Going on means going far,
going far means returning.
I woke in the gray light weeping. I was mourning the sudden death of the man who I had recently discovered was my real father. Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and my long-time favorite writer, was my dad and all along he had been leaving me messages in his books. How had I missed them? For a moment, I imagined myself the product of a wayward trip he took from his Canadian home 40 years ago to Oklahoma, where my mother lived, probably researching his book on Billy the Kid.
That dream was my first journal entry in 2002 and offers a metaphor for last year. Turning 40 and having my eye out for self-knowledge, I discovered I was better than I thought — as a writer, mother, friend, life partner, daughter, athlete, teacher, contributor to society — the message had been secretly embroidered in the folds of my life. But even as I swelled with surprise success, the certainty of my small fame diminished. My story collection was rejected by several publishers. I yelled at my son when he ignored my "nice" voice, and played deaf when he called me from the other side of the house. My genetic need for order battled my husband's apparent belief in chaos theory. I failed to call my mother weekly or even monthly. One selfish act nearly cost me a friendship. I finished five minutes behind my triathlon goal and afterward felt like I'd been hit by a truck.
On the other hand, I have gone far.
I began the year adding a fiction writing class to my fulltime work schedule — something I will not do again unless I aspire to live without sleep, lose my job, screw up my marriage or drive myself even battier. The last time I'd taught a semester-long course I was 26, bent on experimentation when it came to writing, dressing, eating and, well, pretty much everything else. Whether my experiment in teaching worked, I have no idea. This time, I drew on 15 years of experience writing fiction and a confidence that I'd tripped into a thing or two (maybe three) I could share. Yet each week I battled panic that my critiques of the stories would be inadequate, my lectures pointless, and that the class would bolt from beneath me toward some better teacher waiting in the hall.
Thursday nights I climbed the four flights of stairs, ready to meet my twelve disciples. But I was not prepared for the young woman with midriff permanently exposed who arrived late, missed nearly half the classes, turned in only one story, and yet, when she was there, contributed great warmth and honesty to the group; eventually confiding to me her battle with depression before disappearing from the class entirely. In her I saw my old self with my fancy experiments, staying one step ahead of boring intimacy and commitment. After class one spring night on the bench outside Parlin Hall, I hope I succeeded as a teacher. The lesson: certainly if I could get here from there, so could she.
The second challenge I undertook involved 3,000 other women and yet, no one, really, but myself. Completing the Danskin Triathlon was a pre-birthday gift to myself. I had been swimming the past nine months as part of a master's swim team, working my way from the slow lane to the medium. And for years I had run, enjoying the beauty of the lakeside trail, not speed. The bike would be the challenge. After putting our son to bed, I would retreat to our converted garage to speed away, funk music blasting in my headphones. Cut off from my family and their abundant needs, enjoying a healthy dose of rebellion, selfishness and sweat.
On race day, as I walked from the parking lot to the race site, I picked a tiny yellow flower and twined it into my hair. As the sun rose weakly over the lake, I cheered on Mary, the midwife who had delivered my son five years before, who was in an earlier wave of the race. When it was my turn, I sliced through the warm green water past other swimmers. Running barefoot up the grassy bank after the swim, I saw Jim and Cope through the fence and stopped for kisses and hugs. While I bicycled up the steepest hill, a woman with long white hair yelled: "This is the hardest thing you'll ever do in your life and you're doing it!" Running was actually the hardest, but then I got the red medal that proclaimed I was not the same woman who started the race. While I enjoyed a post-race massage I discovered the flower still in my hair and now it rests on the windowsill where I wash dishes.
Then I turned 40 and dared to throw a party in the heat of August. Sitting inside a circle of old and new friends, I was showered with generous compliments, ample encouragement and sweet, wet rose petals. My three-year-old nephew Tristan was the surprise guest. I stood in the shared embrace of my mother and father for the first time I could remember. The sun had the nerve to set and I opened presents in the dark, buzzy with champagne, the night sounds all around us in the giant trees.
There was more: spending six months revising an old novel into a long story and then walking away from its failure; dreaming over and over of losing Cope to death, sickness or worse, and knowing the sense of loss was simply about his starting kindergarten; seeking spiritual connection at a neighborhood church and finding it instead on Sunday creek hikes; the fountain pen Jim gave me for Valentine's Day, the color of the purple mussel shells I used to collect at Matagorda; a winter trip to Rockport and the flock of flamingos that flew circles around us and learning they were actually roseate spoonbills; my nephew born 500 miles away in the time it took us to eat dinner and get Cope to bed; the week that passed before he was finally named Dimitri (but everyone calls him Miko); and the people I try to help at work, desperate for a place to live — the woman who pledged to help others in her situation when she gets on her feet, another named "light" in Spanish who, with three children and a Brooklyn accent, is determined to succeed in her new home.
This year of moving forward and slipping back ended with a goodbye party to friends Miranda and Bruce who are moving away once again. That chilly night thirty of us, young and old, drummed a procession down 37th Street, famous for its crazy and abundant holiday lights. I beat the small drum my dad bought Cope in New Mexico, while Cope danced with jingle bells by my side and Jim tapped percussion. People admiring the lights stopped for our music, traffic stopped and people rolled down their windows. "We're famous!" Cope pronounced with a grin, dancing harder and crazier.
Now, as this new year unfurls before us, I invite us all to live famously. Let's dance life to its edges with our own versions of beauty and grace. Let's drum our desire for peace and abundance loudly enough we change history. Turning our backs on fear and cynicism, we're heroes. Listening to our loved ones, we're whisperers. Reaching toward our dreams, we're prophetic.