Building Mileage

Running through the seasons, through my years.

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Late fall is kind to us in Boston, partly cloudy and near 60 degrees. Everything is supposed to be dead, the foliage succumbing to the arriving winter, but life hangs on, the trees still with multi-colored leaves, the green grass, a few blooming roses in the garden. This morning I am running on a course around the Boston Fens, a large park with a community garden, a soccer and softball field, a basketball court, and arching bridges going up and over the small bodies of run-off water from the Charles River. The weather is breathtaking on this, my fourth birthday in New England and the only one on which I have been able to run outside. I was going to write an essay similar to this one last year, but it was far too cold to run outside and running on the treadmill beneath the overhead TVs displaying news about the plummeting economy hardly inspired me. That was a year ago — how keenly I remember the gray and chill of autumn as if it were yesterday. The morning sun, diffused through cloud, passes through the trees, some black and bare, forming stark boundaries against the sky, but some with yellow leaves, red leaves, orange and brown, the fighting leaves ferociously hanging on to limbs.

Anyone who says that human existence defiles nature should experience Boston on a day like this. Boston’s magnificent skyline shoots out from a foreground of colorful trees like futuristic totems of the gods. The vibrant leaves fall to the asphalt, still wet from a fall rain. The vines trellis across brick building after brick building. Gardeners collect big bags of leaves and prune dead tree branches near the rose garden, our last chance to tame a landscape that will soon grow wild with frost.

A whole year and so much is different on the outside that I can hardly believe it. Young teens, probably skipping school, play basketball in caps and tees at the court nearby. I played basketball once, a funny thought to me now. I had been playing all kinds of sports, very badly, since I was in the fifth grade in an attempt to be more like my older sister, who was very athletic, and very cool. But I was a short, slightly chubby girl who couldn’t dribble, serve, or keep her eye on the ball. I always tried hard, though, and eventually I discovered that I was pretty good at the cardio drills. After some time, I became a good long distance runner, eventually becoming an all-star cross country athlete and team captain. “After some time” — I wonder what kind of runner I’ll be “after some time” now. Three years ago, I was running six or seven miles, until I felt that familiar ache — another stress fracture in my right foot. Now I barely run 2 miles before switching to another aerobic activity that has less impact at the gym. My left knee suffered a traumatic blow in that car accident I had in 1998, when I was 18, and it has grown extra bone tissue that aggravates, occasionally putting me on crutches — I don’t mean to complain. I’m doing what writers do, describing my aches and issues and trying to make the best of them, hoping that they bring some clarity or inspiration to someone else.

I’m running through the community garden, yellow and purple flowers still in bloom, and one solitary red rose. It reminds me of the Guns N’ Roses video for “November Rain.” When that video came out, I thought the song was written just for me because my birthday was in November. Oh, how delightful it was to be egotistical, ignorant and young! My cross country coach used to call us girls on the cross country team “little ones.” I can hear him say, “Little one, stride the straight-a-ways!” Running reminds me of my youth, and maybe that’s why I still do it even when, honestly, a lot of the time I don’t enjoy it. Running reminds me of my youth, but after a quarter mile, it reminds me of my age — don’t get me wrong. I know that 30 isn’t any sort of “age” to lament, but I feel much older than 30, physically older because my bones ache and I have poor hearing, a side effect of nerve-damage that resulted from my traumatic brain injury, and emotionally older because I encountered a trauma many people don’t come across until much later in life. I lost two of my friends in that wreck. I lost the use of my right side, as if I had a stroke at the age of 18. Of course, I’m not egotistical anymore. I meet more and more people every day who bear the weight of tragedy, making me wonder if I should even write about my car accident anymore, making me remark on the formidability of the human spirit across the board and realize that my case was not so special.

I’m running past colleges to my left: buildings from Northeastern University, the Boston Conservatory, the Berklee College of Music building where I work as a writing tutor, only one day in the week. I’m already 30 and I can’t find a full-time job. My poor husband works two full-time jobs doing whatever he can get his hands on, but my skills are more specific, and in this economy, limited. I worked so hard at learning how to write again after my accident that now it seems that’s all I can do. When both of my parents were 30, my mom was a high school teacher with a master’s degree. My dad was a public defender. They had two kids. Sometimes when I call my mom, she asks if I’m pregnant and I’m literally taken aback. “Pregnant?” I say. “I’m too young to have kids!”  As old as I feel sometimes, other times I feel so young. I see the world with new eyes, with the eyes of someone who’s been given a second chance. I still remember what it was like moving blocks and cards in therapy, learning to tie my shoes, learning how to write my ABCs. I still remember, vividly, what it was like to be very confused by this world.

