Walking With My Wedding Dress(es)

IMG_20151226_095421208December 26, 2015*

This morning I carried my two wedding dresses to the end of Ocean Beach Pier. I’d planned to drop them at the dry cleaner shop down the hill but when I found it closed, I decided to alter course and head away from the cliffs to town where there was another one.

That one was closed too. So I just swung them along in the plastic bag I’d stuffed them into and carried them with me. I carried them with me to the end of Narragansett where the ocean crashed against the boulders below, biding its time. Sooner or later it would prize them loose.

Then my wedding dresses and I sauntered towards the Ocean Beach pier where the morning walkers, fishermen, dogs and seabirds crowded the rails, looking over the edge for fish or back onto the pavement for scraps.

This is how my walks go. I start out with one thing in mind and something else entirely happens.

It’s the same with my plan to walk 15 miles a week in 2015 which would add up to roughly 800 miles in a twelve-month period. I thought that some of these miles would cover the California Coastal Trail.

By the time the year ends, I will have traveled only 420 miles give or take. I’ve traveled most of these within a five-mile radius of my house. The exceptions are exceptional: fifteen  miles in the calli of Venice, Italy, three more in the labyrinth of the complex at CERN outside Geneva, Switzerland, twelve among the fruit stands, orchards, farms and paths that line the river to my son’s home in Palisade,Colorado. You could say I’ve walked approximately 150 miles of the California Coastal Trail or you could, more accurately, say I’ve walked the same three- to seven mile stretch of it over and over again. I’ve walked to the library, the drug store, to church, to meet friends in Ocean Beach, Shelter Island, or Liberty Station. When I carry anything, it’s a few Kleenex (you can’t count on finding t.p. in a porta potty or public restroom), a camera or phone, my backpack with some shopping bags, maybe some library books.

I wore one of the dresses when I married my husband nearly fourteen years ago. The other is not, technically, a wedding dress. It was the runner-up, the one I would have worn if I hadn’t found the raspberry silk Nicole Miller on one final desperate day of shopping with my mother. The runner up is a rich, deep red with a neckline that makes me feel a little like Audrey Hepburn. That’s the one I want to wear on our anniversary although I have no idea why. It’s not as if we are going anywhere or doing anything. I don’t have shoes for it. I guess I just want to give it a chance to do what it was made to do before the dress and I go our separate ways. As for the original, well, I decided that cleaning it couldn’t hurt. We’ll see what happens after that.

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Here’s what happened when I stopped at the end of the pier to snap a photograph or two of a pelican. I placed my bundle on the back of a bench and began to click while the pelican eyed me with little interest. A gull, though, edged its way toward the bag with the dresses. I snatched it back up, tucked it under my arm, and kept moving. I wondered, though, what it would feel like to see the gull light on the bag, tear it open and then pick at the dresses or carry them aloft. I envisioned them in the water floating like lost autumn leaves before sinking into the depths.

We carry our pasts with us wherever we go but this is the first time I’ve carried tangible pieces of my past on a walk. The bag was light enough and I guess I’m not ready to let the contents go.

I don’t wear dresses much any more. For work I mix and match t-shirts and sweat pants. When I walk my most familiar routes, I wear sunscreen, baggy pants, smart wool socks, hiking boots and giant sunglasses. I look like the Maxine character featured on those Hallmark cards women give to each other when they reach a certain age. Which I guess means me.

No one is looking. No one is listening. Mostly, I am the one doing the looking and listening. I like it that way. For the most part, my walks have been solitary although the exceptions to this have also been exceptional and very welcome.

The writing that I thought would come from my walking hasn’t shown up on my blog. I sat down this afternoon to write something, anything. To try to capture the glimmers each walk produces, that are now part of me. They aren’t forming a complete, coherent narrative. The images are all in motion, like movies that replay. Trying to harness them now is like chasing fireflies with an empty mayonnaise jar. My journal shows a collection of phrases, ideas, observations and mile counts that swelled and dwindled through the course of the year according to my focus, health, whatever was going on with my writing, my family, the effort it takes to be fully present.

Sometimes I am just too overwhelmed with the possibilities that spring up with each step. The stories playing out in front of me. The ones forming in my head. The fragments of overheard conversations that make me want to turn and follow the speakers until I’ve got it all.

It’s not until I return to my desk that I realize how much my time spent traveling even a small distance by foot has shaped me and my writing. My body is aligned, energized. The muddle on the page I’d left has sorted itself out. Not every time and not perfectly but enough to make me want to stay with this.

