running

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a runner. My big thighs could carry me fast in school and I loved sprinting hard and fast down a straightaway and around the curve of a track, building momentum and feeling my the muscles in my body work in harmony to push through my limits.

I dream about running—high on a ridge overlooking the sea, through wood-shaded paths, away from danger—in my dreams, I can run long and easy. I stop and see how far I’ve come, I look at the places my feet can take me.

I ran a bit in high school, but not much. I told myself again and again that I wasn’t an athlete. I thought my body was grotesquely oversized and hated putting on clingy exercise clothes. When I ran, it was early in the morning, or late at night, or on back country roads, and it was never as easy as it was in my dreams. But I held out hope.

One day, I ran for what seemed like an eternity. When I got home, I jumped in my truck and followed the route, watching the odometer tick off the miles. 5. I had run five miles without stopping, without walking. I was ecstatic. My freshman year in college, battling depression, I would slog my way up Queen Anne hill in Seattle, waiting for the endorphins to kick in.

When I got married and depressed and started to work full-time, I stopped exercising. I joined a local fitness center with an indoor track. Ten laps around equalled one mile. I went two or three times, hoping for the endorphins, disappointed when they didn’t come. I moved to Track Town USA and committed to walking a marathon in a city where the employees at the local tire store run to and from your car. I walked sixteen miles one day. My feet were blistered and raw when I stopped and called my mom to ask for a ride the rest of the way home. I bought books on running for beginners, started and stopped a million training programs. But my mind wasn’t my own. I quit every one, because when it came to exercise, that’s what I was: a quitter.

Then I quit my marriage. Quit my job. Quit school. Quit Track Town. Quit eating meat. Quit hoping things would get better.

But I started to run again. A little at a time. Slowly. My friend and roommate would be gone for 20 minutes and come back having run three miles. I couldn’t keep up, not by a long shot. But I trudged around the neighborhood, slicing through the Florida humidity with my body, and started to hope a little again.

I entered a 5K with my friend. I walked a bunch of it, but it felt pretty good. I entered another one. The Blue Angels whizzed overhead before race start, setting off car alarms. It was a hot day. I ran alone, in a sea of people, trying to find my pace, wanting to finish faster than the first race. I tried to keep up with a group of cadets running cadence, but fell back after a few minutes. When I saw the finish, I dug deep to find a bit more energy and sprinted to the finish, crossing the finish line feeling triumphant and alive.

I started sneezing.

My skin started itching, and my eyes started to water. Not exactly a new sensation for this gal, who grew up in pollen central and is allergic to basically everything outside.

I went inside a massive building and walked down a long hallway to a women’s restroom, where I stood in a stall blowing my nose, trying to stem a sudden tide of mucus, and sneezing. At the sink, I splashed water on my face a few times and reached for a paper towel.

When I saw my reflection in the mirror, I knew something was terribly wrong. The soft flesh around my eye lids had swollen and was starting to bruise. My lips were swelling. There were red bumps all over my neck, chest, and arms. I turned to the woman next to me and said:

“I don’t normally look like this.”

She held my arm and walked with me back down the long hallway and found the medical tent. My eyes had swollen shut. I was raspy, wheezing, and my skin burned. Not a calm person by nature, my heart raced and I barely kept panic at bay. A very attractive young Navy doctor gave me a shot of Benadryl, in my thigh, and circled a couple of my hives, to keep an eye on them. They paged my roommate.

Half mortified, half terrified, I waited. My breathing started to return to normal. The circled hives became simply circles. But my eyes were still swollen shut. They gave me a bit more Benadryl, and sent me home. I slept for two days, and my eyes were bruised for a week.

Banking on the 5K being a fluke, I ran through a beachy park a few weeks later. I sneezed and wheezed on the drive home. A cold shower couldn’t stop the attack. Four more Benadryl. Another weekend of sleep.

It happened again on a treadmill run at a local gym. And again. And again. But sometimes it didn’t happen. Sometimes, my runs were without incident.

