Run, Rabbit

Beth Dunn, Runner

It is probably time for me to talk about running, and the fact that I do it.

Believe me, no one is more surprised about this than me.

I started running back in July. Just a little, at first. Because while I have never been truly sedentary (I love a good long walk, and last winter went through a long phase of going for daily rambles of up to 6 miles several times a week), I have never actually been a runner.

I tried, once. A handful of years back. I did that whole Couch-to-5K thing (which I just mis-typed as “Conch-to-5K” which seems right, too, somehow) in 2006, I think it was. And I didn’t do it particularly well, let’s just say. Oh, I made it to the race. But I hadn’t really done the training properly, nor had I changed anything about how I ate, so I hit a wall about 2/3 of the way in (yes, in a 5K) and had to walk the rest of the way.

As I said: I’ve never been a runner.

But this summer I started getting serious about getting fit again. I’ve gone back on forth on being in shape during my life, in some pretty wild oscillations. I was seriously overweight as a kid, then lost about a hundred pounds when I was in high school. I kept that off for my twenties and into my early thirties, for the most part, but then bad habits helped pack a few of those pounds back on, and then breaking those bad habits packed even more of them on.

Then I spent my late thirties working my tail off, although alas this was only metaphorically. So I found myself on the awesome side of 40 (you more mature folks who have passed this rubicon will know what I’m talking about) with more than a few pounds to lose. And, shall we say, dwindling time to lose it in.

I don’t want to get all morbid on you or anything, but you do suddenly start to notice the horizon getting ever so slightly closer.

And you realize that if you’re ever going to get your act together, sooner would probably be better than later.

So I started running.

Now is the moment when I realize that while I wanted to write about running, what I ended up writing about was weight loss. Which I categorically loathe writing about. But let’s put all that behind us now and move on to the good stuff.

Who here loves endorphins?

OMG YES ME TOO.

Turns out, running gives you whole spadefuls of those delicious little chemicals that you might possibly have spent your twenties and early thirties cramming down your throat through artificial means.

Turns out, you can get pretty effing high from running.

Now, I’m not saying that’s why I do it. But I will say that it is a pretty damn nice side effect, and one that actually took me completely by surprise.

And I guess a slightly less addict-y sort of way to talk about it would be to say “Running makes you feel good.” But I have never been one to shy away from the extravagant use of hyperbole.

So yeah, I run.

These days, I run a pretty modest amount, at an even more modest pace. I mean, most of you real runners probably wouldn’t even call what I do “running,” technically. I am slow. I take walking breaks. I rarely go more than 3 or so miles at a pop. And I only run three days a week.

But allow me to restate that for a moment. I went from somebody who basically had never run, back in June, to somebody who thought she would be okay with just running one minute at a time, interspersed with many more minutes of vaguely resentful walking, to somebody who pretty easily covers more than three miles several times a week, without getting out of breath, without feeling like lying down and having a good cry, without causing passersby to call an ambulance out of deep caring and concern for my welfare.

I run.

And when I run, if I should perchance start to feel a little leaden of leg, sometime on the last quarter mile or so, or on that ever-so-slight hill where the river used to run under the bike path, then I just whisper to myself a little reminder of how AMAZING my legs are going to feel later that night, when they get that fast-twitch sort of warm glowy feel that makes me want to kiss everything in sight and then rub my face against it like a cat; I remind myself that every step is simply storing up more Glowy Feels for later, and suddenly I don’t feel so leaden anymore. Suddenly I can feel the butterflies in my heels; I can hear the heron’s wings beating at my thighs.

Do you know those feels? Because those feels, my friend, are VERY GREAT FEELS.

So yeah, I’ve dropped about 30 pounds since June. And I plan to keep running through what passes for winter around here these days, so I expect I’ll drop a few more by spring. And that feels pretty great, too.

But let me tell you something: So do those heron’s wings.

Beth Dunn, Still Running

How To Make Meringues

By the time I was fourteen years old, I’d already had your usual, garden-variety sort of spiritual experience. We’ll skip over the details of that for now, because that’s not really why I called you here today. After all, it wasn’t the fear of God that taught me how to make meringues.

It was the fear of forever.

