We’ve had a lot of rain over the past few days, and the tree frogs are keen to mate. I love their calls in the night. I don’t know why. The sound reminds me of those battery-operated toy puppies that used to hop and chirp outside the Kay Bee toy store at the mall. It should be annoying, but somehow, the optimism of life calling out to life heartens me—especially when I think of their small, glossy bodies, as perfect and fragile as if molded and glazed in porcelain. I think of that vulnerability, that imperative to raise their voices in the dark, to be heard, no matter the risk, and I realize that what I am hearing, what is resonating in my heart, is the sound of hope.
A 5k in Southeastern Louisiana
This week, I took part in the World Wide WordPress 5K, during which bloggers are encouraged to complete a 5K and blog about it. I walk, and sometimes even run, every day, but I don’t always quite get to the 3.1 mile mark. Yesterday, however, under the guidance of the Runkeeper app (more about this next week), I went for a 3.5 mile run/walk—alternating a half mile of running with a quarter mile of walking. Here is an approximation of that excursion.
I start just after 6 am. It’s gotten a little cooler lately—only 73 degrees. Of course the humidity is still at 95%, so I know I will be doing some serious sweating. As I run out of my apartment complex, it’s still quite dark. Only a few people are stirring. I bounce across the squeaky wooden bridge that is slowly rotting away as everything wooden here does and into the business park car lot. I am grateful for the street lights that light my way. I like the flurry of insects dancing in their golden glow. But I also enjoy the mysteries of the shadows—how everything is transformed by the dark, becomes more or less than it appears in the light of day. I find the darkness comforting. I feel held by it.
I cross the boulevard along which I will continue my jaunt. It’s a quiet artery, connecting several domestic subdivisions. I take up the path—a few yards from the road—that will lead me alongside the street. I am grateful for the trees that accompany me on both my left and right—the towering ponderosa pines, the flowering crepe myrtles, the sturdy live oaks, and all those others whose names I do not yet know. I glance briefly at the first drainage pond, often home to various water birds, but it’s still too dark to make them out. During this first half mile, I groove to the strains of Lady Gaga and Rihanna flowing into my ears and delight in the slight rush of air my movement through the predawn causes.
As I reach each subdivision, I inspect the decorations hung on their signs. It’s football season and they are mostly decked out in Saints black and gold and LSU purple and gold. The combinations often come off as a bit funereal, once prompting my mother to amend the Saints slogan from Who Dat? to Who Died?
I’ve past a few other early exercisers already, but it’s three quarters of a mile in before I see any of the regulars: The speedy woman walker whom I often come up on and to whom I gently call out, “On your left.” She always squeezes her arms into her body to take up less space, preparing for any onslaught I might bring. “Good morning,” I say as I pass her scenting her gentle baby powder aura. Good morning,” she always beams back—as though her eighty odd years have done nothing to quell the joy that determines to exude from her body. I want to be like her—not when I’m eighty, but right now.
I also see the adventure dog and her owner. She’s a small terrier mix (I think) who always seems to be moving forward toward a thrilling future. Her real name is Jazzy. She typically walks with an older retriever-like dog, but I guess she’s home resting her hips today. Their owner—a fairly fit man in his fifties—usually has some wisecrack to lay on me. To which, I all too often, I pull out an ear bud and reply cluelessly, “Excuse me?” making him have to repeat the joke.
I walk some and run some more until, almost a mile later I see my sister at the bus stop, where she has just sent one of her children off to school. We chat for a few minutes. I love when I see her and my nieces and nephew when I go out in the morning. I love those unimportant accidental meet-ups that can only happen because we live in the same town. I turn around at the 1.75 mile mark. My teenage niece and I exchange smiles on my return trip. I let my hand rub against her back as I trot by.
It has become much lighter by now. The streetlamps still smolder, but the sun is rapidly making them redundant. I greet a few elementary school children in their navy blue polo shirts and khaki shorts. I gaze at the vines that have conquered wooden fences. I note the progress of the kumquats and satsumas on their respective trees. I spot another older woman across the street with her spoiled, little brown poodle, also called Jazzy (we’re just outside of New Orleans). I wave and she lifts her cane at me. I see the grey minivan that every day conveys a golden retriever, his head protruding from the open window, proclaiming how wonderful everything is.
As I approach more high school students, an habitual debate resumes in my mind: do I inflict my hellos on them? I often wonder if I am being annoying to these teenagers who have plenty of other irritants roiling in their sensitive brains. I usually settle for a smile and a quiet blanket good morning as I travel through the groups of students—though I tend to hold my breath a bit when I get to the cloud of cologne and body spray emanating from one particular gaggle of boys.
It’s not long before I return to the second drainage pond and see the various geese and ducks. Right next to it is a gazebo where the Catholic school kids gaze at their phones while waiting for their bus. During my final walking interval I look up into the sky to find a great egret flying over me. It looks as though its wide wings are flapping just past the moon whose face still shows in the now light blue sky. I search the trees’ green leaves for the barred owl I spied a few days ago being chastised by crows, but no luck.
