super Food Girl keeps eating kale every day and getting up early, she will become an incredibly prolific writer, or at least get that damn book proposal finished and off to the very important person who was interested back in August.   So tomorrow I will rise a little earlier and write a little more.

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Gratitude List

Happy Halloween.

The photo is of a juvenile red tail hawk at dawn last month.  I took it with my iPhone.  This hawk, who I saw again on my walk this morning, is one of the things I’m grateful for today.

Last night Fred was returning from the Air Force Academy-Utah football game with my Dad.  After he dropped Dad off, he drove up I-25 and hit a bunch of debris in the middle of the interstate at about 75 mph.  Piles of wood or something that fell off a truck.  The impact sheered off the front license plate, dented and scratched up the right side of the car, did something to the alignment, ripped the side mirror and pushed some metal bar siding thing askew, but Fred was unhurt.  I’m so grateful for that, and that he took my big, heavy car down to the game instead of his Subaru.  I’m also grateful we are insured.

While Fred was at the game I went downstairs and discovered water coming out of the light fixture in the guest bathroom.  It could have been a broken water pipe.  I could have needed a plumber on a Saturday night.  But no, the drip was caused by condensation in the dryer vent which was packed with lint and a fire hazard.  The number one cause of house fires is lint according to my sister.  Easily fixable thanks to my brother-in-law Vince who came right over and pulled out the light fixture and used a flashlight and compact mirror to figure it all out.

I have so much more to be grateful for I can’t list it all here.  We are both employed and healthy, as is the rest of the family.  Bills are paid.  Election-related ads will soon be history.  And this might be the last, glorious autumn weekend before winter sets in.

But I’m sad today to learn of the death of my old friend Norm Patten, of cancer, on October 29th.   I’m thinking about his wife Christina, his daughter Emilie and his son Rewk.  I used to babysit Rewk back when he was called Rewkie.  Even at about 5 years old Rewkie was good at every sport he tried and a handful to babysit.  I also worked with Norm and Christina as a dishwasher and bus girl at the Elk Mountain Lodge when I was in 7th and 8th grade and I played softball with Christina on the Ruthless Babes.  They seemed so happy with my good work ethic-I was never late and even at 13, I felt compelled to sterilize every possible surface in the kitchen every day.  It was probably a sign of some OCD to come.  But by just showing up on time and wanting to clean everything with Clorox and a toothbrush I was clearly different from the average hungover hippy dishwasher.  My friend Tracey told me they took back-to-back river trips last year:  two and a half weeks in Alaska followed immediately by three weeks in the Grand Canyon on a paddle trip.

I think seeing the Pattens together as a family back when I was a kid was inspiring.  They were one of the few families in town staying together when all around me people were divorcing over alcohol, adultery, cocaine, money woes and the ubiquitous 70’s reason:  “needing space”.  I remember so few adult relationships that lasted or went unscathed by the turmoil of drugs, sex and rock and roll.  But the Pattens were a unit, a rare, solid family, and Norm was a good husband and wonderful father.  I saw that with my own eyes and it gave me hope.  I’m so grateful I knew him.

Rest in peace Norm.  Vaya con Dios mi amigo.


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Chinese Medicine

I started to see a Chinese doctor in New York City in the late 1980s.  His name was Dr. Fu Zhang and he had a busy, non HIPAA-compliant office off Broadway in Chinatown.  On one wall were shelves and drawers filled with strange-smelling herbs, dried flowers, sticks, and powders, like a prosperous, medieval apothecary, minus the guys in big floppy hats, velvet pantaloons and smelly tights trying to cure their boils.  On another wall were rows of hard, plastic chairs filled with sick people waiting their turns behind the thin curtain that separated the exam room from the rest of the place.

My friend Sanjay brought me to my first appointment.  Sanjay was a very hip, half German, half Indian man of great beauty, with thick, blue-black hair in a neat pony tail all the way down his back.  I referred to him as Klaus Kundalini after we started dating.  He was so beautiful that his thick-framed, Buddy Holly glasses had the reverse effect, and made everyone who saw him only stare harder at his face juxtaposed with those nerdy glasses.