I’d been lying in bed plagued by insomnia for several months of midnights while I wrestled with the idea of eternity. I must have only turned fourteen the summer before, and my memories of frost-shrouded windows and frozen full moons tell me this was sometime near the bone-joint of winter. This is when such things usually happen, yes?

Well, this is when it happened to me.

I’d found out about the idea of eternity early on, of course. Never really knowing the first time I’d heard the word, or learned in some superficial way its definition, it just remained one of those comfortably far-off notions that might have to be dealt with eventually by adults, undoubtedly by the aged, but surely could be put off for consideration by a carefree child for many years to come.

But such carefree sang-froid cannot last. And I don’t recall how the realization came to me — whether stealthy, by inches, or with the bang of a screen door — that eternity, if it’s a thing at all, has surely, most certainly already begun.

After all, if eternity is the unending ribbon of time, forever spooling out before and behind us, then you (mere child though you may be) are already caught up in its coils. Already bound up in its chains.

Already done for, you see.

And suddenly the thing that seemed like a ponderable thought becomes unbearable to you, and you lie awake at night during the summer of your fourteenth year, fretting endlessly over the fact that you are already on the train to forever. And that there’s no chance, not even a small chance, of ever getting off.

I don’t know why, but for some reason this realization terrified me. So much so that I couldn’t sleep at night. So much so that I agonized over it.

So much so that I eventually got out of bed, wandered downstairs, and started making meringues.

Yeah so when I was fourteen years old I started baking, secretly, at night. It helped with the insomnia. And it helped that the only cookbook I had access to was my Great Aunt Eva’s old 1898 Fannie Farmer Cookbook. That only made it all the more therapeutic.

Because Fannie Farmer didn’t use blenders. Fannie Farmer had never heard of a bread attachment. Fannie Farmer told you to count your whisk strokes. Fannie Farmer suggested ways to test the heat of the flame in your woodfired oven.

Fannie Farmer told you when to put another log on the fire, and she knew when to open the flue and let the embers cool to ash.

At some point in the shadows of the winter of my fourteenth year, I stopped writhing anxiously between the cedar-scented sheets of my narrow bed and started thumbing intently through the pages of a mildewed old cookbook under the glow of a dusty old lightbulb, searching for recipes that fell within my skill set. Recipes that matched the meager ingredients in our cupboard. Recipes that could be completed with a minimum of noise so as not to awaken my mother and brothers and alert them to my weirdness, and that could be accomplished within the ever-diminishing time between the milky blue darkness of one in the morning and the rude, invasive, unwelcome dawn.

I nearly always chose meringues.

For one thing, we pretty much always had eggs on hand. After all, all it really takes is some eggs and some sugar. Cream of tartar is nice to have around, but isn’t really necessary to completing the task at hand.

Here’s how it goes:

You take the eggs out of the fridge and run them around in your palm for a few minutes, enjoying the cool smoothness of them in your hand. Then you carry them over to the white porcelain sink, nestle them gently in the folds of a dishcloth, and perform the sacred mysteries of separating the yolk from the whites, head bowed. Eyelids lowered. Reverent. Subdued.

Then take a large silver whisk from the jar of battered utensils behind the paper towels and heft it in your hand, testing the strength of your wrist and preparing your mind for the long road ahead. Clutch the bowl hard against your ribs, curled tightly in the crook of your arm.

Now is when you begin to count strokes.

Walk slowly, meditatively, across the kitchen floor, over the place you will lie across in two years with your dying dog, over the burn your brother will make with the dropped pan next spring, over the spot you will stand in when you open your college acceptance letter.

Be sure, while you wander, to note the regular geometry of the wallpaper. Yellow then green then brown. Yellow. Then green. Then brown.

Count two hundred strokes, at least.

Now slowly, slowly, teaspoon by teaspoon, drop in the white sugar. Whisk again. Whisk some more. Whisk for an amount of time disproportionate to the relative volumes of teaspoon and bowl. Then count twenty strokes more, and add another.

Watch as the crystals sink slowly into the stiff peaks, like new snow drifting gently into old. Feel your mind grow increasingly blank, itself covered in dense, mufflinf drifts of snow. Whisk some more.

Change hands.

