January 19: Twelve degrees Fahrenheit.
My toddler, playing by the woodstove, looks up and asks, “Yog?” He’s dressed in his woolen onesie, and the fact that he lets me dress him in slightly scratchy yet utterly adorable fabric is a great endearment to me. Still, I prepare to leave him.
“Yes, Mama’s going for a jog.”
You have a point, I think. I could stay here and play quarry-of-wooden-blocks, watching as your serious eyebrows oversee your trucks’ serious work, but I’ve made a commitment. In this midwinter, mid-pandemic, my husband gifts me time. His business is slow until spring, and our children are newly content without me for more than a few moments. As a part-time librarian and full-time mom, I’m used to finding personal time only in the stolen hours between bedtime nursing and nighttime wakings. And so I’m judicious with this gift and choose to spend it on two activities that should produce immediate results: a daily run and a writing session.
I’m as lazy as the next person, but the past six years of motherhood have taught me that if you are given free time, this is the holy grail. Fill that chalice with something good and do not share it. Though aware of being a New Year’s stereotype, I focus on championing this fresh identity of mom-with-a-little-free-time rather than questioning the soundness of the experiment. I offer the full-pout lips a kiss and am off on my run. Twenty minutes, no more no less, no matter the weather, through the meadow, the woods trail, along the farm road, then up to the beaver pond and down the main road. Then, back home to strip, rinse, and fulfill the second half of my resolution: writing. Most days I can steal 30 minutes to write, sometimes an hour. Tuesdays my husband’s schedule and childcare align and I have, dare I say it, three hours!
It’s day 19, and science tells me I’m 11 days away from sealing a habit. Kudos to compulsive me for finding a couple healthy ones. First leggings, then wool socks. Next tank top, my husband’s Under Armour shirt, an old sweater. Now vest, gaiter, headband. Add Velcro watch, Yaktrax, and knit gloves, and a winter-runner emerges. My spikes clink on the pavement, and I shift to the road’s edge where snow muffles my steps.
I spot my prints from yesterday, day 18. My feet pound beside them. It’s a repulsive realization, this repetition. Running past my own footprints, returning home only to step on a scale whose number doesn’t go down, even after 19 days, and though the miles accumulate over the month, I realize that I never actually go anywhere. The mailbox after the beaver pond always signals the ten minute mark to turn back, though the road continues on.
Returning to my driveway, I see the waddling shape of my toddler pulling his own sled through our back meadow. I pause to admire his perseverance when he turns, guided by a sixth sense that I’m nearby. I zag into the alcove where our firewood is stored, back pressed against the wall, waiting a moment before peeking out. I wasn’t seen.
Yaktrax off, sneakers flung, layers discarded, sweaty. I reach for my laptop, keyboard clicks, paragraph on top of paragraph, a passing thought, a distant hope it will amount to something. Door slams.
“Mama?” Time to turn back.
I rearrange my bedroom, removing the futon that originally provided a safe space to bed-share with my new walker. These days he flings himself from chair to couch on an alarmingly regular basis, rendering the floor-bed ridiculous. Now, on the faded rectangle of wood, there’s room for a writing desk.
It’s a curiosity, allowing myself to take up space in my own day. Devoting 20 minutes to moving my body. Devoting still more time to exercising my mind. Sure, I’ve strapped babe-to-back and clicked on a Zumba video, to make it through maybe two songs. I’ve done my share of downward dog, kiss giggling baby, and finish with chaturanga yoga. And I’ve covered hundreds of pages in longhand with my scattered thoughts, scribbled over the heads of sleeping babes, the surge of creativity being another blessing of motherhood. The curse, of course, being the lack of time to explore it. But now I have a little of this long-lost time where I can exercise alone and write with two free hands. I’m an old explorer returning to a once-known land, finding a jungle where in the past I had a road.
My mind is not the same as it was six years ago, prior to birthing two children. My body is not either. I am whatever remains after an abdominal shift, sleepless months, heart expanded past what I knew possible. I am what remains after my breasts became their own world and the rest of me but one moon that circles them. I am what is left after words like push, fever, mama, hush have rewritten my understanding of love.