As the first of the year approaches, I am ready with some intentions. I will keep walking. I will try to cover more of the CCT from the end of my street towards its end at the border with Mexico. I will walk at dawn, at least once. I will try to walk more miles than I walked last year but if I don’t I will be glad for the ones I have.

I will wear the runner-up wedding dress on our anniversary, even if all we do is go to In ’N Out. Maybe we’ll walk there.

*This turned out to be my last walk of the year. I didn’t know that, of course, when I wrote the essay. In keeping with not knowing how things are going to go, I was planning to run this earlier but various technical problems ensued which brought me to today. To new starts: wherever they may take us!

 

Weights and Measures

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Since January 1, I’ve walked 153 miles, more or less. I’ve lost ten pounds. I’ve consumed an average of 55 grams of fat a day that account for roughly  30% of 1,440 calories net, per day. I’ve lost the tips of three different fingers on my left hand to knives wielded by my right.

I lost a friend.

I’ve caught a single cold that lasted for 10 days, driven 262 miles to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles by myself to spend two days with over 200 women writers at BinderCon. I’ve read seven books and bought or borrowed 10 more.

I didn’t lose my friend, she died. Every time I look across the yard separating ours from hers, I expect to see her shoving her walker along the edge of her retaining wall where she planted fennel, a plant that was supposed to be a yellow tomato, and ran her hands through the dirt which anchored blooms planted by her daughter-in-law.

I am not walking to lose weight and I am not restricting fat in order to fit into a pair of jeans. The walking project was planned before an unexplained, out-of-the-blue bout of pancreatitis in December altered my dietary habits. The kitchen accidents, one every ten days over the past thirty days leave me mystified and make it really hard to wash the dog. And my hair.

Once, I watched through the window over my kitchen sink while my friend stepped out onto her upstairs porch and bowed to the morning sun. Her long wet hair spilled forward in a shimmer of white gold.

Counting does not come easily to me. I tend to think in round numbers, approximations. I never know how many gallons of gas our car holds, or how many people live in our city, or any of the other numbers that many people note and retrieve.

I don’t remember how many minutes I stood at my sink, watching my friend shake her hair, then brush it, then twist it into the bun she wore every day that I knew her.

When I set the goal for my walking project — 800 miles for the year or a bit more than 15 miles a week — it dawned on me that I had no idea how many steps it took to get from my house to the cliffs or from the cliffs to town. I had even less idea of how many miles I could walk in an hour. I needed tools. I started with the pedometer I gave my husband a couple of Christmases ago. Now I have two apps on my iPod Touch that help me track my steps and miles. I have another app that tracks my caloric intake. We returned from our last trip to Costco with a sleek scale that is see-through and flashes my weight to the tenth of a pound in brilliant blue digits. The old scale, it turns out, was fine but that needle wavered too much. We were constantly fiddling with it to make sure it read “0” before stepping on.

I count with the fervor of a convert. I count everything, even when I know the numbers will tell me I failed to meet my objective. My weekly mileage is closer to ten miles and most of the miles I have walked have been in January, February, and March. I count with optimism. The year is only one quarter over and I’ve already walked far more than I ever would have if I hadn’t set the goal in the first place. I count the fat grams convinced that keeping the count low will ward off a recurrence of the pancreatitis and a return to the far more restrictive diet of boullion, tea, water, and other see-through liquids.

When I first started drinking tea with my friend, I had two dogs and she had one husband. After she became a widow, we visited more often. I would walk over at “the usual time” once or twice a month with my  terriers and we would sit in her backyard or at her dining room table, sip, and talk. We talked about our gardens, our children, her frustrations with the insurance industry, and we took turns tossing a ball for the dogs. Then the dog who loved the ball the best died. My friend gave me tea. She held my hand. We sat in her backyard sometimes not saying much of anything.

No matter how closely I believe I am keeping track, some numbers slip away from me. I can never remember how many steps equals a mile according to these apps I have. I can never be sure they are telling me the truth because they each say something a little different. Sometimes I guess at the calories and fat of the various foods I am eating because the app I use for that doesn’t have the exact thing its database. More and more, I test the limits of my tolerance. After all, the pancreatitis didn’t kill me and more and more it appears to be a fluke that will not repeat itself.

It’s becoming clear that recalling the numbers is not the same as remembering the sights that greet me as I walk, or the laughter over a meal I shared with my family without obsessing about what might happen. The number of books by my bed is meaningless when I am deep inside the world of each one.

I forget when my friend stopped making stars at Christmas. I forget when she started to let me make the tea for us. I forget how many times I meant to call her but let the moment pass.

I remember her laugh. I remember being enfolded in her large, welcoming arms. I remember the warmth of her cheek against mine each time we greeted each other and each time we said goodbye.