When all of the sugar has been added and your wrist is sore, tuck the bowl into the fridge between the milk and the leftover chicken and get down on your hands and knees. Scrabble around in the cupboard by the sink for a while looking for parchment paper. Yes, you’re the only one who ever uses it, so it probably isn’t there, but you persist in hope. Find, inevitably, the scrap end of a roll, yellowing in a genteel fashion behind the sink pipes. Pull it out flat and lay it down across the baking sheet that’s been warped since before you were born.

Now drop, in soothingly regimental rows, your little white knobs of whimsy, your slender, spun skeins of sleeplessness, your softly yielding puffs of smoke. Your meringues, or your promises of meringues. Perfect. Pat. Complete.

And now you wait. Because Fanny Farmer or not, meringues take a very long time to cook. You must set your oven low, even unto the lowest possible degree, and your baking sheet must lie on the center rack, your over door open, your clock ticking loud on the wall.

Now there is nothing to do but sit down at the kitchen table and wait. A good fifty minutes, maybe more. It is a good time to read.  A good time to pad out into the back hallway, past the darkened pantry and basement stairs to the closed door of the library which you learned to pick when you were six. Locked because that’s where the good books are, the ones with the deliciously scented leather covers, the pages’ edges dipped in gold. Ribbons in spines. Penciled names on frontispieces. Tissues on title pages. Like parchment paper. Like cedar-scented sheets. Like snow.

I think that it was while meringues baked slowly in the oven in the cool of the night that I first read Jane Eyre. I know that I didn’t worry any more about eternity once I’d met Jane, once I’d walked the halls of Thornfield, smelling smoke. Once  Rochester’s blinded eyes had searched, anguished, for mine.

After that, I just stopped trying to sleep at night. I had my meringues. And God — or insomnia — had introduced me to Jane Eyre. Forever could take care of itself, for a while.

 

Image by kjgarbutt

Restorative Lamb Chops For Romantic Poets

So when bloggers who heretofore had been relentlessly consistent — some might even say unhealthily obsessive — about posting every week suddenly fall eerily silent for a distinct period of time, it usually means one of three things.

  1. The blogger’s life has suddenly become unspeakably wonderful, leaving no time for writing.
  2. The blogger’s life has suddenly become unspeakably awful, leaving no time for writing.
  3. The blogger’s life has suddenly been consumed with writing for somebody else, leaving no time for writing on her own damn blog.

Well folks, I’m happy to report that in this case at least, we’ve totally lucked out and won the fabulous prize behind Door Number 3.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. My life is in fact still pretty generally wonderful. So there’s maybe a just little bit of Door Number 1 in there, too.

But we all know that things have been just a little bit thin on the ground around here of late, more so than ever before in the long, storied life of this blog (which incidentally I think might have crossed the ten-year mark somewhere along the way this spring), and that’s been for the very good reason that someone else has started paying me actual money to write weird, quirky little articles about history and food and cravats and stuff.

I am not making this up.

I’ve been keeping it under my hat for a while because, well, it sort of seemed too good to be true. But now it’s officially official, and the first of these officially official little stories of mine just got published yesterday.

So I guess I won’t be jinxing it if I tell you about it now.

I’m writing for The History Channel, folks. For their new, fairly tricked-out website where they’re starting to publish all manner of wacky historical awesomeness. And they’ve asked me to write a fair bit of that wacky historical awesomeness for them.

I know, right?

Anyway, all this is my way of saying that I’d be chuffed as all heck if you’d go over right now and check it out. As I said, my first post went up just yesterday, and I think it looks mighty fine if I do say so myself.

And these posts will feature everything you’ve come (for better or for worse) to expect out of me. This first one alone is replete with dreamy 19th century male celebrities, brilliant 19th century female authors, scandalous young love, bizarrely executed elopements, and highly questionable choices in food and drink.

There’s even a little opium and prostitution thrown in there, as well. Because I know that’s how you like it.

Yes, all this and more can now be found on The History Channel website. Can you believe?

Here’s a snippet of my debut post, for those of you just too stunned (or too giddy with excitement) to have clicked already:

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a young, idealistic poet whose beliefs often set him at odds with the rest of British society in the early 19th century. He was an atheist who got kicked out of university for being a bit too vocal about his atheism. He was a strict vegetarian in an era when beef broth and pork jelly were the go-to cures for the common cold. And at the age of 20 he deserted his young wife for the even younger Mary Godwin (the future author of “Frankenstein”), thereby becoming a pariah to much of mainstream society for the rest of his life.