Even now, so much is happening in this world that I can’t understand. As if life isn’t difficult enough as it is, we have to complicate it with more violence, more war and murders. In April of 2005 in Andijon, Uzbekistan, the government unjustly accused some wealthy business owners of extremism and threw them in prison, a common practice used to keep its citizens under control. When citizens staged a peaceful protest, governmental soldiers opened fire and killed dozens to hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. Nobody really knows how many were killed, but I remember my best friend, Shohsanam-opa, saying, “They killed hundreds — can you believe it? Hundreds,” over and over again. When the States and other Western nations condemned the slaughter, Uzbekistan kicked me and the other Peace Corps volunteers out of the country. Uzbekistan was my chance for redemption, in my mind. My service there was supposed to justify why I lived and my friends died, but after we were evacuated, I discovered that I had even more unanswered questions.

The willows weep in shades of light green near the swampy water. In this very spot last spring, I watched a line of frantic baby ducks with fuzzy domes waddle after their mother. I run past a grown duck, his face with a clear calm. Sometimes, often times, I wish I could go back in time to correct my mistakes. I would have, for example, avoided saying that bone-headed comment. Or I would have studied harder, worked more, not done this inebriated thing, or that impulsive thing. I would have buckled my seatbelt that night and told my friends to do the same. That’s why I got injured so badly, and that’s why my friends died. Because we didn’t buckle up. I know we learn by making mistakes. I know mistakes are part of life. I just wish they didn’t hurt so badly.

After a mile or so, the muscles that hold my right knee in a flexed position get weak, and my leg locks back. I am limping now. This used to happen all the time, and when I was first learning to walk, my physical therapist ordered a brace for me because those muscles just weren’t strong enough. They got stronger and I didn’t need a brace anymore, but they fatigued easily and I had to use a cane during long walks. I remember walking across the University of Arizona campus with my black, straight cane. At the time, I complained to my family that everybody stared at me. That was the reason I cited when I ditched my cane after a few weeks and forced myself to walk without it, constantly taking breaks on cement benches. When I think about it now, though, nobody looked at me. Nobody acknowledged me, and this lack of recognition infuriated me. I would have loved it if people looked at me, if people recognized that something was wrong. I would have loved it if someone came up to me and asked, “You’re so young — why are you walking with a cane? What happened?”   But nobody ever did.

I need to stretch and give my muscles a chance to rest, but I can’t stop. Not today, not on my 30th birthday. I focus:  heel-toe, heel-toe, which is what my mother used to say to me when I had problems walking long ago. I can almost hear her voice, “Heel-toe, heel-toe,” holding my leg in a slightly exaggerated way. I run past the Wentworth Institute of Technology and toward Mass Art, past Immanuel and Simmons College. I run past students rushing to class, many of them in short-sleeved tees. I like being surrounded by youth, as if it could somehow transfer to me.

I see an opening in the traffic on Brookline and I dash across, running past a student sitting on one bench, his eyes scanning page after page of text. I run down to the next bench where a homeless man is sleeping beneath gray wool, to the crossing signal where I cross Boylston and continue to the gym. After the Starbucks and the furniture store, my run ascends uphill, and since my cross country coach always said, “Sprint the uphill, little one!” that’s exactly what I do, charging forward with all the energy I have left. My right arm starts shaking, tiny spasms that I remember my physical therapist calling “clonus,” which are attempts by my brain to reestablish connections with my right side, trying to make me whole again.

Just recently, I have started taking a break, stopping to walk for about 25 feet before sprinting again. In the minute that I stop, as my breath is heaving and the autumn wind is cooling my sweaty brow, I realize something that at no other moment is as profound:  I want time to pass. I want my breathing to soften. I want to walk steadily along Brookline Avenue as my heartbeat slows. I don’t really need this break — I don’t have far to go and it would probably be better for me to push myself — but I like this, meeting time this way. At no other moment in my life do I see and understand so clearly that time’s purpose is to pass, that time’s passing is a necessary mediator of life.

Realizations don’t often stay with me long. I’ll lament time’s passing tomorrow, when I waste the early morning hours searching for my keys. I guess that means that I need to keep running, or find something else to do that allows me to feel time — every step, tick, beat of the heart — and let it go. • 11 December 2009

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

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