Monday, February 27, 2012

Walking Toward Understanding

Dear friends,

I have been posting essays here for two years. They're not standard blog posts, I understand that. They're too long. They are essays. Walter Mitty, in James Thurber's hilarious short story, wanted to be a hero. I just want to be a great essayist, like E.B. White or Jan Morris or Barbara Kingsolver.

Quel hubris!

(Three of the best things that have happened in the last year are: 1) Ed finished building a writing studio for me; I've started writing every day, this is a direct result of talking to myself in this blog; and I've joined a writing group. So I'm getting somewhere with this writing thing...)

And in the meantime, I have written one book (you can see The Real Skinny: A Practical Guide to Fat Loss and Health Gain and even buy it on my website,, and I'm working on a second book, Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking.

And I have just finished, really finished, the first chapter, and I am going to post it here. It's 4,400 words long, a real chapter. You are my loyal fans, so you get to see it first.

I look forward to reading your comments.

Here it is.

Chapter One: Introspection
Walking Toward Healing

I sat, curled around my heart like a question mark, at a table in The Principal’s office. The west-facing windows were open, letting in the August sun and cooling the room not at all. Labor Day was just three weeks away. All the other teachers in my school had received their teaching assignments in May, although most of them would be in the same classroom they’d had for ten years. Because I had entered the teaching profession in an era of drastic cuts to the public schools, I had spent the same ten years being bumped from school to school, two temporary jobs, then a series of substitute assignments, then a half-time job. I had finally succeeded in staying in the same school, Karen’s school, for two years in a row. I had been waiting for three months to learn what my life would be like this year.

I was the ultimate utility player, certified to teach all academic subjects in kindergarten through eighth grade, plus music. But for the past two years, I had been a “music and movement” teacher. I taught yoga, ballet, square dancing, sight-reading, music history and appreciation, and choral singing. The centerpiece of the program consisted of five- and six-year-old students writing, producing and starring in their own operas. I had created this program out of nothing, painting and laminating posters, buying books and music out of my own checking account, writing grants for yoga mats, building relationships with parents who could sew costumes and build props and sets. Although there was no music room in our school, the teachers were good about pushing desks out of the way for my little musicians and dancers, and I had a corner in a hall closet to store a cart of teaching supplies. My principal always brought prospective parents in to observe the yoga classes – they seemed to be a big draw for our kindergarten.

During my second year, our elementary school had been combined with the nearby middle school, half a mile away, to save on administrative costs. Now I taught kindergarten through middle school music, on two campuses a half mile apart. I saw the kindergarten and first grade students in the morning, four times a week. Then I hurried to the other school building to teach the older students. I was allowed to use the choir room some of the time. For the rest of the day, I taught in the gritty-floored cafeteria, echoing with kids coming and going from recess. Every 28 minutes precisely, I would meet a group of students at the door of their classroom, line them up, and lead them to class, carrying a backpack full of rhythm instruments and CDs and pushing a cart loaded with a boombox, a white board, an electronic keyboard, and Kleenex. I’d get them settled, teach fifteen minutes, line them up again and deliver them back to their classroom.

My students included a few emotionally disabled children who were being “mainstreamed” into traditional classrooms, some of whom expressed their profound discomfort with music by screaming, breaking instruments and barreling into people. There was no money for seventh or eighth grade music, so I was encouraged to teach after-school classes in the library, using my own materials and electric piano, earning ten dollars an hour in the after-school program.

It was brilliant. With just the expenditure of my half-time salary, our two-campus school of over 400 students was able to report that we had both a PE and an Arts program and that teachers were provided with professional development and meeting time. And I only had to work 50 hours a week to do it.

I had gotten used to the screws tightening each year. A new school, a different curriculum or grade level, no prep time, no time to eat lunch or get to a bathroom, less money, more students, higher-maintenance kids. Each year, I had dealt with increasingly troubling stress-related ailments. My blood pressure kept going up. I was experiencing arrhythmic tachycardia, an irregular heartbeat. At my last check-up, my doctor had said that my job was endangering my long-term health and suggested that I find another line of work. Now, as I waited to learn what the next year would bring, I expected to hear another not-so-subtle hint about more choral performances for the older students. A decade before, our school had had an award-winning music program and my principal clearly had hopes that I could return the school to those glory days.

