Running

All through August I’ve been out the door each day at 6:15, to run two and a half miles to town in time for a 7 a.m. yoga class. It is only for a month, this early class, but I’m hoping that after it ends I’ll continue with my own variation on the new routine. My morning run began as something I was making myself do; with each passing day, though, it’s felt more and more like a privilege, a gift, a blessing.

A few days ago Kristen at Motherese wrote about finding flow in her running this summer, and I understand exactly what she means. There is something about the rhythmic exercise of moving through space at your own speed, on your own two strong legs, that is liberating, exhilarating, and immensely satisfying. I love being out in the world before anyone else is up, love running all alone down the very middle of the road, even love the fact that, after four weeks of practice, I’ve shaved a few minutes off my time.

Three weeks from Saturday, I’ll be walking 26. 2 miles in the Dana Farber Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk, raising money in memory of my dear friend Diane, who died of ovarian cancer last October. Knowing that every mile logged and every training hour put in is preparing me for the challenge has given me a great sense of purpose. I’m not just getting up before dawn for myself, I’m doing it for a cause, and that makes a difference, too. I’ve happily run in the rain and in the dark, walked ten miles all alone, pushed myself up hills I’ve never tackled before and, in the process, worn out one good pair of shoes. I’m also a bit more confident that when the day comes, I’ll be able to go the distance.

As summer draws to a close, I find myself, as usual, regretting all the things I didn’t do. I’m sorry that I didn’t read poetry in the hammock or set up the tent in the back yard. I wish we’d had more dinners on the porch, more swims in the pond, more fires on the hilltop, at least one picnic, or campout, or barbeque. Next week both boys will head back to school; already I feel the sense of loss that arrives with every Labor Day, as predictable as the first cool mornings, the spikes of goldenrod alongside the road, the symphonic thrum of crickets. The change of season is definitely bittersweet for me, the shorter days a reminder that this existence of ours is as transient as a summer cloud.

“The spiritual path,” writes Pema Chodron, “has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually.” At fifty-two, I am constantly butting up against the fact that I can never hold on to anything, that nothing good ever lasts quite as long as I want it to, and that no matter how old I get or how “grown up” I should be by now, the letting go doesn’t get a whole lot easier.

Heading out in the morning, watching the sun come up over the mountains, the dawn light illuminating the mist as it drifts up from the valley, I am stopped in my tracks, simply by the sight of the sky. A sky, as my friend Lindsey says, “whose light comes from beyond the reach of our eyes.” How magnificent it all is: the beauty of another day’s beginnings, this cosmic offering that is ours for the taking, 365 days a year. Not a day goes by when I’m not pierced by some awareness of loss and time passing. But I’m learning to linger, too, in this place of gratitude. I think it really is the answer: we can live all curled up in our dark holes of regret, or we can rise up and stretch our limbs out into the beauty that is all around us. We can claim it as our own.

There all sorts of good reasons to wake up early. For me, the best reason is simply the opportunity to be present for a little longer, to welcome the sun coming up over the mountains, to notice how it appears just a bit later each morning, rises ever so slightly further to the south, alters the quality of the light, turns the season almost imperceptibly toward fall. These changes, these small deaths, are part of a vast choreography of impermanence. Gratitude is the awakened heart’s response to this eternal dance of life and death, this whirling dance of change. And so I’m choosing to focus on what is, and to be grateful for all the things I did manage to do this summer. I’ve walked and run for miles. I’ve grown stronger, healthier, faster. I’m nearly half-way to my fund-raising goal and determined to raise nearly three thousand more dollars before September 18. Meanwhile, I’ll keep running. I run for the exercise, for the joy of it, for the cause my friend believed in and, most of all, because I know how lucky I am that I still can.

If you wish to contribute to my Jimmy Fund walk in Diane’s memory, or in honor of a loved one, you may give in one of two ways:
• Visit my fundraising page at the Walk web site and follow the instructions to make a gift online.
• Write a check payable to “Jimmy Fund Walk.” On the memo line, write: “Dana Farber Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.” Send it directly to me at: Katrina Kenison Lewers, 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Thank you, my friends. I couldn’t do it without you!

Rain Swim

It is the week we look forward to all summer – the rented lake cabin, the family all together under one roof, the familiar routines of idleness. This is August and the lake is northerly, nestled at the foot of mountains, and so we pack sweaters and jeans and socks as well as bathing suits and sunscreen and flip flops. We come prepared, carrying more books than anyone could possibly read in a week, and then we pray for sun.

Yesterday morning I woke early to gentle rain, cool air, clouds blanketing the peaks across the water. As summer draws to its inevitable close, each day feels edged with a scrim of sadness; I’m always greedy for just a little more. Or, if not exactly greedy, at least aware that these golden days are numbered, that a month from now, back at home and yoked into fall schedules, summer swims will already be a memory. And so without thinking it over, I left my sleeping family, slipped out of the warm bed, into my still-damp bathing suit and down to the water.

I wonder if there is any place more solitary than the middle of a lake in the rain at dawn. Alone in that chill, dark water, shrouded by mist and suspended in a dance of rain drops, I disappeared from myself. What a relief it is, to leave the mind and all its small preoccupations behind and to swim far from shore, out into the big picture. Lake, mountains, sky, rain – and me, one small, insignificant human body treading water within this vast, mysterious universe. I watched my pale arms moving before me, allowed my breath to carry me along on its rhythmic journey, felt the water’s buoyant embrace, and offered up my humble prayer of thanksgiving: what a blessing it is to be here, a single note in this gloriously complex hymn that is our natural world.