Yet on the outside I don’t look much different. These leggings are in fact the same from a decade ago. I don’t sit differently at this desk where I wrote my MFA thesis or drafted a poem. Nevertheless, when I dance with my toddler in this now capacious bedroom our laughter echoes in so much space. The sound, I have to admit, is eerie.
In this uncluttered space, and on my solo runs, there’s always the possibility I am not alone, but with my old friend, doubt. My feet find the road and I wonder if it matters. My cursor floats across white, and I ask if I will ever be coherent again.
Running, I pass underneath bare branches, the oaks clinging to several of their dead leaves. My running is so slow that I can notice the buds, already present. Most trees set them before winter, a working draft of their spring manuscript. Do I mock them, then, as I mock my steps and words that seem aimless, stagnant? Are they not already leaves, even though, day after winter day, they are stuck? Mere nubs.
I jog and write. Feet find road, fingers ping keys. I don’t lose weight. Essays are left in pieces. Chapters are only ideas. I had hoped that by now my resolutions would be paying off. Logically, I know that the running is good for my heart. So I have that going for me. And, through my own experience of a few published pieces, I know that what feels like glorified journaling, might become the stuff of an essay. But the dread that this is all for nothing nags.
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, a pastor writes a diary for his son to read posthumously. Reverend Ames tells his son, “It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.”
Sometimes when I write I feel that I am cheapening a moment with my own reflections. But other times, when I’ve looked back at my glorified journal and reread lines like the spring-slant sun winks over the ridgeline, playing with the gold in my baby’s still-downed hair, I’m grateful that this brief moment is tethered, however precariously, by words on a page.
The first half mile is always hardest for me: uneven slopes past maple trees we’ll tap for syrup, sidestepping sled and ski tracks. But when it’s just me and the trail, my breath and snowfall, I can’t help but feel that something is happening here.
Horticulturist Julie Janoski shares that the buds of trees are indeed changing, even though at any given winter moment, they look stagnated. Day by day, they gradually change until, “bud burst”: the emergence of new leaves and a new season. “We think of trees as being bare in winter,” Janoski says in a recent Chicago Tribune article. “But that’s far from the case.”
Ten minutes in, after the longest hill, I stop thinking. Before me: Mount Nickwaket rising above a beaver pond. Most days in Vermont’s winter, the mountain is white on white; one day, after a mini thaw, it’s scraggled brown reaching to sunlight. The view never fails to jag me out of myself, though soon I get to the mailbox and turn my back on the mountain.
One day, I come over the small climb to see an owl in the buckthorn ahead of me. Amazing! What a boon. My jaw drops in the same joyful astonishment as my toddler’s did earlier that morning when his lost Winnie-the-Pooh figurine was found. I jog closer and realize that no, it is not an owl. A trick of the eye. Instead, it’s a broken branch, its limb splintered like several peeled bananas.
There’s something here, I think. Something humorous, humiliating, and refreshing. I wish for a pen to record it; damn leggings with no pockets. I can only repeat the idea, over and over, until I reach home. Trip-trop, I jog with my thoughts, subtly aware of how the snow forms a crispness on the passing farms’ manure piles, the awkward beauty of a few Christmas ornaments clinging haphazardly to a small pine, the way the brook cuts through the snowy meadow like a surprise. I pick up speed to go write it all down, this new idea, these fleeting impressions, this phrase that might take me, finally, into the scene.
At the door I rip off Yaktrax, knock sneakers against the doorframe, snow loosening on impact, and repeat the words so I don’t forget. I reach for the doorknob, wondering where I’ll find a pen, but the door opens on its own. No, not on its own, but by a little toddler who, on sight of me, lets go of the knob and lifts his hand to the air, face lit in triumph, fingers clenching in and out, the sign for milk.
Still sweaty, I hitch him to hip, a kiss to his baby fat cheek, grab the cable bill and a pen. The envelope’s blank backside is as good a place as any to jot down some words about splintered branches and chasing down a boon.