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On the Ground

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

The phrase “on the ground” morphed into cliche eons ago. There are no signs, though, that it is fading from the language. Instead, more and more of our newscasters, policy makers, military leaders, and talking heads use it. When they do, they establish the vast distance between their insulated offices and those who are face to face with the consequences of disasters, war, and political decisions.

I am not a fan of this phrase.

However, if used literally — if used, say, to describe what I have found when I looked at the actual ground, I can feel the words perk up. The phrase “on the ground” straightens its shoulders and does the simple yet useful job it was always meant to do.

I found this orange on the ground as I trudged in unseasonable heat near my stepdaughter’s house. I was thirsty. I had looked longingly at the branches full of fruit hanging just out of reach over the walls that lined the sidewalk. I heard a muffled “whump” and looked back, then down. There it was.

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When my feet move along the surface of the ground, I can read the changes through the soles of my shoes. There is the give of a dirt path, the unyielding concrete of a sidewalk, the slippery squish of wet leaves, or the grit and sink of walking in sand.

Look down and the ground becomes a canvas that stretches out in all directions. Camellia blossoms die a beautiful death in one corner.

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A sunny sidewalk captures the shadow I make when I walk my dog and reminds me that I really must look insane in that hat.

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A walk in Balboa Park reveals a message scrawled in chalk that makes me wonder how it was answered. I’ll never know.

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And of course the ground is peppered with the scuff marks and foot steps of those who have traveled before me. Their prints are there along with the scratchings and droppings left by birds, lizards, rats, dogs, or other animals that share common ground with me.

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I think sometimes of people who lived here years before any of us did and relied upon the signs they found on the ground that led them to food or helped them to avoid danger. When I think about this, I feel the vast distance that still exists between me and all that lives beneath the soles of my well-shod feet. Walking on the ground still keeps me well above it. Perhaps I’m too quick to dismiss the news anchors, talking heads, and the others who operate far away from the consequences of all of the ways we humans mark our ground.

The Edge of the World

 “Home is everything you can walk to.” 

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On February 7 I sat down for the tenth time to write a blog post about my walks. I consulted my photos. I consulted my notes. Then I consulted the tally I’ve been keeping (or trying to) and found that another two or three miles would put me at nearly 16 miles for the week, a first for me and exactly the number I need to average in order to make my goal of 800 miles by the end of this year.

Through my window, I saw the sky had already softened. The marine layer crouched on the horizon ready to enfold the sun as it sank into the Pacific.

My hands slipped from my keyboard. I got up and walked down to the edge of the world.

This is how I’ve come to think of the cliffs that run along the ocean a few blocks from my house. When I started out last month, my feet took me there without asking. It is the place I first walked after moving here nearly fourteen years ago before the boxes and furniture had even arrived from New Jersey.

I recall the moment I turned left at the bottom of the hill and almost forgot to breathe in the middle of all that blue above me and at my feet. I braced against the joy that stole over me, the way I used to when I was on vacation and had to remind myself that I’d soon be going home.

Then it hit me. I was home.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve walked along the cliffs since then. There were the times when we had two terriers who lunged after the seagulls instead of the single, elderly girl who doesn’t often make it down the hill. There were the times when people came to visit and we would all troop down at sunset to watch the show. There were too many times when I decided that I’d seen all there was to see there, and just kept my head down and thoughts to myself as I headed out the door on an errand.

When I set out on my inaugural walk of the year and for this project, I believed I was starting with the familiar cliffs just because they were close and easy. Then I learned they are not familiar at all; they are shape shifters, sirens. The world of the cliffs alters with the light, the tides, the surges of people who visit with their dogs, their surfboards, their car stereos. The surges of storms that start somewhere near Hawaii.

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As I walk along them, edging closer and closer to the chapped lip of sandy path high above the water, I see for myself how fragile the cliffs are. They slope and crumble towards the water that swirls below. They make no promises to those of us who are traveling along the path, or the barefooted surfers who run past the warning signs and down the sides like amphibious goats, or even those who simply come to park and look. There are deaths here every year. People tumble off. Surfers who are not from around here find themselves trapped in an unpredictable winter ocean, unable to ascend the cliffs.

Still, they are holding me these days as I make my way along them and into the rest of Sunset Cliffs National Park. They also hold surprises. Here are a few they offered me: an art installation, a bride and a groom, a piano concert on a late Sunday afternoon.

Before I do, though, here’s an update on my trekking. In January: 47 miles. February: 16 (so far). I have a few thoughts about the counting and the measuring not to mention the shifting landscape in my body and my mind which I hope to touch on soon. The problem is, the more I walk, the more I want to walk. As I type these words, I’m stealing glances out the window. My feet are squirming in the slippers I wear around the house. Maybe this is the enthusiasm of a newbie. Maybe it will wear off. Guess I’ll find out.