There were, finally, scents of breakfast drifting across the water, the dense, civilized smells of bacon and coffee summoning me back to life on land. My skin pricked with cold. The rain fell in sheets. Yet it was with some reluctance that I turned around and began breast-stroking toward shore. “Without a big perspective, we are only half awake to our life,” writes Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld. “Lost in a thousand errands, and our small self, we are not truly free.”

It’s not easy, when lost in those errands, to remember the magnificence of this world. But nature’s beauty is always available, if we’re willing to take the first step toward intimacy, to stop what we’re doing and thinking long enough to quiet our minds and open our hearts and go forth.

I didn’t go swimming in the rain in search of anything but one more taste of this waning summer. The moment’s profound teaching caught me by surprise, as much a shock to the system as the first slap of cold water on bare skin: Remember your interconnection with all things. Love the mystery. Be free.

In memory of a friend, in hope for a better future.

I can see it vividly: an August morning, just exactly a year ago. My friend Diane and I were taking a walk, as we had done together countless times over the last eighteen years. As we made our way slowly down the hill near her home, the summer sun warm on our backs, we watched our two elongated shadows, side by side, moving companionably along in front of us. A pair of women walking, a pair of shadows dancing to our rhythm: a small, ordinary moment, but one I will remember always. I knew even then — I think we both did — that this was yet another “last” for us, that in the future my shadow and I would walk alone. Less than three months later, I lost my beloved friend to ovarian cancer at age 55.

We met when we were both pregnant with our youngest children, our bellies nearly touching as we joyously discovered that we were backyard neighbors with much more than a shared bit of fence and autumn due dates in common. Over the years, as our children grew up and we grew older, traditions were born — fireworks on town day, harvest dinners in October, annual overnights in Maine (where this photo was taken), champagne toasts, raspberry picking and birthday scones, to name just a few. The memories accumulated as our friendship deepened.

When she was diagnosed in the fall of 2006, Diane’s disease was already quite advanced, as is often the case with ovarian cancer. Under the care of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, she lived a full and active life for four more years. While undergoing treatment, she continued to care for her family and friends, to work in her community, to engage in politics, to cook, laugh, ski, read, walk, and love — to be Diane.

Anyone who knew Diane Brewster saw firsthand how tirelessly she worked to advance the principles and causes she believed in. In the last years of her life, that list was topped by her commitment to ovarian cancer research. It was her great hope that more effective treatments and earlier detection might make other women’s prognoses better than her own. Shortly before her death, she made a decision: she asked that those who wished to honor her memory make donations to Dana Farber’s Ovarian Cancer Research fund.

On September 18, I will participate in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, along with fifteen of Diane’s dear friends, to carry forward her commitment and her hope. Dana Farber researchers are on the cutting edge of progress against this disease which claims the lives of more than 15,000 women in the U.S. every year. Diane’s oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis, and her colleagues are currently studying six promising new agents against recurrent ovarian cancer in clinical trials, work that Diane furthered through her own participation for as long as she was able.

Amazingly, Diane was able to complete three Jimmy Fund walks in the years following her diagnosis, testament to both her unflagging courage and her commitment. I will walk those 26.2 miles next month knowing that nothing would please Diane more than the sight of her friends supporting the cause she believed in so strongly. Dr. Matulonis, who came to consider Diane a friend as well as a patient, will be walking, too. At the end of her life, Diane was very clear: she wanted to make a difference for those who came after her. She did, and she continues to. It is part of her remarkable legacy that she has inspired so many of us to lace up our sneakers, reach out to our friends and loved ones for support, and join the cause she believed in so passionately.

Diane envisioned a day, perhaps not so far off, when ovarian cancer would be a chronic, manageable illness rather than the statistically terrifying diagnosis it is for most women today. As I walk the roads and trails near my home in New Hampshire, trying to increase my distance, build my endurance, and prepare my feet for the greatest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken, I remind myself that, with every mile walked and every dollar raised, we move a little closer to realizing Diane’s vision. I see just one shadow before me these days, but I know I’m not walking alone after all. I feel my friend’s presence with every step.

When Diane died last fall, I wrote here about the loss of my friend. And then, in the weeks that followed, I was overwhelmed by my readers’ compassion and kindness. So many of you took time to write me, to comment in this space, and to share your own stories of grief and loss and healing. And so I extend an invitation here to anyone who might wish to contribute to my walk. Every one of your dollars will go directly to Dr. Matulonis and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. And you will help me reach my personal fund-raising goal for Team Diane.

It’s easy to contribute. You may give in one of two ways:
• Visit my fundraising page at the Walk web site and follow the instructions to make a gift online.
• Write a check payable to “Jimmy Fund Walk.” On the memo line, write: “Dana Farber Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.” Send it directly to me at: Katrina Kenison Lewers, 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

And, as my thanks to you, a book give-away.

Among the many things Diane and I shared was a love of cooking and a delight in exchanging recipes. The last birthday gift she gave me was Anna Thomas’s wonderful cookbook, Love Soup, which became an immediate go-to in my kitchen. I’ve just bought 5 copies of this lovely book, to pair with signed copies of my own The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If you choose to contribute to my walk, and you let me know with a comment here, you’ll be eligible to win one of five pairs of these books. I will draw 5 names at random from the Comments section (using the tool at www.random.org) to receive the books. Deadline: midnight, Monday, August 15.