It was through a smoky haze that I first noticed Sanjay sucking down one cigarette after another, squirming slightly in his chair, eyes darting nervously.  He drank cup after cup of coffee and was wearing khaki pants with navy blue converse low-cut tennis shoes, no socks and a navy blue v-neck sweater.  It was an Upper East Side uniform of sorts, but his darker skin and lush, mid-back-length shiny black hair made him seem less like a Farnsworth Biffington Blowhard St. Clair and more like a preppily-disguised outlaw, at least in my mind.  I stared at him for about two years before he showed up at my apartment door one night with red roses to take me to a play where one of the Redgraves would be tastefully naked on Broadway.

Since I thought we were buddies going to the theater as friendly neighbors, I was surprised he had roses.  I was less surprised when he told me I was under-dressed, but I was wearing the one outfit I had that was in between a herringbone suit and jeans and a stained sweatshirt.

I explained I had nothing else to wear other than my, yes, (it was the ’80s) black stirrup pants and untucked, shoulder-padded, flowery silk shirt unless I put on a suit.  Oh well.  Little did I know that soon enough I, too, would be clad in khakis, navy converse low-cut tennis shoes and a navy v-neck sweater, at least when I wasn’t going to the theater to see naked Redgraves.

We were neighbors on East 92nd between First and York, just four blocks from the DMZ at 96th Street, and ate breakfast around the same time every day at a nearby diner.  I lived in a grimy, rat-infested ground-floor apartment right out of a Willard movie and he lived across the street.  I didn’t keep food in my apartment except in the fridge, but that didn’t stop the rats from pouring out of the burners in the stove, oblivious to the steel wool I stuffed in the holes in the wall (they chewed right through it).  I finally put a big piece of plywood over the top of the stove, with a chair holding it down to keep the rats at bay.  Sanjay was fixing up his place and hadn’t paid rent in years because there were issues with the building, like an elephant-sized hole in the floor and windows that didn’t close all the way, no heat and intermittent electricity.   I think squatting was the word he used.

At the diner, he always ordered scrambled eggs “soft” so I started doing that too.  Naturally we ended up sitting at the same booth talking about our relationships and I took immediate dislike to his girlfriend, well, until I met her.  But after becoming friends with her, Sanjay and I started dating and I don’t think anyone let her know.  The drama that ensued foreshadowed the drama of my own breakup with him some months later under similar circumstances.

After a few weeks of increased neighborliness and dodging his girlfriend, I ended up with a bad sinus infection.  Drama can really make one run down.  Sanjay insisted I go see his doctor in Chinatown.

The good doctor took my pulse a few times, looked at my tongue and wrote out a prescription in Chinese characters.  In the next room, a tiny woman, not unlike one of the thumb-sized twins in the Godzilla-Mothra films, pulled powders, sticks, weeds and dried flowers out of drawers and off shelves and told me to boil the fistfuls of oddly-smelling dried stuff, strain it and drink the tea twice a day.  I think I paid $25.00 for both the appointment and the tea.

I followed directions, for once, and in no time I was better, without the help of antibiotics.  So I began to see Dr. Zhang whenever my health was less than perfect.

I was working full-time at a Wall Street law firm as a paralegal and attending law school four nights a week from 6-9 p.m.  Not exactly an available girlfriend schedule but I expected Sanjay to understand my limited time with him would have to do until I got out of school in another three or four years.  In my self-centered mind it didn’t seem like a lot to ask but it turns out it was.

So of course Sanjay broke up with me as gently as possible and started dating a beautiful, waif-like waitress about ten minutes later.  I was crushed.  Confusing heartbreak with an actual, medical problem, I went to see Dr. Zhang.

The waiting room was crowded with all kinds of New Yorkers, only a few of them Chinese.  I was sniffling away with my broken heart, trying not to sob outright and also not to touch asses with the people on either side of me (the chairs were clearly for tiny people from the Far East).  When my turn finally came and I went through the thin curtain and sat on the exam table.  Dr. Zhang took my hand to feel my pulse and looked into my eyes.  That simple act caused me to burst into loud sobs.  In spite of Dr. Zhang’s limited English, my story spilled out about Sanjay, the beautiful waitress and poor, poor, pitiful me.  I was blubbering with such force it was hard to catch my breath.  The waiting room became too quiet and a few people cleared their throats as if to let me know it wouldn’t hurt to take it down a few notches.