Not that he wanted much to do with mainstream society in the first place. Romantic poets so infrequently do.

Read on…

Of course there’s lots more to come. More historical recipes (this one features lamb chops — you’ll have to read it if you want to know why), more weird facts about long-dead dudes and ladies, more historical shenanigans and general nonsense of the very best kind. I hope you dig it.

Because God knows I do.

 

Run for your life

Today is the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi. Don’t ask me how I know these things. I read a lot of blogs. The internet will teach you all things, if you will let it.

I’ve always been kind of fond of St. Clare. First, and most obviously, because she’s the patron saint of television.

Wait, I can hear you say. How can a woman who lived her life in 12th century Italy be the patron saint of television?

Oh ha ha ha. As if space and time matter when you’re talking about the saints. Honestly now. Think about what everybody’s favorite saint — I speak of course of St. Nicholas — gets up to amid the fractured bounds of space and time in one measly little night?

But wait, I can hear you splutter indignantly. You don’t even like television.

True.

It’s true that I mostly only turn on the TV in our house once a week (of my own volition — I do have a sports-loving husband, so let’s be real here), and that’s for Masterpiece Theatre. The rest of the time I prefer books, or the internet.

It’s not television I love, but the story of why Clare is the patron saint of television. If you weren’t brought up knowing such things, or if your college years were sadly bereft of courses in medieval history, you might not know how this came to be.

Very well then, I will tell you.

Clare was a nun, obviously. She’d heard St. Francis preaching one day in the street near her house and was inspired to join him in a life of poverty and prayer. She was 18 years old, and her wealthy, aristocratic parents were, shall we say, not pleased. They ended up hauling her bodily back home and locking her in after they found out she’d run off to join those crazy hippies in their scratchy woolen robes.

But then Clare snuck out by a side door and made good her escape. Which to me means that she should also be the patron saint of rebellious young teenage girls, but hey. Nobody ever asks me my opinion on such things.

But whatever, I can live in my own mind. So Clare has for some time been my personal little patron saint of minor and major acts of rebellion, especially those that go against the consumer-cultural grain. I personally think we can all use a few more of them in our lives. And I personally think Clare is secretly cheering on every little one.

But that’s not why she’s the patron saint of television. By now you’ve probably remembered the story. Clare was too ill to attend mass at one point during her long life in the convent, but because of her deep and fervent desire to take part in the service she was able to miraculously see it take place, as an image that was projected on the wall of her cell. Like television, get it?

Pope Pius XXII designated her the patron saint of TV back in 1958, which honestly sounds more than a little bit like pandering to the trends to me.

How much more interesting it would have been if he’d chosen to celebrate her independence of thought and courageous resolve to be able to turn her back on a privileged life of wealth and ease, to disobey her parents and everything society expected of her, to know her own mind at the age of 18 and go after it with a single-minded ferocity of will?

Oh, but I suppose we can’t be encouraging those things. Let’s encourage the watching of TV instead.

Well. Screw that. I say Clare is the patron saint of the young and the restless, the fretful and fidgety, the ones who don’t know what they want to be doing with their lives but when they look around their parents’ stable, staid homes, they know that this isn’t it.

Sure, most of us go on to create stable, staid homes of our own. But it’s only after we make a break for it, run until our feet are sore, live wild, live reckless, live on nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches in nameless parking lots, sell everything we own and buy a one-way ticket to California — that we can start to figure out just what kind of home, what kind of life it is that we actually want for ourselves.

I ran off to California when I was just about Clare’s age when she joined the convent. Sold my car, sold my furniture, and bought a one-way plane ticket off a bulletin board in a laundromat back when you could do such things; when plane tickets were transferable and the only furniture I really owned was a futon and a frame.

I only lasted about nine months before I came scampering back east, parched and desperate for snow and the icy reserve of my Yankee brethren. As a matter of fact, I never would have known what a New Englander I truly was unless I’d plopped myself someplace so utterly foreign to me and everything I’d ever known. Once I’d done it, I felt secure in my choice of home geography in a way I never would have if I’d stayed safely in Northampton that dreadful, itchy, angsty year of 1994.

Now, I’m not advocating running away from home and living on the streets. Let’s be honest; I had a college degree by this time, and good, reliable friends up and down the California coast who put me up in their safe, warm, well-stocked homes for weeks on end at a time.