But perhaps this would be the year that things would turn around. Maybe I would get a room of my own in the middle school, or get paid to teach the middle school choir, or get my lunch break back. Maybe I would only have to teach one Lifeskills class, no mainstreaming. Karen looked cheerful as she walked in the door, as if she were about to give me good news. She sat down opposite me, smiling in my general direction.

“Well, Brenda, basically, we need someone to walk on water.”

“We need you to teach remedial reading in the Early Ed building, and keep the library open a few hours a day. We need you to do lunch duty for the middle school three days a week. And if you have some spare time, it would be nice if you could keep the music program going. And we’re going to have to cut your hours to 40 percent.”

My mind went blank. Then I could feel my face getting hot. Please, please don’t let it show in my face. My usual outward sign of inward fury is bright red blotchy cheeks. You need somebody to walk on water? So you naturally thought of me? “No benefits this year?”


“Karen,” I said, determined to salvage something from this mess, “What if I took a leave of absence? Pushed the re-set button? Maybe the budget will be better next year and I can get back into full-time classroom teaching.”

Now Karen looked directly at me for the first time. “Brenda, I’m sorry. That’s never going to happen. You’ve been temporary and part-time for too long. Your lack of seniority means that you won’t be able to get a full-time job in this economy. Be grateful that you have a teaching job at all.”

What? After ten years of teaching, developing curriculum so I could bring students from second-grade math to middle-school algebra in four months in a crowded classroom, breaking up sixty-kid food fights and fist fights between boys larger than me, buying dozens of literature book sets out of my grocery money? I have transmitted the love of music through the sound of mentally disturbed kids screaming, my back is sore from getting knocked down and carrying twenty pounds of teaching materials all over the school, I work two or three hours for every hour of pay, the teachers here don’t even know my name, you’re cutting my salary, denying me health benefits, increasing my hours, asking me to retrain completely in the last three weeks of my “summer vacation,” somehow it’s my fault that you can’t hire me full-time, and I’m supposed to be grateful?

“Karen, I’m sorry,” I choked, truly astonished at my own willingness to blow the scraps of my career sky-high, “I won’t do that job.”

This was completely unexpected. Into the sudden stillness, I added, “I will not be available to work here next year.”

I stood up. I did not offer Karen my hand. She didn’t try to convince me to stay. I walked out of there and sat in my hot car, searing my forehead on the steering wheel for fifteen minutes before I could trust myself to drive home.

I spent the last three weeks of the summer sitting on the front porch, reading books and filling out the forms that officially separated me from the public teaching labor force for a year. I didn’t have anything else to do. Most teachers spend the last few weeks of their summer vacation getting ready for the school year, if they aren’t finishing up a summer job. We were lucky, my husband had just been hired at a corporation after years of trying to make a small business pay. We still had a paycheck. Labor Day weekend came, and I hadn’t even signed up for the substitute teacher pool, not that any self-respecting teacher would miss the first week of school anyway.

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, I sat in my flannel pajamas, mourning, trying to eat scrambled eggs. For ten years, I had awakened on The First Day with butterflies in my stomach, then put on my sensible teaching outfit, gulped coffee, and carried one last heavy box to the car, my lunch box and purse balanced awkwardly on top. On this First Day, as I sat at my breakfast table, teachers all over town were walking through their classrooms, meeting their new students, thinking of five or six things at once. Not me. It was 8:00 in the morning. They’re all in school. And I’m not.

Who am I? What can I do? I’m not a teacher any more. I don’t feel like myself. I don’t feel like a person.

Come on. I’m tough. I’ve weathered worse than this. I don’t have to let this get to me. I tried to write in my journal. For me, there’s not much that can’t be fixed by writing with a fountain pen. I like to say that I don’t know what I’m thinking until words flow out of my fingers onto a page. But on this morning, the magic didn’t work. My fingers didn’t care about holding the pen. My throat was so tight I couldn’t swallow.