Dr. Zhang told me to stick out my tongue, probably to get me to stop blabbing on.  He said, in a too-loud voice, as if to comfort me, “No worry, he need different woman every night.”    With that pronouncement he held up his finger in the universal sign to hold on and disappeared through the curtain and out the door.

I lay down on the exam table wondering what the people in the waiting room thought and looking to see if I could exit through the window but there was no fire escape.  It was very quiet and Dr. Zhang was gone at least fifteen minutes.  When he finally came back in, he presented me with a milkshake and told me to drink it.  Then he patted my arm and said, “No charge today, bye bye.”

I made my way through the waiting room with my milkshake, not making any eye contact with any other patients.   Maybe it was the sugar, but once I was out in the crisp, October afternoon air, I had a strong feeling everything was going to be OK, and of course it was.

And now, twenty years later Sanjay and I are friends again, each married a long time to good people, but I sure wish Dr. Zhang had an office in Colorado because I still need a milkshake once in a while.


Filed under Backstory

Deciding Not To Be Rosie Ruiz

I ran in the Mt. Evans Ascent last weekend and a nice woman from Alpine Rescue told me, at mile 9 or so, that she wanted to take a look at my left leg.  Granted my gait resembled Dustin Hoffman’s in Marathon Man, minus the dental surgery, and I was in last place out of just under 400 or so runners, but still, it kind of sucked.  She had kind eyes though, and told me that if I continued, muscle could separate from bone and that would mean a very bad injury.  It sounded bad enough that I decided to stop.  As in DNF.  Oh well.

But for the better part of the last hour before this nice woman stopped me, I’d been mostly walking with a limp that became more pronounced as I went on.  I watched much older, sometimes fatter women, put distance between themselves and me as we fast-hiked up above timberline.  All the while I was tuned into Radio KFCKD.  Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, defines Radio KFCKD the voice in the writer’s head that tells her she is incredible, unique and brilliant or that she is void of talent, shitty at most things, including writing, and basically an idiot.  KFCKD is from Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, which I need to reread.

Early on in the race as I gasped for air, Radio KFCKD was telling me that 25 to 40 miles a week was not enough training, that my twenty-mile run a few weeks back meant nothing, and neither did my four runs over fourteen miles in the last six weeks.  The smooth-voiced KFCKD DJ said I was destined to fail in this race and that I was behind the hydration curve ball although I was dutifully taking my Endurolyte pills on time and drinking what I thought was enough liquid.

The DJ wasn’t completely wrong.  The main problem was that I came into the race dehydrated due to about 36 hours of, um, stomach issues, and those issues didn’t let up just because I was trying to race 14.5 miles starting at 10,600′ and ending around 14,200′.  The whole race was peppered with a certain evacuation-related awkwardness as well as roiling self-doubt, both of which gurgled too often and seemed to create an emergency about every fifteen minutes.

It’s true that with most races, I’m worried I may not have trained enough or as well as I should have.  This seems to always happen to me when I’m tapering before a race.  On the other hand I’ve never signed up for a race that begins above 10,000 feet in elevation and ends above 14,000 feet.  But this was to be my startlingly successful comeback after almost three years of no racing.  Granted I was often last in the races I did, including dead last in 2 marathons, but such ego-puncturing experiences were remedied easily enough:  I just started running races with thousands of people instead of hundreds; that way I wouldn’t be assured of last place.

You’d think if one were truly talentless at a certain sport she would give it up.  But I like running races.  I like the adrenaline and the competitiveness that exists, even in the back of the pack.  Towards the end of races I can sometimes pick off stragglers, usually the aged and/or obese or injured runners and doing so gives me a certain sense of satisfaction, even if it only means I am second or third to last place instead of last place.  But on Saturday, June 19, 2010, I was the one picked off by about a dozen or so older ladies in much better shape than I, or maybe much more used to running at altitude than I, or both.  The back of the pack hunter became the hunted.

I did train a little at altitude.  I live at 6,000 or so feet above sea level which should count for something but doesn’t in a race this high up.  The Mt. Evans road opened the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and I did get up there but it snowed the Saturday before the race and the road was closed for about five days.  Oh and I have to work for a living.  I did do a practice run near my house a few times that consists of 1,900′ of vertical in the first three or so miles.  But my training was not enough to prevent a DNF.