It’s time to get out there.

Art on the Edge of the World

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Love at the Edge of the World

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A Man, His Piano and His Dog: Beautiful Music at the Edge of the World

Late in the Day at the Edge of the World

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Fixing to Walk. Care to Come Along?

“But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations.”
― Gwyn Thomas

These shoes were made for walking. It's time to break them in.

These shoes were made for walking. It’s time to break them in.

A palm reader once told me I was one of those people who didn’t need to travel to learn about life. I was one of those people, she said, who understood that all life contains could be encountered in her own backyard.

This is a good thing because, although movement and travel have been part of my life, home has been the bigger part, especially since I began working out of my house 12 years ago. The more I am here, the more I am here, is how it seems to go.

In my last blog post, though, I outed myself as a yearning walker. A pilgrim in search of a journey that was not just metaphorical.

I wrote that a woman sometimes “needs to let in the wind, rain, sun, and to feel the blisters on her feet harden. She needs to let her body lead her sometimes and to trust it no matter her age.”

It appears that I am not alone. Since writing that post, I have been involved in conversations on email and Facebook with other women who travel hundreds of miles by foot whenever they can or who have been thinking a long time about starting out on a pilgrimage. Each woman has her own reasons, her own goal. Some have called themselves “wanderers” rather than walkers.

The common thread seems to be that we all see the difference between a direct encounter with our physical world and rolling through it in a car or flying over it. Some of us know a certain restlessness that sharpens in the wake of passing time. Some of us want to sink into the world instead of our smart phones or our busy-ness and just see what happens. One writer, not a walker, said something the other night that resonates with me still: “I want to live in my story. I’ll know then what there is to write, if anything.”

But.

This has been a significant year in my life journey. Good news came in the form of a book deal. A new novel is starting to emerge. This is the work I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. To do it right requires as much planning and being present as preparing for and starting any kind of extended journey by foot. Much is going on with family and friends I hold dear. On top of that, my body delivered a bruising reminder during the holidays that it can limit my plans, or at least my ability to execute them, at a moment’s notice. Ironically, I fell ill the very day that I bought my new walking shoes and am only now getting to wear them.

Like most folks, I have learned that I can’t always do it all or not all at once. So, this may not be the year I lace up my shoes and walk the entire California coast from Mexico to Oregon.

A walk of a lifetime.

A walk of a lifetime.

It can be the year, however, that I walk some of it. It can be the year that I ask more of my body and my mind than I did last year. I can walk wherever I happen to be and notice people, smells, colors. I can set goals for distance and miles walked.

I’m aiming for 800 miles or about 15 miles a week by foot. I don’t know where I’ll walk, only that I will walk. I will leave the car at home more often and use my feet to get to places I need to be. I will walk in places I know and places I’ve never been, starting here in my own city. When I walk, I will not listen to music or talk on the telephone. I will look, feel, think, seek encounters. I will smile at strangers. I will open myself up to possibility. I will take one step at a time and maybe, at some point, it will become clear to me why I am walking and where I am going.

Selfishly, I know that reading what others can teach me about their own desire to feed body, soul, mind, or art by walking will help me get out the door on those days when it is hard to imagine leaving my desk. Maybe you have a long-held dream to walk the Camino de Santiago, or to walk from Maine to Washington along the border with Canada. Maybe you are walking that walk right now. Maybe you take people on walking tours for a living. Maybe you are a photographer who ventures by foot to nearby or hard-to-reach places to bring back images that tell a story. Maybe you are one of those people who know how to notice the the world in the course of an amble from your door to your mailbox.

With this post, I am creating space on my blog for dispatches from the journey, not just mine but for anyone with a story or thoughts to share about your journey. Progress. Things learned. The planning process. A poem. Discoveries. Meditations. The flowers, animals, people you encounter along the way. Books that inspired you, guided you.

I am going to look for you and link to your posts or reblog them here. I also invite you to get in touch, let me know about your walking journey and write a post here or send me a link to a post from your own blog and I will happily reblog. If you are a photographer and want to share the sights you captured along the way with more folks, let’s connect. This invitation goes out to men, women, old, and young. Anyone with two feet, a walk or desire to undertake one, and a desire to share the journey.

At least once a month, I will post in the new section “Walkers: Dispatches from the Journey.” Hope to catch you along the way.

P.S. Happy New Year! Whatever your hopes and intentions for 2015, may you find them in the months ahead.