On and off through my twenties, I tried to run. My energetic friend Tamara would meet me in the wee hours of the morning and we would run through our Norfolk neighborhood. The night my dad called me to tell me that he and my mom were divorcing, for real this time, I ran to my friend Bill’s house and cried into his dog Simba. That night, at least my run was good.

Perhaps, I thought, if I just take a long time to cool down, “it” won’t happen. But it did. Perhaps, I thought, if I run inside, “it” will be okay. But it wasn’t. Feeling particularly good one day, I worked on treadmill sprints. So, on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean, I had to jet back to my cabin and down a couple of antihistamines.

I described my symptoms to an allergist. “Exercise-induced anaphylaxis,” he said. Get a medical alert bracelet. Use an inhaler before you run. Get an epi-pen. Never run alone.

I stopped trying to run. My body was *litrally* allergic to it.

But I still ran in my dreams, the air flowing easily through my lungs, powering my muscles and clearing my head.

So it was with a bit of trepidation and a healthy dose of doubt that I entered the lottery to run ten miles with 40,000 of my closest friends. “Yeah, I’m working more than full time, writing a book, trying to be a decent mom, and barely keeping my head above water, but I think taking this additional thing on is exactly the ticket, especially since running races has been such a kick in the pants in the past!”

I signed up for a training program. The first night of practice, I was terrified I would be the slowest runner there. I wasn’t, but I never saw the two gals who were slower than me again. At practice, I’m often the last to arrive, held up by work or poor planning. I’m the last to finish a mile. I’m the last up a hill. The last.

But I put one foot in front of the other. I keep showing up. Yeah, I want to push myself. I want to run faster, harder, I want to win. I’m competitive—ask anyone who’s played a game of Trivial Pursuit with me—but that part of myself can’t set the pace. Running isn’t—can’t be—about winning for me, it isn’t about beating or competing or proving myself to anyone.

I’m learning to listen to my body, to honor it, and to love it. I don’t need to beat it into submission. I don’t need to shame it into doing something it’s not ready for. I listen to my breath, I feel my heart. I check in with my legs and feet. I go a little faster. I listen to my breath. I feel my heart. I check in with my legs and feet. I go a little slower.

My training hasn’t been perfect. I got wrapped up in my head one Sunday afternoon on Kelly Drive and forgot to listen to my body. Giehl had to come pick me up, my eyes swollen. I sobbed in the shower, dying to know why I couldn’t just run like normal people. I signed up to do a 15K earlier in the spring and had to drop out after the fourth mile, my face again a swollen mess. “Maybe I can just walk the rest of the way,” I thought. “I can still kind of see.”

My new routine is Zyrtec an hour before a run, Benadryl at the start. Go slow. Try not to worry. Keep extra Benadryl handy, just in case.

So when I lined up at the back of the pack on Sunday, at the far north end of Broad Street, I didn’t know what to expect of the day. I didn’t know if I’d have to call Giehl at mile two because I’d started too fast, or if I’d be swept up by a golf cart three miles from the end because I was just going too slow. I just wanted to finish.

It was a hot day. I should have eaten breakfast. I should have hydrated better. I should have worn a hat and sunscreen. My 13:20 minute miles turned into 15 and 16 miles rather quickly. I kept looking behind me, sure if there were even a hundred other turtles back there, I wouldn’t be forced off the course. And I hit a wall around the seventh mile. I just couldn’t run any more.

“Come on, Sarah, push yourself,” I said.

And then, “Wait a second. I’ve run seven miles. It’s blazing hot. I’m exhausted. I’m already pushing myself by not giving up. Back the fuck off.”

So I walked. And walked. And shuffled here and there. A quarter mile before the end, I stopped to loosen my shoelace, which had become unbearably tight. I walked a little more, and then I saw the finish line, and jogged towards it, the best I knew how to do.

provision, part two

When we last left our heroine, she had defied all odds and managed, through credit card advances, persistence, and luck, to arrive in San Antonio alive, her trusty cat Max at her side.