The heck with this. I’m getting out of here.

I put on jeans, a sweatshirt and walking shoes, filled a water bottle, and fitted my journal and wallet into a backpack. I walked out onto the porch and stood there for a moment. Then I slammed the door and ran down the steps.

I was crying so hard I couldn’t see the sidewalk. Tears and mucous ran down my face. I stumbled along, scenes between my ears of kids singing arias about flying books and LifeSkills students screaming uncontrollably. “Oh GOD!” I yelled at the street hoarsely, my voice cracking. “Oh GOD!” People looked at me worriedly. I have to calm down. I could go crazy out here and somebody would call the police. Or worse, nobody would care. Why should anybody care about one more teacher whining about the education system? “Oh, GOD!”

I tripped over a curb and almost fell. I walked into a bus stop pole, hitting my head. After awhile I realized that I probably needed to talk to somebody, and that somebody had to be my husband Ed. I didn’t want to alarm him. I tried to slow down my sobbing breaths so I would sound more or less normal when he answered the phone. I pulled out my cell phone and poked at my husband’s phone number with shaky fingers.


“Hi. How are you doing?”

Long pause.

“I’m walking.”

“Okay honey, that’s probably good. Where are you walking?”

“I don’t know. Maybe downtown.”

Silence. We live four miles from downtown. I had never walked further than to the store, a quarter mile away.

If I said any more, he would be able to hear the crying in my voice. Time to go. “I’ll call you later.”

“OK. I love you.” Of course he does. One thing I’ve always been sure of is that Ed loves me dearly.

If I can’t talk, I can text. If I can’t work, I can plan things. I pounded text after text to Ed into my phone’s keyboard between steps. I hate texting. I don’t like to do it and I don’t like to pay for it. I have a pay-as-you-go-ten-cents-per-text plan. Ed replied to each text with a long caring response, which meant I had to keep writing him back. We wrote and wrote and wrote, back and forth, long complicated texts about dinner plans and bills and our high-school son’s schedule. This damn walk is probably costing me five bucks. I turned the cell phone off and jammed it into my pocket. I found that I was standing just in front of “The Daily Café,” a coffee shop three miles from my house. Jeez. How’d I get here? I walked into the high-ceilinged, half-empty room with a wooden bar running down its length. Behind it, an enormous chalkboard listed sandwiches, soups, coffee drinks and tea. I was starving. I ordered a big bowl of vegetable soup, a hunk of bread and an oversized white mug of coffee and sat down on a tippy chair at an old oak table. I found myself gazing down a wide hallway lined with mantelpieces, not attached to fireplaces. And stained glass windows. And an old phone booth. Apparently I had happened upon a restaurant that was a cross between a café and an antique store.

Then I saw the sinks.

I love old sinks. Old sinks are healing. They satisfy something deep within me. I don’t mean a sink that’s installed in someone’s bathroom. I mean used sinks, laid out in a line on a floor or asphalt, discarded from construction sites. Oval pastel sinks. White angular sinks, like my grandma had, with airplane propeller taps. Big concrete sinks for washing the dog. I visit the dump in Nehalem, Oregon just because they have a resale section of bathroom fixtures. I can stand in the rain on a forty-five-degree Saturday for twenty minutes just breathing deeply and communing with sinks. And here I was, soul-sick, with a big mug of hot coffee and a long row of sinks to look at! I sat and ate my soup. The presence of the sinks penetrated my soul. I got out my journal and started to write.

I wrote about every single thing I had ever taught in my life, voice lessons, how to cook, driving skills, To Kill a Mockingbird, how to subtract and how to hold a calligraphy pen and how to write a tragedy based on a food chain. I listed the names of students. The words on the page smoothed the cracks in my spirit, like spreading Nivea on dry skin.

The last inch of coffee was cold in the bottom of my cup when I clicked the cap onto my pen and closed the book. I put my dishes into the bussing pan and shouldered the door open, slinging my pack over my right shoulder. I was tired. I could catch the bus home from here. Nobody needs me today. I could take a nap. But I could see the ramp to the Hawthorne Bridge just three blocks down Grand Avenue. Well, all right then. As long as I’m here, I will walk over the bridge! This decision made me feel a little like Wonder Woman. When you stand at the waterfront nearest my house and look downriver, Portland looks like a toy city. By walking for an hour, I had made the city life-size.

