Mothers and mountains

I am eager to get back to the mountains. The Chugach range – the wild spine behind Alaska’s urban center – is the place where my heart lives and where my feet long to go. The tundra is open, and I need no map.

Strangely, I haven’t been able to see myself in the city work-week hustle so I haven’t lived in Anchorage for a long time even though I love to recreate there. Instead, I make my home in quiet, rainy Southeast Alaska. There’s a ridge race in Juneau I want to win someday. I’ve competed in but never won anything like this before. Not even close. Now, after a decade of pregnancies, walking flatlands, swinging in hammocks, and preschooler-paced bike rides, the odds may be tipping in my favor.

Antidotal evidence suggests that a woman becomes a stronger mountain runner after she’s had a baby. I naïvely thought this was because of the challenge of childbirth. Perhaps, I thought, the reservoir of strength she discovers in those wee hours before her baby’s first cry might later be used to push her up and over mountains.

Giving birth is heroic – it is nothing less. But a mother’s courage doesn’t come suddenly as she opens and passes a baby into the world through the portal called cesarean surgery or the ring of fire. Her running prowess isn’t earned by carrying an additional 30-lbs on her back for a couple of years or the return to racing in an older age bracket. What makes a mother into a mountain runner is not the sprint of birth, but the parenting marathon.

Parenting is the perfect training ground for a runner. It teaches a determination that grows more tenacious with exhaustion. As a mother I have grown my children but also my patience, resourcefulness, and perserverance. I have learned to take myself more lightly and appreciate every day, no matter the weather.

In youth I found myself in the mountains by default. Friends took me blueberry picking… first as a sixth grader and then as a 16-year-old looking for a reason to sneak out at night. If I make it back it will be through a series of intentional acts.

I never was as fast as my friends. But that was before it made sense to me to wipe snotty noses with my fingers. Before it would’ve occurred to me to pick up a piece of poop off the floor with my bare hands before anyone could step in it. Before all of my babies got the flu and the best solution I could come up with was to catch as much throw-up as possible on the front of my shirt each time they vomited.

If I hadn’t had kids, I never would have known what I am made of.

Parenting isn’t the hardest job you’ll ever love – it’s the hardest job, period. Do your best to love it.

Healthy or sick, fast or slow, gentle or mean, respectful or disrespectful, intrigued or bored, picky or flexible, charismatic or awkward, popular or excluded. Kids go through seasons while, like contortionists high-stepping through training routines, parents run alongside and figure out how to get through it. These are fairly run-of-the-mill life challenges. You can always level up.

I look forward to simpler days. Like when I can set a breakfast table without the silverware turning into an involved geometric design that I am not allowed to disassemble. For now, I get out for a walk by myself whenever possible. Put on shoes. Open door. Close door. Continue in straight line. Turn when you want to. It’s nice to do something that makes sense for a change. Maybe after this, mountain running could be easy, too.

Working out once took very little initiative. Now I have to coordinate childcare with my partner, plan dinner, promise to be home before bedtime, and deal with the guilt of missing a family evening.

Exercise is precious. I can’t believe that for a long time I expected a 90-minute workout every day. When my first job out of college didn’t get me out of the office in time to run in what little daylight February has to offer, I almost quit. Then daylight savings-time happened, and everything was fine.

Sometimes my children feel like energy vampires. They take everything I have, until I am a dry husk of a woman. Workouts, by comparison, are such a concise and reciprocal effort. I invest time and sweat, and in exchange I am given hunger, thirst, muscle, and endorphins. Beginnings and endings are clear. I am not left to chug along endlessly.

Parenting is the first job I’ve had that I can’t quit. Late at night when my husband gets frustrated, he hands the crying baby back to me. I stay as long as it takes. The buck stops here.

Mountain running will be a lot harder on my body than it was in my 20s but mentally I’ve never been stronger. Willingness to do hard physical labor for sport might depend on the same parts of the brain used for cuddling, teaching kids to share, and not getting pissed when the children think mama scrubbing on hands and knees is a good time for a horsey ride.

The kids eat five times a day; so I spend all of my time cooking only to spend the rest of my time cleaning food off of the floor. I throw a few lunges in while I’m down there so it’s not a total loss.