In the other ear KFCKD was telling me I was in the best shape of my life (possibly) and that I might win my age group (never).  I imagined sitting on Oprah’s couch, even though her show is ending, telling the heartfelt story of having overcome being last in several marathons to place in my age group in North America’s highest road race.  Alternately, in my other ear, KFCKD was droning on about what a complete dip shit I was to even consider running in anything other than an obese family-friendly 5K walk.

Meanwhile my stomach issues made attempts at ducking behind pine trees for the every-fifteen-minutes-emergency pretty challenging, especially because I was above fucking timberline. My left shin was locked up all the way down over the top of my foot, making it hard to roll my foot for running or walking.  I kept hearing my foot slap the pavement like a slab of dead catfish, and I didn’t seem to have any control over it.  Occasionally there was a twang of pain all the way up into my hip.

I must admit, though, that I picked up the pace when I saw the race photographer.  Even in the throes of diarrhea-induced dehydration and some sort of weird shin splint that was spreading to the top of my foot, I wanted a decent race photo.  See said fake smile race photo at:

By mile 6 or so my muscle issue in the front of my lower left leg migrated to my outer lower left leg and was constantly painful.  The road was sloped badly and running and walking on the left side of the road (race rules) at a steep angle seemed to be exacerbating the leg pain, although some feeling returned in my dead, slab-o-catfish-like foot.  Finally I gave up even trying to run and just tried to walk as fast as I could, except of course when I saw a race photographer.

I tried to listen to my iPod and ignore the nice man in the Alpine Rescue truck motoring just behind me, sweeping the course.  I thought about the small ultra marathon I just discovered that will occur practically in my backyard in July, a 50k and a 50 miler.  It is ideal for a first ultra and I’ve been secretly planning to do it.  Although there are cut-offs for the 50-miler, there are no cut-offs for the 50K, except that you have to finish by the time the 50-milers do.  That means, for me, I would have about 14 hours to run and hike 31.07 miles.  Almost anyone but a toddler could do that.  And then I would have an ultra under my belt, even though most ulrarunners think a real ultra is 50 miles and up.

Focusing on the ultra that I may or may not do helped a little, and a few more miles rolled by.  The views were beautiful but I was starting to lose my mind.  I couldn’t remember how many miles I had to go, in spite of the Garmin on my wrist and the simple math involved in subtracting how far I’d come from 14.5 miles.  I couldn’t remember if I’d taken my Endurolytes either.  This is the type of thing that might happen really late in a marathon, but I was only about 7 miles into a fairly short race.   So then I tried to focus on all that I have to be grateful for, like my husband.

Fred is wonderful, forgiving and understanding and he tolerates me, my wacky ideas, occasional whining and somewhat idiotic running goals.  He seems confident in me no matter what I do, including running.  He bought me roses the week before Valentine’s Day just for the hell of it so I had roses for about two weeks over that Hallmark-invented holiday.  It is weird to me that I accidentally married a prince who makes me laugh and appears to have a better vocabulary than I.  Oh and he’s really tall and can dance.

Other things that came to mind as I was trying to block out acute pain and avoid shitting my pants were my family and host of friends, my great day job, laundry facilities in my house, good health, (well except for the nagging leg pain and loose bowels) and my pets.

But once I was examined by a professional, the Alpine Rescue woman, and actually listened to her say something about muscle separating from bone, I gave up.  She knew my summit bag had to be retrieved and drove me to the top, the last 4.5 miles.  We drove in and out of runners and walkers up the switchbacks to near the summit parking lot, and she talked the whole way while her aging lab kept trying to crawl into her lap.  She was attending the funeral of a friend who died of cancer, later in the day.  She told me she didn’t believe in aging, that it was about energy and intention.  She offered me stale animal crackers that I was pretty sure were really dog treats after I tasted one.  And finally, she dropped me off about 50 yards from the finish line, behind a group of cars and a blind curve.

I saw the finish line, the spectators clapping, the chaos of cars coming and going and the shuttle vans piled almost on top of each other.  It crossed my mind that if I started running I could blaze to the finish line where the final race photo would be taken and the finisher’s medal hung around my neck.  It would have been that easy.  It was just the type of behavior I used to have back when I was having a few social drinks in the morning before work.