In Corpus Christi, I managed to drive my beat up Accord to a local mechanic. I was wearing pleather pants, which convey a sense of power and control, so I’m sure I wasn’t swindled when the mustached shop manager said the engine was full of holes, he wouldn’t charge me for looking at it, and he had a mechanic who could take it off my hands for free. Grateful that I didn’t have to pay to unload my car, I accepted a ride home from the manager in his Pontiac Firebird.

You can’t really get far in Corpus Christi without a car (they drive everywhere there, even onto to beach, it is so painful for a northwest hippy), so my first couple of weeks post-divorce were mostly spent reading the newspaper and watching movies with English subtitles. My new roommate, a long-time friend, bought groceries and I cooked as payment. We decided to try being vegan, for kicks. He was already vegetarian, but I ate meat four times a day, so this prospect seemed daunting to me and I was pretty sure the phase would be over before it really began.

The vegan thing stuck. But that’s another story.

A few weeks after I arrived in Texas, I was on the road again, this time to Pensacola, Florida. We crammed the few personal belongings that the Navy hadn’t moved into his tiny Honda del Sol, Max in her carrier on the ledge behind my seat. It was January, but hot, which is wrong. We stayed overnight at a youth hostel in New Orleans where the dreadlocked owner gave me a room full of bunks to myself (that’s the pet-friendly part of the youth hostel scene). It was cheap and I was grateful, even though there were no overhead lights and I’ve blocked the memory of the bathroom from my mind.

My friend and I moved quickly to find a house to rent. He wanted to be near his work, so we ended up in Milton, Florida, about 30 minutes from Pensacola. It was not a hopping town, unless you count the Texas Roadhouse or the Piggly Wiggly. No bus, too far to bike (and no bike), I tried to buy a scooter from a local dealer, but with a lot of debt and no income, that plan fizzled quickly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was facing a classic problem of the poor – need a job to earn money, need a car to get to a job, need money to get a car, need a job to earn money, etc.

Three days after we moved into the three-bedroom house we rented from a local couple, me in my own bedroom, not crashing on a couch or a flea-bag motel for the first time in a long time, Max ran away.

It was my fault for not communicating clearly to our houseguest, a woman who would later go on to be killed in combat while flying helicopters for the Marines, that when I said Max “didn’t” go outside, what I meant was “Max would love to make a prison break, but she is a cat and doesn’t realize that cars, raccoons, and people are dangerous, so please do everything in your power to prevent her from exiting this safe building.” Jen, the houseguest, chatted on the phone late that evening with the back door open. The next morning, after I realized Max was not hiding somewhere in the house, she explained that Max had hung out contentedly on the back patio while Jen talked, but when Jen told Max it was time to come inside, Max bolted into the dark forest behind the house.

Let’s recap. My marriage is over. I am in Florida, in a town of 9,000 people with no car and one friend. I have thousands and thousands of dollars of debt and no job, no degree, no prospects. My brain is not sure why I have suddenly cut off its supply of SSRI’s. I have kept Max alive and safe through a harrowing cross-country trip only to have her saunter out the back door. All I can think about is Homeward Bound. I imagine Max will make friends with a stray dog and show up at my parent’s house in Oregon in three or four months. I break.

I run through the neighborhood and search the forest, whistling “You Are My Sunshine” through choking tears. I check the sides of the roads for little furry bodies. I pray so hard. My roommate drives me to the grocery store where I make hundreds of copies of “Lost Cat” fliers and then helps me post them throughout the town. As night falls, I stand by the back door, willing Max to return, and I leave it ajar until the moon is high in the sky and the mosquitos start to swarm in.

Tearfully, reluctantly, I close the door and sit at the dining room table, defeated.

And then, a scratch. Could be roaches, because Florida. But there it is again, a scratch, at the back door. I rush to it in hope while simultaneously preparing myself for one final disappointment, fling open the door, look down, watch Max cross the threshold and head straight for her food bowl.