This practice of cooking food only to clean it up reminds me of a few weeks when I lived in an ashram in India. We meditated, practiced yoga, sang kirtan, and cleaned toilets. Chores were meant to diminish the ego – I knew what I was paying for. But when a man who grew up in the ashram sat and read the newspaper every day while guests cleaned I could not handle it. The sight of him lounging filled me with rage. I am sure he did it on purpose – to teach us that opportunities for spiritual growth come in many forms. Only, did he have to enjoy it so much?

I am without yoga these days. I need to stretch but I can’t remember how to begin. In my mom life, where every minute is filled by the needs of others, I dream of going on retreat. One day I will return to the ashrams, temples, yoga camps, and meditation centers to sit among beautiful people, wise teachers, and singing birds. Canyons of calm will open within my being. There will be no anger based on who is, or is not, scrubbing toilets. I will already have done my work.

When the pandemic started I had a little girl and was pregnant with twins. For two years I have been a full-on, full-time mom wondering,

What is life driving me toward?

Into calm. Into perspective. Into family. I dare say I barely enjoyed my 20s for fear that I would never have a family of my own. My husband and kids filled a deep and pressing need. Now, with sense of purpose and belonging more than covered, I find myself emotionally free to explore the world but practically as tied down as a damsel on a railway track.

How much time before my children grow into happy, functional, resilient, carefree, and contributing people?

I want to bicycle across Southeast Asia eating Pad Thai from every street vendor I pass. I want to speak Spanish fluently and teach in a foreign country. I want to write books, and read books, and learn to tango with a single, red rose clutched in my teeth. I want all of these mountains and more.

What do you long for?

I don’t know why there’s so much rattling around in our brains that we don’t speak about. It seems silly to me. I’m lucky that I got the family I wanted. But when all is said and done, I can’t help feeling that there is too little of me left for me.

Are we more afraid that wishes spoken aloud won’t come true or that they will?

It’s hard to understand which dreams should be left for dead and which could still be realized if I just wait five years… ten years… twenty years. Maybe the dreams could be worth pursuing in the future even though the longing is pointless.

Is it possible to hold space for dreaming and let go of longing?

I imagine other lives but I have never imagined myself out there doing something else and longing for the life I have.

Looking at the front of my body is like reading a river. The skin of my breasts and belly flows downhill and parts ways at the boulder of my belly button.

I have been many places.

Once, I had a childhood. It happened, and without announcement, it ended. I cannot pinpoint the day. Then, I had an adulthood; complete with good friends, achievements, regrets, and everything in between.

Adulthood ended with the arrival of my children; but I didn’t know it was over until my dog died and youth became a memory. Childhood belongs to my kids now – but I get something too: parenthood. Instead of comparing what I have with my adult life before children, these years get to be their own special thing. An experience. For me. This changes everything.

I have a friend who did well in mountain races. If I close my eyes I can see her thin frame jogging away from me; high school ponytail keeping time with the rhythm of her pounding feet along a dirt trail. Twenty years later, after everything non-essential was stripped away, she is a mother. The determination that once carried her up and over mountains pours into the basic tasks that fill every minute of every day. Instead of the freedom of the hills, she lives for love of family and commitment to her higher purpose. Once one who ran up and over mountains, she has become the mountain.

Parenthood re-orients my perceptions. I find solace in the slow, sweet cultivation of things. A great day is not about mileage but about time spent outside, watching kids grow and teaching them to love adventure. When I make it back out, I will want summits. But even when I don’t make it to the top, I hope I will be happy. Because I was there and it was good.

***

Letter to Ali Wong

Some days I just need a good laugh. If you are a parent (or a woman…or a human…) who has not yet seen Ali Wong’s Netflix specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, you probably should. These “momedies” tell what it’s really like to have a baby in your life. They are a little bit over-the-top raunchy, but then again so is motherhood.

Here is the letter I wrote Ali Wong in my head after I saw her shows. It comes off a little bit like a letter to Dear Abby:

Dear Ali – My husband is well-intentioned, but since I had a baby he always says the wrong thing about my body.

I once made the mistake of cupping my breast up to its old height and letting it fall in front of him. “Once these were round,” I said. Now, they’re U-shaped.”

“Are those ever going to go back?” He asked.

“No, darling,” I said. “Those are never going back.”

My husband recently googled something like, Why does a woman lose her sex drive post-partum? He told me that there are four reasons:

1. She is exhausted.

2. She doesn’t feel sexy or she is self-conscious about her body.

3. A baby has been climbing on her all day; she does not want you to climb on her.

4. She has no time for herself, so she has many other things she wants to do besides you with her precious sleeping-baby minutes.

