I was the fastest girl in the third grade at Ladera Elementary School in Thousand Oaks, California. Or, at least, I won the 50 yard dash once, and I was competitive in the other sprints on that Field Day in 1981 which was, to me, the same thing as being the fastest girl in the third grade. For a kid who otherwise considered herself uncoordinated and the opposite of athletic, it was a surprise. “I’m fast,” I thought. “I can sprint. Who knew?” Sometime around then, plus or minus three years in the way that time is murky and ethereal when we’re children, I won a swimming race, as well. Two lengths of the pool. I overheard another mom tell mine that I was fast, that she should sign me up for swim team, and, while swim team didn’t materialize — I don’t recall wanting to join or even really knowing what a swim team was — that comment on my speed was so astounding that I can sit here, nearly four decades later, at my aqua desk with its peeling paint on a soggy spring day in Oregon and recall it with the clarity of any of my most formative memories.
I was fast. I was powerful in the short races. I knew how to harness my energy and send it to my limbs and use it all in one burst, leaving what I had on the field or in the pool, and what I didn’t know then but do know now is that that’s not just a third grade talent — it’s a personality characteristic.
I like to do things quickly.
I like to hit tasks hard.
I like to power through projects and crush them.
I like to do a chore once, do it thoroughly, and then never do it again. Which is probably why my table looks like this:
And my counters look like this:
I already cleaned them once this month, so I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO DO IT AGAIN.
I’m excellent at demolition and awful at methodical creation.
I always say I’m horrible at gardening, but that’s not really true. I love to hack at wisteria vines and lop the tops off bushes that have grown outside their boundaries. I love to turn over soft, wet earth with a sharp bladed shovel. I love to sever limbs that weigh down trees.
What I’m bad at is the planting and the weeding and the constant vigilance of maintenance. There’s no quick win there. No powerful burst of energy on my part to accomplish the tasks of growth and health and life and breath. Those things take time, and I am always impatient to cross the finish line.
I’ve been trying to find words to put to the feelings I’ve been having for the last week-ish. The sense of constant grind. The sound of an engine wearing down. The faltering gait of a sprinter trying to run a marathon with no feel for proper pacing. The panicky sensation of being trapped.
And this is what I’ve got so far: I know this is a marathon, but I’m not prepared to run it.
I’m historically good in an emergency. I respond quickly. My brain organizes priorities in the appropriately cascading order of most important to least. I’m the person my cousin calls when he severs his thumb with a jigsaw. I’m the one barking orders to Greg in the middle of the night when our daughter chokes on the blood she’s hemorrhaging, I’m the one driving her to the hospital while assuring her she’s not going to die, and I’m the one catching her blood in a bag so the doctors can measure it to see how much she’s lost. I’m the one who tells Greg we are absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to panic when we’re new parents to our first child and the new company he’s just joined folds and we’re suddenly without income. I’m the one who invents the next steps and keeps everyone breathing, sometimes by bullying and sheer force of will.
I’m good in a crisis. I know what to do when there’s an urgent need to respond.
But this is not the emergency I planned for.
Even though I spent a decade working in international public health and medical humanitarian response. Even though I did know a global pandemic wasn’t just possible but inevitable in our increasingly connected world.
No, the emergency I planned for was an avalanche in terms of impact and speed. Sudden. Overwhelming. A total white-out of a crisis; one which would command our full attention. The emergency I prepared for was an illness that moved faster than this one. Or a war perpetuated by a wholly incompetent president. Or the Cascadia earthquake that’s due to hit my Pacific Northwest region sometime between this afternoon and three hundred years from now. I have water stored in my garage and camping gear in places we can easily access if our house isn’t stable enough after the shaking stops. I have a wind-up radio so we can get information when our cell phones cut out.
I didn’t plan for an emergency where I’d be pressure washing my sidewalks. Or noticing how many hummingbirds flit through my backyard, poking their needle noses into bushes and blossoms for nectar and bugs. Or unable to show up in person to help our community because physically showing up is more harmful than helpful right now.
I didn’t plan for a slow moving but still devastating catastrophe. I didn’t plan to be a bystander. I didn’t plan to stay still for weeks. Months, probably.
I’m a sprinter running a marathon, and I feel grossly ill-equipped.
But I’ve done this before.
Oh, not this this. I haven’t run this course. The COVID-19 Marathon route is new to everyone.
But I mean, I’ve run a marathon before. As a sprinter. One I didn’t see coming. One I had to train for even while I ran it.
“If I could go back fourteen years to the beginning of this Mama Gig, there are things I’d tell New Mama Me.
Things she should hear.
Things she should know.
Things I’d deliver straight to her heart, like that violent Pulp Fiction through-the-chest resuscitation shot, to help her breathe just a little in that time when new mamahood first destroyed her but before she really lived again.
Oh new mama, I would say, this beginning, it’s hard. It is. It’s hard.
Your feet are moving on a marathon that’s just begun, but you haven’t trained because there’s no way to train for this. No way to build your muscles or increase your endurance or improve your time other than to start running. And that is okay. It’s the way this thing is done. You won’t always feel this exhausted. This off-balance. This delirious. But I know that doesn’t matter right now and that you want to punch people who say, “It gets better” right in teeth. (But it gets better, mama. It does. And the secret is you get stronger…)
That IS the secret, and it’s worth remembering.
The secret to the Unexpected Marathon is you get stronger.
It’s exhausting but you get stronger.
It’s painful, moving forward when you’re weary and sore from the day before, but you get stronger.
It’s relentless, this run, because it’s a work of grief as we die to What Once Was and are reborn to What Is to Come. That’s normal; birth is usually arduous. And new life takes time. But we are the phoenix again and again, rising from the ashes. It’s this Burning to the Ground bit that sucks.
This beginning, it’s hard.
And also, we can do hard things.
Image Credits: Woman running in snow by Mauro Paillex, Man running on road by Luke Stackpoole