This was the night that I started to see dimly how I was being cared for, watched over. What helped my vision clear…next.

the greatest of these

An itty bitty preview of the opening of a chapter on loving the Other, from my forthcoming book with Zondervan.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28

I have never got along all that well with children. As a child, I chose books over other kids more often than not. I never had a huge group of friends, always preferring the steady company of a few intimates. As a high schooler, I got jobs in food service instead of spending my evenings and weekends babysitting for car insurance and spending money. So when I was pregnant with my son, I was grateful to read that some mothers don’t instantly bond with their newborns, and that it might take a while for him to grow on me, even after he’d grown in me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, at his birth, I felt a powerful, visceral, overwhelming, aching love for this little purple-red creature. A love that has only increased as the years have gone on. A love that is courage-giving and terrifying, powerful and vulnerable and utterly confounding. Confounding in part because he’s not always very nice to me. There is a lot of whining. A lot of ingratitude. Some screaming and tantrum throwing and “I hate you’s.” He can be demanding, spoiled, selfish…just really obnoxious. There are times when I just want to roll my eyes, tell him to shut up, run away, show him how much worse he could have it.

But I love him with my whole heart. And when the day is over and he’s finally asleep, I look at his face that is a mirror of my own, and I listen to him breathe, and I curl his tiny fingers around mine and thank God for entrusting me with this miracle of life, this funny, sweet, smart, often-caring, fast-growing little boy.

As my son was born of me, we are born of God. The loving gaze with which I watch my son is tepid, the aching love a shadow compared to the fire of love God carries for us.

And so it should come as no surprise that the God whose love catalyzed a universe asks us to love not only those who are easy to love, and not only those to whom we are biologically pre-conditioned to love, but those who are least like us and who like us least.

Grace is costly, and love is hard.

Jesus’ life was an ode to the love of Other. He gathered rejects, bridged social and traditional divides, and turned the notions of hospitality, mercy, and justice on their heads. Piety is out, compassion is in. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn that neighbors are those who love “the least of these.” In this chapter, we explore the limits of love. How are we called to extend mercy to “the least of these”? Who is our neighbor? And we will ask especially what it might mean to view animals as our creaturely neighbors and to extend neighborly love to them.

provision, part one

Nineteen is too young to get married, but I didn’t learn that until I was twenty two. By then, I had thousands of dollars of credit card debt, a prescription for a cocktail of antidepressants, and bruises from where I periodically knocked my head into a wall in an attempt to feel anything but grey.

The time from my middle-of-the-night decision to divorce and the legal end of my marriage was two weeks. I had just turned twenty three and I thought it was the only way I had a hair’s breadth chance of happiness.

My mom and two best friends helped me pack a small trailer with a couch I loved, some clothes, CDs, and a load of books. I had the local U-Haul attach a tow hitch to my vintage Honda Accord, hooked up the trailer, flushed the cocktail of drugs down the toilet, and headed south on I-5 with my cat, Max, asleep on the seat beside me.

I’m fond of rain and cool weather, so naturally when I needed a place to start over, away from the disfunction I had stewed in for too long, I decided a couple weeks in Texas followed by a few months in Florida with my friend in the Navy was a great idea.

The Accord started to smoke just south of Sacramento and I called my ex, crying and screaming, cursing the car I’d taken from the divorce (the one we owned outright, that didn’t require a monthly payment). With no job, no college degree, and no money in the bank, I felt helpless and hopeless. He agreed to advance me enough to rent a U-Haul truck for my trip. After sneaking Max into a “no pets allowed” motel, I hobbled into Stockton, California early the next morning.

I had never seen blight before. Never driven past an empty park or iron-barred windows. I stopped at a gas station to use the restroom and was shocked when I walked in and every surface of the filthy room was covered with graffiti. I was sheltered, I was unknowingly racist, and I was afraid.

I found my way to the U-Haul dealer, which was the side business of a used-tire yard run by a middle-aged couple from Mississippi. The woman had dirty blond hair and yellow teeth and the man sported an impressive beer belly. They had thick Southern accents that my ears and addled brain couldn’t understand. It took a long time for them to rent me the truck. The details are fuzzy now, but they couldn’t find the truck first, then they seemed unclear about how to actually rent the truck to me. Perhaps I was their first customer? My patience wore thin as the morning dragged on, but I was finally able to load my couch, CDs, and books into a filthy 14-foot truck, drive my car onto the auto transport trailer I had to add to the mix, and continue south.