But lucky for me, I decided to literally take the high road where I found my summit bag and pulled on my fleece jacket.  I drank some water and looked at the mountain goats, but only because they were hanging out by the facilities I had to, um, sprint to use.  And then I found a seat in a shuttle van and headed back down the hill.  The men in the van (there were no women except the driver and I) were small, thin and apparently very fast.  As I listened to their conversations I realized almost all of them were sponsored.  By running stores, by nutrition companies, by The North damn Face, etc.  So I kept quiet, silently trying to flex my stiffening leg and foot.

As I drove home from the Echo Lake Lodge, a wave of familiar self-pity and self-loathing came over me.  I hate failing but, like most people, I seem to have a history of it.  So maybe I will go back to the Mt. Evans Ascent next year properly hydrated and stomach issue-free and finish it, we’ll see.

Just then, a few miles before the turn off onto I-70, I passed a small trout pond, the kind where you take the kids fishing for their first time.  Pulled up to the edges of it were some teens and young adults, all in wheel chairs, propped up by pillows, some not even able to hold their own fishing poles.  But they were grinning ear-to-ear and having the time of their lives, even though they weren’t catching any fish.

© Marie McHale Drake 2010


Filed under Radio Station KFCKD, Sheer Idiocy

20 Miles Running With A Nun

On Saturday, June 5, 2010 I ran 20 miles with a Catholic nun from the Religious Teachers Filippini.  Her name was Sister Mary Beth.  She is nearly 62 years old and running across America, as in 50 states in 62 days, in order to raise money for orphans in Eritrea, Haiti and the United States.  She runs at least 20 miles each day.  Colorado was her 39th state.  Her friend, Lisa Smith-Batchen, is running with her but doing 50 miles in 50 states in 62 days.   I had the privilege of running a bit with her too.  Lisa turns 50 this year, and is a well-known, champion ultramarathon runner.  She won Badwater twice and is the only woman, I understand, to have run the “Badwater Double”, where, after running 135 miles from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, she turned around and ran back.

Sister Mary Beth has pale blue eyes, silver hair and runs in her full black habit, including her cap.  These two women are something to behold and seemed lit from within to me, even through their fatigue.  They are not running for fame and fortune.  Their lights shine because they run to raise money for orphans.

I arrived at 5:00 a.m. in Clements Park in Littleton, expecting a crowd of people but hardly anyone was there.  I felt self-conscious because I’m not a tiny, skinny runner chick and figured the place would be full of those.  Mostly though, I felt a little nervous because I’m not a Christian or maybe my life is not as full of love and service as it could be.  I was worried they would figure me out or worse, try to convert me.  Plus I felt nervous about my somewhat angry essay about all the similarities between the Jesus story and Gilgamesh, Osiris and Dionysius, an essay I posted the night before my run with all these do-gooders.  After writing it, and trying to be funny, I felt a little exposed about the shallow nature of my own, somewhat fake Catholicism back in the 80’s.  I think I sometimes adopt the inter-generational resentment my mother had against the Church.  And although I’ve been aware of this for years, and once in a while even free of her shit which of course magnifies my own, holding onto either is exhausting.

So there I was, raw and a little teary, watching a glorious sunrise while filled with mixed feelings about Jesus.  In the back of my mind I wondered if I could finish 20 miles in the expected 90 degree heat, which would be my longest run so far in my 2010 comeback year.

A few people did show up:  a mother and her college-age daughter from Castle Rock, likely Christians and very well-behaved.  I also met a woman who fostered 41 children over 24 years, along with raising her own kids.  Drug babies, she said, a few days out of the hospital and still withdrawing, needing to be held incessantly and fed at least every two hours.  She said this without guile or expectation of being lauded.  The opposite of the Pharisees, or, say, me because if I’d done that I think I’d want some recognition.  But she was just matter-of-fact about it and I liked her immediately.  Small and fast, she finished her first ultra, the American River Trail 50-miler, in April this year.  She said it was hard but she loved it.  Kind of like all those foster kids over the years.  We’re going to stay in touch since we’re both doing that race in 2011.