The Hawthorne Bridge spans the Willamette River, tying the west and east halves of Portland together. The walkway and the car lanes are made of open steel grating with glimpses of the water far below. I stopped mid-span to look downstream at the Morrison, Burnside, and Broadway bridges stretching across the water, pleasure boats cruising under them, runners and bikers moving slowly along the waterfront trail, cargo ships docked at the Port of Portland. I looked past the city and saw the clock tower of the train station, framed by the green of the West Hills. I knew that those wooded hills held the Wildwood Trail, the jewel of Portland’s city park system. That trail was miles away. I decided to walk there.

I had never noticed how the sidewalk was engineered to let walkers step off the bridge safely. Suddenly I was swinging down through the city. The sounds of sea gulls, the hum of car tires over the grating and the hooting of water buoys were replaced by voices, street musicians, the jingle of bike bells and idling car engines. My walking pace became sporadic. I had to stop for people. I got into a conversation with a homeless man camped on the sidewalk. He had once been an amateur astronomer. A family of Italian tourists was clustered around a map, trying to find the big Powell’s bookstore. I knew enough Italian that I could direct them toward shopping and a restaurant. It was a relief to know that I was visible to other human beings, to feel that I could be of use, but I wanted to get back to a steady pace. I went into overdrive, gauging the speed of other walkers, concentrating on fleeting spaces opening up between clumps of tourists and office workers and shoppers. I was a woman on a mission. On to the hills!

I walked up Everett Street into Northwest Portland. I was breathing deeply now and that made me think of meditating. I had read about walking meditations. Maybe that’s what I’m doing. I will count my breaths to ten over and over.

I got lost at “one.” Tried to get to “two.” Somewhere between two and three, the overture to The Magic Flute started up in my head. I gave up on the meditation idea and tried to concentrate on remembering the route through town to the park.

But the train station sits between downtown and Forest Park. It drew me toward it. Sometimes, when life is too much with me, I entertain escape fantasies. I dream about pointing my car south, driving down I-5 until I bump into a new life, like the heroines in Anne Tyler’s books. And I’ve always loved Union Station, with its landmark clock and brick turrets, trains departing each day for San Francisco and Chicago and New York. I felt that I just had to go and talk to an agent about how to catch a train and go far, far away. I walked past the cars unloading passengers and luggage and pushed open the heavy swinging door into the station. Suddenly I could hear my shoes squeaking as I walked under the high ceiling, past the wooden pews, toward the ticket counter to speak to the man behind a wrought-iron grille.

I learned that there was a daily train to Chicago and that I could take a train to Klamath Falls if I didn’t mind taking the Starlight Express, which was usually late because it was traveling the length of the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada, to Los Angeles, California. The deep voice of the intercom intoned, “The Empire Builder will depart from platform B in five minutes. All ABOARD!”

I fled through the swinging doors. I will only go as far as I can on foot. Further than that, and Ed would miss me. I walked rapidly up the street toward the entrance to Forest Park. The blocks seemed shorter now with no lights to stop for. Tall oak trees shaded streets lined with brownstone apartment buildings and hundred-year-old homes draped in ivy and wisteria.

Look at the gargoyle on the corner of that building.

This part of town is smaller than I thought.

Look, you can buy cooking supplies there.

The individual moments became distinct. Step up onto the curb. A pile of gravel there. What does that sign say? Someone is standing in the door. Each scene stood alone. I wanted to hold on to them but moment by moment, bit by bit, the neighborhood moved by. I passed the sign “Wildwood Trail” and suddenly I was pulling cool air into my ribcage, gray concrete transmuted into brown and green forest lit by glinting creek water. Every footfall was now. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now.

