On Mixed Feelings and Therapeutic Walking

So many changes in such a short time! Since my retirement in mid-June, I have married the most wonderful man, moved back to the US, set up a new home in Tacoma, a new-to-me city, and am now trying to figure out how to live without deadlines and imposed schedules. It’s one thing to list all the fun and fulfilling things I’ll do when I have the time. It’s quite another to do those things once my time is my own. I’ve only had real success in one area, fitness – probably because my favorite classes are offered at a certain time (deadlines!). We’ve become quite the gym rats. My big plans for writing, cooking, entertaining, learning Spanish, and keeping up with this blog – well, it’s early days yet.

For the past three months, I’ve surfed the first waves of homesickness and culture shock, and have mostly kept my sanity. A few weeks ago, while downloading happy German beer-drinking songs for our first Oktoberfest party, I suddenly found myself weeping. That reaction surprised me; it was the first time that  a yearning for Germany really hit me, and it sort of punched me in the stomach. But last week another wave of change knocked me down but good. I’m still trying to blow metaphorical salt water out of my sinuses and catch my breath.

My ex-husband has died. The father of our wonderful daughter, he was a troubled soul, a complicated person, and his passing was sudden though not completely unexpected. I’m sure that some of you have had similar experiences; if a family member is the source of wonderful memories and yet has caused tremendous pain – well, it’s hard to know how to feel when s/he dies. Oh, we’re supposed to say only flattering, kind things about the dead, lest we be accused of – what? Tackiness? Cold-heartedness? Impiety? Well, I’m 52 years old and know my own mind and my own heart. I am going to feel what I feel and speak my own truth. He’s gone, and my feelings about that are – complicated.

But my dear daughter is devasted. She’s shown tremendous strength and wisdom in the past week, but she’ll be surfing waves of confusing emotion for a long time to come. I’m glad I was able to stay with her for those first days after she received the news – she lives in California – and I’m glad that her friends are circling the wagons and holding her up as she takes her first steps into life after Dad. Alas, his relationship with her was also complicated, and she has to deal with sorrow, anger, heartbreak – tremendous waves of emotion knocking her off balance.

So, what do you do between phone calls, e-mails, and bouts of tears? How do you pass the time after a death that’s changed your world? We walked. And walked, and walked, and walked.

I remembered San Francisco’s “Indian Summer,” a month or two of clear skies and mild temperatures that begins when school starts. But I don’t remember such heat! We were sizzling by the bay, with temperatures in the 90s. Despite the heat, just sitting on the couch and talking was too painful, so we walked. First all around the zoo, where we watched Magellanic penguins swim madly around their pool, trying to catch the dragonflies that zipped by just out of reach. Most of the animals were hunkered down in the shade, waiting out the heat of the day, but we silly humans just plodded on, talking in small, measured doses about painful subjects, and marvelling at the animals. The two-month-old giraffe baby was beyond precious – such long lashes! Such huge, liquid eyes! His mama watched over him protectively from the shade – smart lady. It was easier to talk about the animals and the heat than about the painful subject on both our minds.

Ghirardelli Square

The next day, we took BART into the city (San Franciscans call SF “the city.” A bit arrogant, perhaps, but it’s quite a city.) We emerged from the cool of the underground station into oppresive heat and blinding sun – something you just don’t expect in a town known for its fog. Between exclamations of “Holy cow, it’s hot!” and other expressions not appropriate for your tender ears, we darted like lizards from shady patch to shady patch. We ate salmon burgers and watched the sea lions battle for the most comfortable spot on the pier. Their cries of complaint sound like a combination of belching and cursing. A French tour guide called to them, “Hey, petit, petit, petit.” Really? These creatures are far from petit – more like overstuffed beanbag chairs, and it’s so funny to watch yet another one try to pile onto the bodies draped across the floating pier. We saw buskers, tourists from many lands, mad people shouting at invisible foes, a very talented spray-paint artist, and a naked toddler spashing in the bay. We visited art galleries where we saw orignial paintings and sculptures by none other than Doctor Seuss! (Check out his “unorthodox taxedermy” here: http://www.drseussart.com/unorthodox-taxidermy-description/ ) And we ended up at that holy temple of chocolate, Ghirardelli Square. I hadn’t seen these buxom mermaids since I was younger than my daughter is now. I love how lifelike they are, with bodies like those of real women – minus the scaly tails, of course. We listened to the musical stylings of a very talented gent who crooned jazz standards and played the clarinette. And, as we munched ice cream, we snuck in a few thoughts about that painful subject. Just a bit, between bites of sweet cold delight, to make the heartache and anger more palatable.

Buxom mermaids

Another day, we walked along the beach. Is there anything more charming that watching little children and dogs romp along the beach? We tried to help a distressed black and russet dachsund that was racing along the shoreline, in a panic because he couldn’t see his people who were surfing just a twenty meters away. He looked so worried, poor little guy. This was yet another good setting for talking about loss and grief – while in motion, while the people were merrily enjoying the gift of sun and sea.

flower children

On the final day, we walked all over Golden Gate Park, one of my very favorite places in the world. It was the last day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and we wandered from meadow to meadow, sampling performances that ranged from traditional Malawian music to traditional bluegrass to modern country – Rosanne Cash – and folky-rock from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We swayed under the fierce sun as the crowd sang along to “Mr. Bojangles.” Weaving their way through the crowd were some time-travelers – flower children selling, you guessed it, flowers for your hair. What heat! What a crowd! What wonderful music – and all of it free! There wasn’t much time to talk about painful memories and regrets over all that music – and so much the better for our battered hearts.

I think all this walking helped my daughter; it sure helped me. Grief and sorrow and bitter anger need to be nibbled at, digested slowly, and it’s good to wear out the body with walking when the heart is weary. We sleep better, I think, when our bodies have trekked across a distance. Even the most unquiet mind and the heaviest heart will eventually surrender to a well-earned rest. May my complicated ex rest in peace, and may my beautiful daughter heal and find comfort.


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