I also met Marshall Ulrich and his wife Heather, who were both very warm and welcoming.  Marshall was there to just be of service to Lisa and Sister Mary Beth in whatever way was necessary, including setting up the donation table by the running path, buying pancakes to go, helping with tired feet, pacing the women around the lake and handling the news crew from Channel 4.  Marshall, too, had no reason to be humble.  At 58-years old, he is a world-renowned genetic freak of an ultramarathoner and adventure racer.  He summited the seven tallest peaks on the seven continents, planting the flag of St. Anne on each summit, raising money for orphans too.  In 2008 he ran across America himself, straight across nineteen states, running fifty to seventy miles per day, averaging fifty-eight miles a day for fifty-two days over the entire 3,045 or so miles from San Francisco to New York City.  He’s raised several million dollars in his career too, for charities like AIDS Orphans Rising, and he didn’t even start running until he was in his thirties.

Ray Zahab was the other guy helping out Running Hope Through America.  Ray’s not exactly a slacker either.  He won some of the world’s most difficult and challenging ultra-distance foot races, and he didn’t even start until about 12 years ago, when he finally let go of his pack-a-day smoking habit.  Ray made history by running 7,500km across the entire Sahara Desert raising awareness for clean-water initiatives in Africa.  I didn’t know who I was meeting, except I’d read about Lisa.

We waited a bit because Lisa was off looking for coins dropped in parking lots, one of her favorite things to do.  Both Sister Mary Beth and Lisa are paying their own expenses for the 62 day trip running in 50 states.  That way, 100% of the donations they receive go to these three charities:

  • The Orphan Foundation of America –  Creates scholarship funds for teens aging out of the foster care system. This includes college scholarships, connecting with mentors and internships, and sending them care packages. Charity efficiency: 91 cents out of every dollar goes directly to support OFA programs and youth.
  • AIDS Orphans Rising – Supports children in multiple countries who have lost both parents to AIDS. “The program is unique in that it does more than just provide shelter and food to the orphans. The project teaches the oldest child the skills they need to be not only self-sufficient, but to be able to provide for their family while teaching the younger siblings in schools.”
  • Caring House Project – The foundation’s primary objective is to provide housing, food, water, medical support and opportunity for the desperately homeless around the world.  It also helps to develop a system of self-sufficiency for these communities.

We were milling around when my friend Jan drove up with “breakfast cookies” she made.  Sister Mary Beth accepted them gratefully, mentioning how nice it was to have some homemade food instead of “road food.”  It was good to see Jan because she doesn’t care a whit that I waffle between atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, believing in the Mother Goddess, or, on occasional Thursdays, Jesus, but only for a few hours.  She runs with me, laughs with me, trades recipes with me and, once in a while, tells me she’s praying for me.  There are some subjects we purposefully avoid I’m sure, but who cares?  Neither of us judge the other.

We took a few photos and then the 8 of us gathered in a circle and Sister Mary Beth said a prayer to help us get through the day, the heat, and to remember why we are doing this, that there are kids out there that need our help, that it only costs 4 cents to feed a meal to a kid in Eritrea, maybe not a great meal, but a meal.  I thought about the cost of a triple tall 1-shot vanilla latte.  With tip, about $4.00.  One hundred meals.  And I bowed my head to pray for orphans.

We all started out slowly.  Overall, I walked a lot, maybe more than I wish I had but it was so hot.  Lisa had a lot of people dropping by who wanted to run with her.  Some seemed to want things from her, and I could feel her energy withdrawing, conserving and trying to sustain itself.  I know people mean well, but they just don’t get she shouldn’t have to either listen to them, respond to their incessant questions about running, or anything else.  What she is doing is hard enough and I felt protective of her.  So I tried to just be quiet around her, silently encouraging her to keep moving.  Soon though, I fell off the pace and slowed down to bring up the rear with Sister Mary Beth, who began asking me questions.

She was delighted I had on my Garmin and said, “Oh good, we don’t have to do endless laps around the lake; we can wander around and still know how far we’ve gone.”  We watched the prairie dogs in the fields southeast of the lake, and, after about 8 miles of laps around the lake, walked up to the Columbine Memorial.  I’d never been to it and she’d just heard it was at this particular park.  The different-colored columbines were blooming and we slowed to a walk, reading all of the sayings engraved in stone, quotes from parents, teachers and students, including the ones who were killed.  I stood there in the beating sun, finally letting myself really cry.  Sister Mary Beth came up to me and I thought she was going to offer some nun-like words of wisdom and comfort.  Instead she nodded her head in the direction of some other visitors and said, “I wish those people would leave.”   Why?” I asked.  “Because then we could take off our shoes and put our feet in the fountain.”  I laughed.