My empathetic husband relayed these results to me in all seriousness. It’s ok honey. This is just something women go through.

Yeah, I told him. No shit.

I am 100% certain that all of these “results” have been relayed to my husband in the past year via my words. In his defense, my comments sounded more like:

1. “I’m just really tired.”

2. “I just want to keep my clothes on.”

3. “I just nursed the baby for an hour.”

4. “I just want to read my book.”

I try to say how I feel, but clearly there is room for improvement because he has no recollection of the aforementioned conversations. Maybe I stuttered. Maybe I spoke when I should have replied in print.

Or maybe my husband is just male.

Thank you, Google, for speaking his language.

My husband’s heart is in the right place. He not only wants to have more sex, he also wants me to enjoy sex again. I can tell he’s taking the post-partum libido issue seriously because I see him trying to help. He’s been giving me more breaks from parenting, and he’s started to help with the bedtime routine. And just the other day he turned to me, that old thoughtful look in his eye, and said –

“You know; if you ever wanted a tummy tuck, I’d pay for it.”

*

2018 Olympic Winter Games heart highlights

Is it just me, or were have the 2018 Winter Games been amazing?  Here are the love warrior heart highlights:

Men’s figure skating never looked so good as Adam Rippon (USA). Watch his short performance here.

The internet populi agree with me that he went under appreciated (He was robbed!) having left with a team bronze. But judging for figure skating changed recently and I was not in charge. The rules favor those who attempt the most technical leaps, with only a slight deduction if a guy should botch the landing (like the gold and silver medalists did). Adam Rippon’s skated clean, and apparently no bonus points are awarded to a skater who becomes a pure expression of radiant light. While Adam did not attempt any quadruple spins (not the technical term) he did land back-to-back triples. We all won that event just by watching him compete.

Confession: I am a sucker for figure skating. I mean, why does figure skating even exist? Ballet got too easy? Someone dared the dancers to take it to the rink? In pairs figure skating the gold medal went to Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot (Germany), who earned the highest score ever recorded in the pairs free skate in Olympic history. While we went to our jobs, chopped onions for dinner, picked up the mail, Savchenko and Massot made this. Kind of makes you feel proud to be a human.

What else? The U.S. women’s hockey team defeated Canada 3-2 in an overtime shootout after a 20-years without a gold medal. Watch the shootout here.

Shaun White (USA) competed in his fourth Olympics and won his third halfpipe gold medal to become the most successful Olympic snowboarder of all time. This was medal #100 for the USA in these games. Watch his epic run to the finish line.

Here’s a name you should know: Ester Ledecka (Czech Republic), the first woman in Olympic history to win gold medals in two different sportsin the same year. She came out of nowhere to take the gold in the women’s Alpine skiing super-G, and for a few days I couldn’t really find Ester Ledecka on the internet.

All googling re-directed me to videos of skier Mikaela Shiffrin (USA): Mikaela lifting weights, in her in her home, skiing gates, footage of her parents… No Ester anywhere. But then Ester won another gold medal, in snowboarding, and suddenly the girl’s got a wikipedia page, glamour shots, you name it. It took two Olympic golds for this chic to prove to the world that she is a big deal. Fun fact: For some reason Ester was missing her skis on race day and won on a pair borrowed from Mikaela. Weird.

Best for last! A fabulous win in women’s cross-country skiing by Kikkan Randall and  Jess Diggins (USA).

Team USA’s gold in the Women’s Freestyle relay is the first ever U.S. medal in women’s nordic skiing and the first medal for men or women since Bill Koch won silver in 1976.  If you look closely as Jess Diggins rounds the final corner into the stadium to pass the skiers from Sweden and Norway she grows slightly larger, and her muscles become more pronounced under her clothing, like the incredible hulk. The announcer is amazing; he actually predicts this win twice during the race – I have no idea why, but he’s with them, every stroke, and absolutely loses his mind at the finish line. Watch the photo finish here.

There’s a lot to be taken away from an Olympics like these. Everyone of these athletes has had setbacks – injuries, losses. We can find lots of inspiration on how to show up, fail well, try again… but for me, these 2018 Winter Games have been about something else. It’s nice to know, on your average Tuesday night, that all these badasses are out there, playing their hearts out, giving the rest of us something to cheer for. Olympics like these show us who the heroes are.