By the time I hit Los Angeles, it was rush hour and the busiest city I’d ever driven in was Seattle. I kept talking to Max, telling her everything was going to be just fine and to hang in there. But the engine temperature indicator on the U-Haul had skyrocketed into the red zone. Then I noticed steam coming from under the hood. Terrified of breaking down in the middle of the freeway, I took the first exit and pulled into a gas station parking lot. I fumbled for the rental paperwork and called U-Haul’s roadside assistance. Through tears, I explained my predicament and they agreed to send a replacement truck. Two hours later, a young man arrived with my own, very clean 17-foot U-Haul. It started to rain and he started to take the keys to the broken van and turn away. I asked if he could help me move my things from one truck to another and showed him how little was there. He said he wasn’t allowed, and it started to rain harder.

It only took us a few minutes to move my soggy belongings from one truck to another. I hugged him, thanked him profusely, and got into the new truck. I slept that night at a friend of my dad’s, in Claremont, California, just a few blocks from where Dad grew up, and the next morning started to head east. The next night, I stayed in Phoenix, with another friend of my dad’s, a woman whose husband was dying of brain cancer. We talked about faith and marriage and new beginnings. Her son was a fan of the Bare Naked Ladies, but didn’t have their first album. We went out to my huge U-Haul and I dug it out of one of the CD carrying cases. The cover was still wet from the previous afternoon’s rain.

My plan was to drive east to San Antonio, Texas, where I was picking my new roommate up from the airport and from there to head south to his apartment in Corpus Christi. I drove late into the night in Texas, looking for a place to stop. There was snow on the side of the road, and construction. It was harrowing to drive a big truck towing my car along a narrow highway, the lights from oncoming traffic and construction barriers dancing in my already pretty crappy vision. I saw a wolf on a ridge at the side of the road, or a deer, and started to worry about hitting an animal, to boot. But Max and I made it safely to a motel, and we rested another night.

The next morning, I piled Max back into the U-Haul and headed for the San Antonio airport. Despite the mishaps and breakdowns, I had hours to spare and was planning how I’d spend the free time as I pulled into the airport complex, trying to follow the signs for oversized, long-term parking.

But excitement or fatigue or bad signage led to my truck pointed straight at a dead-end in the handicapped parking section of the airport parking garage. Every spot was filled. My 17-foot truck, with the Accord firmly strapped to an auto transport trailer, was hopelessly trapped, and anyone who came looking to leave that little section of the garage would be trapped with me. The thought of inconveniencing someone was almost as mortifying as the thought that I’d never be able to leave the San Antonio airport.

For about half an hour, I tried to reverse out of the garage, but the trailer kept jackknifing. I flagged down a man returning home from a business trip and asked him to help. He tried and failed for a few minutes and said he needed to move on. Panicked and panting, with my little Nokia phone almost out of battery, I dialed 411 and then airport security, to beg them for help. They said they’d come if and when they could.

As the battery on my phone died, a lightbulb pinged in my head. Working as quickly as I could, I loosened and removed the straps holding the Accord to the transport trailer, backed it carefully off and parked it around the corner. Defying all liberal arts major stereotypes and a history of trying to fix things by hitting them, I unhooked the trailer from the U-Haul (wires and all) and pulled it like a rickshaw away from the truck, around the corner, and to the front of my car. Freed of its trailer burden, I could now back the U-Haul out of the handicapped parking section with ease and did so, then quickly hooked it all back up again and pulled out of the dark garage into freedom, with a half hour still to spare.

Tomorrow…part two, or, when things got really bad (but also good).

Max (Fall 1998 – August 21, 2014)

Max on Bed Close-up 1 (Jun 25, 2006)
Max on Bed Close-up
Max Withrow King (1998-2014)

I adopted Max from the Idaho Humane Society when we were both babies. She was a tiny orange ball and when I saw her, I knew I was there for her. I learned years later than most orange cats like her were boys. She broke the mold in more way than one.