We walked over to the grass and took our shoes and socks off and felt the soft, cool earth beneath our feet.  It was really getting hot, with no cloud cover and only an intermittent wind.  Twelve miles to go but my feet felt good after the break, and my spirit felt better after the tears.

We walked around the parking lots near the park and school and she told me how much Lisa loves to find coins to put in a big jar for the orphans, that she does that in every town or city, in every state they stop.  “How nice,” I muttered, and then she said, “You know, I sneak out before she leaves the RV in the morning and drop coins all over the place.  I do it because I know it makes her happy to find them.”  This was so funny and so sweet that I just laughed and laughed, then she laughed and we began to trot again around the lake.

Sister Mary Beth asked me about myself and of course I obliged by telling her my life story for the next few miles.  Mostly though, we walked and ran in silence.  People stared at her in her full habit.  I asked about her work and she told me about the orphans in Eritrea, orphans she’s spent 45 years helping.  Many of the heads of household are just 7 or 8 years old, with siblings to take care of.  The Catholic Church pays the oldest girl in the family to stay in school and learn a trade or business, otherwise they go into prostitution around age 10 to support their sisters and brothers.  I kept thinking you never hear anything good about the Catholic Church these days, but today I heard something wonderful.

Now I know I’m not fond of the pope, the hierarchy, the entrenched patriarchal oppression of the Catholic Church, especially their stance against condoms in places like Africa, but this news of what was happening in Eritrea moved me.  Yes the pedophile crisis is beyond evil to me.  The whole sex-is-only-for-procreation doctrine seems absurd.  And that the Church is investigating thousands of American nuns who came out in support of the healthcare bill astonishes me.  But so what?  Does any of that really matter in the moment?  Thinking about all of my problems with the Catholic Church only made me really, really tired.  Thinking about orphans and all the love and service emanating from these women made me pick up the pace of my run, even in the heat.

Probably to make the miles go faster, Sister Mary Beth gently prodded me with more questions about my origins.  I thought I’d given her the light and fluffy Leave-It-To-Beaver version of my childhood, the one where there are hardly any issues except maybe that Wally was occasionally selfish or perhaps the Beav had a misunderstanding at school, but really, everything is resolved perfectly by the end of the show, with Ward and June smiling at each other over a cup of coffee after Ward tucks the Beav in at bedtime.  Sister Mary Beth, who I thought might not even be listening, slowed to a walk and turned to me, sweat dripping out of her little black cap and said, “Marie, you have really suffered.”  I just looked at her, and then of course, burst into tears.  She saw right through everything I was trying to hide.

So I told her about my mother and her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950’s around the time she took a bus from Tuscon to New York to protest the Rosenberg’s executions.  I told her about Mom’s little drug habit, the divorces, the violence, and her ending that started me into a new life.  I also told her about the healing sweat lodge ceremonies Mom used to do, and that I was still doing them, almost weekly.  She just looked at me and said, “Those aren’t different gods, they’re all the same god.”  She kept asking more and more about my mother.  I told her everything I could think of while the miles fell away.  And then she said, “You know what Gandhi said?”  “No,” I said.  “Forgiving is a lot more important than being forgiven.”

No wonder I was dehydrated, losing all of that salt through my tear ducts.  Then Sister Mary Beth said she was stopping for a while, that she was in no hurry, and wanted to make sure Lisa was OK and didn’t need anything special.  I went on ahead and surprisingly, kept running faster and faster, a crazy energy engulfing me, even in the blazing heat.  It was easier running than walking, but then I walked in the last 50 or so yards of my 20 miles, high-fiving Lisa in front of the Channel 4 News crew.

I thanked everyone for the privilege of running with them.  I donated money.  I walked to my car feeling all of my tired muscles but also feeling grateful, thinking I’d just met some incredible people, especially Sister Mary Beth, who just showed me that grace is real, that orphans get fed, that resentments get lifted, and if I’m lucky, that I, too, can believe in something for a day, because it’s all the same God.


Filed under Faith