I begin the final bout of running and think about the day ahead. There is breakfast to make and food shopping to do. Oh, and let’s not forget a thorough shower. My predictions were correct. My clothes are soaked, my body is glossy, and my face—thanks to my Swiss heritage—is a feverish red. As I run back through my apartment complex, I am passed by several cars leaving, people on their way to work. I startle a bevy of birds and one squirrel who have been taking advantage of one of the tenant’s birdfeeder. The white cat across the way peers enthusiastically through her window as they scatter before me
My app informs me that my “workout is complete”. I stop and stretch a little. I allow my face to cool a bit. I let a weeping willow tickle my shoulders as I walk toward my apartment, and I look around once more. The world has come completely alive in the last 40 minutes. The veil of mystery is lifted and the sun begins to burn in earnest.
Have you done a 5k recently? What was your experience like?
“You have arrived at your destination.”
I know I am not the first person to hear those words from a navigation system, look around, and reply acidly, “I don’t think so.” In this case the deceptively helpful voice had guided me to the middle of a highway in Southern Louisiana—decidedly not where I had intended to be.
It was just one of many occasions in the past year that started me thinking, “What am I doing here?” This is not what I had planned for myself. I never expected to spend my whole life in New York’s mid Hudson valley, but when dreaming of all the places I might go, the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain had not been even close to making the list.
Moving here felt like moving farther away from my goals—away from the publishing capital of the world; away from my harp circle, my friends; away from trees that change with the season, from talkative streams running down to a great maternal river, oh, and from mountains—really, elevation of any kind. Here, the closest thing you find to a hill is a pitcher’s mound.
The thing is, this wasn’t my choice. After a lifetime of saying that she could not and would never live in the hot and humid south, my then 68 year old mother had decided that it was time to do just that. It made sense. Because my sister is the only one of my siblings to have children, this is where the highest concentration of our family was living. My mother had missed one confirmation and one life-threatening injury, and that was enough for her. Due to my chronic ill health and my consequent financial dependence on her, I felt I had little choice but to come with her. Even so, I interrogated myself: Was I being too weak? Should I figure out a way to stay on my own? This move could be right for her, but for me?
It’s not that I don’t like it here. I do. I like the crepe myrtle trees whose vibrant pink blossoms keep coming back, again and again, almost all year. I like the flowering honeysuckle and confederate jasmine intoxicating the humid air in the spring—even though they make me sneeze. I like the wisteria and the Spanish moss that artfully drapes itself over majestic live oaks. I like the sharp blades of the saw palmetto and watching palms expand from a compact cone of leaves, as if opening their arms to the whole world. I like the towering pines that play host to owls and hawks. I like the sleek, grey slugs that regally slide across a sidewalk and the gargantuan dragonflies—multifaceted in blue, brown, or green—coasting past my face in the teeming sunshine. I like the chorus of the many species of frogs each thick summer night. And the green anoles that scamper up and down the stairwell in front of our apartment—especially the one that greeted us when we arrived on that dark Halloween morning a year ago.
I like the fact that I can get luscious satsumas (a citrus fruit introduced to this area by Jesuits in the 18th century) straight from the farm. I like living in a parish (Louisiana for county) named for an Amerindian chief who was never actually canonized (St. Tammany). I like that people take every opportunity to decorate—often with great flashy swathes of ribbon. I like the sign in a favorite local eatery that reads, “In the south, we don’t hide our crazy. We parade it on the front porch and give it a cocktail.”
I like that I accidentally met up with my sister at Walmart. And I like seeing my nieces and nephew so much, being able to go to plays and games. I like kissing boo-boos and giving congratulatory hugs. Honestly, if I go a few days without seeing one of them, I find myself thinking about how much I miss them! And the real miracle? After a year, my sister’s children aren’t sick of us.
My mother recently thanked me for driving her down here—24 hours straight with 2 cats and a harp. And a part of me felt like, okay I got you here, now I should do something else. I admire my mom for making this choice—which for her has proven to be the right one. She is an example of guts, of knowing when to listen to the foolish voice in your head that tells you it’s time to turn your whole world upside down.
So does that mean I should take my own journey? Turn my world upside down for my own reasons? Is this where I’m supposed to be? Actually, yeah. And the reason for that is as uncomplicated as it is uninspired: It’s where I am. For all my machinations, my mental teeth-gnashing about what is “right” for me, when I allow myself to be here—to wonder at the feathery marsh plants collecting the sunshine, to hold my niece as she carefully examines my hands, to greet people with no expectations—I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
It’s like when the ridiculously mistaken voice from MapQuest informed me that I had arrived at my destination and I pulled over and started fiddling with my phone to figure out what had gone wrong and how I could possibly make it right. After a few moments of frustration, I just stopped and looked around—not to see what I should do next, but just took it in, and there, on my right, was a sea of red globular spikes, sparkling in the sunshine—crimson clover. As I breathed in the wonder of the moment, I had to admit that maybe the know-it-all voice hadn’t been entirely wrong—though I hadn’t intended it to be, perhaps this had been my destination—or one of them—all along.