I was an idiot back then, no idea what it meant to take care of a kitten, and living in a campus house that didn’t allow animals, but she was my girl and a couple of lame rules weren’t going to get in the way of our happiness.

kitty in a lunch bagShe was a feisty girl, who loved to play, all day and all night. She played with my comb, grocery bags, and my shoes. I would frequently find her attached to the window screens, and that’s probably what prompted the notice in my mailbox that I had 30 days to vacate or re-home Max. My mom happened to be visiting, and she graciously agreed to bring Max home to Eugene with her, since I knew I’d be moving back in a couple of months. Mom was pretty entertained by Max’s love of paper bags and bemused at her habit of sitting on the ledge of the bathtub whenever Mom took a soak. Of course, Max loved the idea of water much more than the reality. She fell in to my bath once. It wasn’t fun for either of us.

In her lifetime, Max travelled across the U.S. by car twice and airplane once. She lived in fifteen different houses or apartments with me, and stayed more than a few nights in hotels and hostels across the country.

One night, shortly after arriving in Pensacola, Max disappeared for a day, after having been accidentally let out the back door by a houseguest. Totally devastated, I spent $15 I didn’t have stapling up reward posters all over the neighborhood. Long before I had a digital camera or smartphone, the posters simply gave a description of Max and said “she comes when you whistle a tune.” I walked the streets and the woods behind the house frantically whistling her favorite song: “You Are My Sunshine.” She arrived home late the night after she got out, scratched at the door, and walked straight to her food bowl when I let her in—not a girl long on ceremony.

image (5)One of Max’s favorite games was fetch. She would drop a tiny foam ball into my hand and wait patiently for me to throw or roll it across the floor. She’d run after it, paw at it for a couple of minutes, and eventually bring it back to me for another throw. She loved playing fetch on the stairs. The bouncier the throw, the better. As she slowed the last year, she stopped wanting to play and would instead leave the ball in my shoe—a gesture of nostalgic love.

When I started work at PETA, she was my carry-on bag, and her litter and food was one of the two boxes that I checked in Portland and picked up in Norfolk. She was angry at me for three days after the plane ride, and I came home from dinner one night to find that she’d squirmed out of our attic room, found her way into a bathroom in the middle of renovations, and managed to get trapped between the floor and ceiling, taking out a few ceiling tiles in the meantime. I was able to coax her out with the help of a co-worker and a can of wet food.

Max was food-obsessed. I woke up once to find a plastic box of pastries on the floor of my studio apartment, a giant hole ripped in the top and bits of turnover missing from the contents within. I quickly learned that nutritional yeast needed to be in a sealed tupperware container. And if a sandwich or toast was in play, she’d straight up paw my plate in her attempt to get a nibble.

max and giehl snuggle

Max wasn’t very fond of most people or animals. She fought nearly daily with Katie, distrusted even the gentle Emma, and read Isaiah with a hermeneutic of deep suspicion. But she loved Giehl. And she continued to tolerate me. The last year, as her health declined, she cherished opportunities to snuggle up on Giehl’s chest whenever he came near our bed. She’d talk to him nightly, telling him it was time for her wet food and time for him to lay down so she could go to sleep.

After sixteen years together, I’m sure there are stories that I’m missing. As I held her tonight, as she lost consciousness and drifted away, I told her that I loved her, that I would always love her. I whistled our song, prayed that I would not forget, and thanked God that we would one day wake up with Jesus together.

that moment

That moment when you realize that the…

  • aches and pains
  • bone-crushing exhaustion
  • total inertia
  • mood swings
  • hiding from people
  • flaking out on responsibilities

Might not be PMS or jet lag.

And you’re already getting pharmaceutical help.

So, there’s some shit you really actually need to deal with, like for real.

Pushing it down with food isn’t working.

Ignoring it isn’t making it go away.

And you don’t really know where to start.

Well, you do.

Well, I do.

But prayers turn to sawdust on my tongue. Tangle in my brain.

If I’m tired of my own voice, surely God is, too.

Tired of the same questions, the same doubts, the same struggle.

So tired.