I saw a stylized stone walkway under my feet and realized that I had come to the foot of the hill below the Japanese Gardens. I climbed the hill and passed through the entrance. My knees were shaky as I walked down toward the waterfall, so I sat on a flat rock under one end of an arching wooden bridge. I opened up my journal, scrabbled around in my pack for my pen and wrote a paragraph describing pink-orange carp just under flowing green water. I wrote sentences, one under another down the length of the page.

I persuaded the county to build a sidewalk between a middle school and a store so kids could walk safely.

Because of me, several people know how to carry a tune.

I taught my children how to scramble eggs and make chocolate pudding.

Ed loves me.

Once again, I clicked my pen shut and closed my book. I got up and wandered along branching paths, over gravel and soft moss. I heard water trickling. Then I saw a little house made of bamboo, open on two sides, with a round window looking out on willow trees that created dappled shade over a pebbled creek. The house was empty, and I tip-toed in and sat on the bench in the corner. The leaves, seen through the window from the dimness of the house, looked like nature idealized in thought. I had no desire to move forward, no memory of the past. I did not count the time.

I took the socks off my hot feet, turned them inside out, and put them back on. I drank water. I arranged the things in my backpack so I could settle it comfortably on my shoulders. I walked past the rhododendrons guarding the entrance to the park, down the winding path through the woods, back to the street that led into the city. My hips ached. The tiredness of my feet felt normal and eternal. Downtown flowed by quickly, the Hawthorne Bridge was behind me somehow, and I realized that I was just four miles from home.

That seemed like nothing. I had been walking all day. In an hour, I’ll be climbing my front steps again. It was then that I became aware of the pain in my feet. I sat down on a bench overlooking the river and pulled off my shoes and socks. Huh. These are really impressive blisters. I am walking on a bike path. There are no bus lines within a mile of here.

I will run. Then it will be over faster.

The pounding numbed my feet and carried me along to the cut-off into Oaks Bottom, a leafy trail that led toward Sellwood and home. I started quoting Tolkien to myself. “Wingfoot I name you! Hardy is the race of Elendil!” I looked up. The Portland Memorial Funeral Home, cut into the side of a steep bluff, loomed above me. There is a three-story-high mural of a blue heron on the side of the building facing the wetlands next to the river. I knew that, although I was three miles from home by the trail, my house was only three-quarters of a mile away as the crow flies, just the other side of that bluff. And I saw a steep set of railroad-tie steps cut into the hill next to the building.

Like Frodo and Sam struggling up the Winding Stair, I started to climb.

About a third of the way up the bluff, the stairs ended. Well, my son took rock climbing. I know about keeping three points of contact. It’s not that steep. The summer had been dry, and the earth was crumbly, but there always seemed to be a tree root to grab or a little place to put my foot.

Three or four yards from the top, the bluff became nearly perpendicular and I ran out of tree roots. I stopped. For the first time, I looked back and down.

Oh shit.

A year before, I had fallen, breaking my ankle and tearing a ligament in an accident that had confined me to a wheelchair for a couple of months. I really did not want to fall. I looked back up. It’s not that far, I told myself. It is less dangerous to just keep going.

I didn’t look down again. I grabbed chunks of dirt and desperately pulled myself up. My toes and kneecaps beat and slid against the cliff, I felt the earth push away beneath me and scrambled harder, my chest hurting, sweat burning in my eyes and blurring my sight of the dirt inches from my nose. I slammed my forearms up onto flat ground at the top of the bluff, shoved, and rolled. Covered in dust, my shirt soaked through, heart pounding, I lay on cool grass at the top of the bluff, panting. I hadn’t fallen. No one was going to have to go through my wallet and call my husband to report my broken body at the foot of the Sellwood bluff. I lay there long enough to catch my breath. Then I pulled myself to a standing position and began to limp the last fifteen blocks home.

Now, now, now. Each step felt like a punctuation mark. Satisfied, I felt the pain in my feet, the weariness in my legs. I felt that I had put in a good day’s work. I may not be teaching today, but I am still myself. I am a thinker. I am a writer. I am a walker.

I am a survivor.

I will walk some more tomorrow.

It was four o’clock. All day, while I had been walking, children had been in school. All day, I had felt their quiet presence in my heart. Now they put on their backpacks and went home.

And so did I.