But I did run. And I did follow what I knew to the best of my ability at the time to be the path I needed to follow. It ended up winding, eventually, back home, which makes my story quite different from Clare’s.

Or does it? I think we both found home, in the end.

If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is

FireflyBeen doing an awful lot of gardening lately, followed by an awful lot of twilight wanders through the cool evening air. It’s been a banner year for fireflies, and the sight of them flashing and darting amid the undergrowth never fails to make me clap my hands with delight.

Which startles them, of course. Freezes them into motionless terror, no doubt. But only for a moment.

Because after a moment’s darkness, they come back. They always come back.

The gardening has been a bit of a surprise to me. Oh, I know, I’ve been posting pictures of my so-called “garden” on this blog for years now, almost since the very beginning. But I never really thought of myself as a “gardener” per se.

I thought of myself as somebody who occasionally “threw down” wildflower seeds. Who neglected weeding in the name of “biodiversity.” Who cheered on “invasive species” as merely plants who were finally pulling some weight around here for a change.

In short, I was generally more likely to call my little acre a “yard” rather than a “garden.” I had done nothing, I felt, to earn the distinction.

Well, this year all that has changed.

I spent the last week or so putting about fifty different new plants into my very small yard. Which was followed, naturally, by about one metric OHMYGOD of mulch. And capped off with two brand new, perfectly handmade Adirondack chairs, poised just at the top of a small rise with a view through the trees to the river beyond.

This is an excellent thing.

Fifty different plants, you say? Why, yes. Something like that, at least. I sort of lost count.

Let’s see, there’s now:

  • Woodland Phlox
  • Cardinal flowers
  • Foxgloves (which make me think of Agatha Christie every time)
  • Purple Coneflowers
  • Coreopsis
  • Hostas
  • Russian Sage
  • New England Asters
  • Creeping Thyme
  • Raspberries

…and more varieties of dazzlingly showy day lilies than you’d even believe if I told you.

It was the melange of day lilies that finally did me in. I ordered a little variety pack of about 15 from this fabulous organic day lily farm in Vermont that has all of the most spectacular kinds of day lily that will make you forget all about those ubiquitous orange things on the side of the road. But they apparently take that sort of order and interpret it as a very loose “baker’s dozen,” because when the box arrived I found myself with upwards of 30 different plants.

Oh my god, she exclaimed, opening the cardboard crate which sealed her doom. Oh my stars and garters, that’s a lot of day lilies.

And of course they arrived the very day after I came down with the worst kind of early summer cold. The kind that keeps you in bed for three days, and then keeps you moaning on the couch for the rest of the week.

But I had scads and scads of planting to do, so I gobbled down some Advil and I got down to work, by gum.

And it’s like cleaning your house, apparently. Once you clean one bit, you realize that all you’ve done is throw the rest of the place into such awful, stark relief that you now have to clean the closest adjacent bit, and then the bit closest to that, and so on.

It kind of got completely out of hand, is what I am trying to say.

But now I have two wide, curving arcs of carefully planted day lilies (which look so much like I stuck a bunch of scallions into the ground in a fit of culinary optimism, it’s hilarious) surrounding a wee little enclave of mulch in which sits my two slouchy wooden chairs. Behind me sit the raspberries, which (speaking of fits of optimism) look like they might even bear fruit in their very first year. Ahead of me lie the wildflowers, heathers, and roses which you already know all about.

And when night falls, every single inch of the place becomes a goddamn discotheque for fireflies.

And honey, they are looking for love.

To give them their privacy, and because I needed to stretch my legs after another full day of manic gardening, I went a little further afield than usual in my twilight meanderings this evening, taking the liberty of strolling up and down my quiet little street to see if my neighbors were similarly blessed with fireflies and gardening mania.

Let’s just say I’m far from alone in my afflictions.

As the evening went on and darkness gathered ever closer about me, I tilted my head up to the sky. The fireflies, it seemed, were retreating with the light up into the treetops, flickering and dancing among the waving pine boughs in the gentle summer breeze. As they disappeared, one by one, stars appeared behind them to take their place in the evening sky.

And I said to myself, This, right here? This is pretty great.

And if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

(With thanks to Kurt Vonnegut.)