Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My 60th Birthday

I've had a wonderful weekend celebrating with family and really couldn't imagine a better birthday. To me, it seems that the celebrations started last August right after I realized the improvement in my new left knee. As I've said before, this has been a hectic year full of blessings and I am so grateful. My right knee still has days of simple muscle soreness, but that is nothing like the pain of arthritis with every step, and I can manage it easily with ice and a little of the forbidden ibuprofen.

In challenging me to commit to showing a collection of paintings within a year, JJ has actually given me the time to build the better quality of life that I've promised myself since retiring in 2003. I have to give him credit for finding an opportunity that I couldn't find for myself. George, Geoff, and Will sense it, as well, and are making the most of my birthday to support those efforts. George bought me a new bike tailored for use on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, one that I can transport without his help. Older son Geoff will help me make digital sense of whatever I accumulate into more usable data as I work toward showing some art of my own. Younger son Will is paying for two full months of painting lessons. I am so grateful to have their affirmation in such loving ways. And, unlike the years since 2003 when I've told myself I'll lose weight and exercise for health despite the obstacles I've experienced in the past, I don't feel that sense of failure at the outset. Their thoughtful support comes with challenges that encourage and motivate me both physically and mentally - they do know me so well.

I clank out the door for my walks with a digital camera, a digital voice recorder, a cell phone, my water bottle, medical information, emergency snack, my written instructions about observing the light and shadows, and sometimes even a hat. It's getting easier to take photos that might include my fellow walkers or their pets. No one else really seems concerned that I am taking pictures.

Two great stories about my fellow walkers earlier this week: First, a man passed me going north on the trail and again coming back to the south. He was on his cell phone both times, obviously checking with employees or colleagues about issues at work. On his return trip, I happened to be stopped taking photos and I could hear what he was saying as he approached. "Where am I? I'm just taking care of some business in Anderson this morning." He was a good 40 miles from Anderson at the time.

How many of my fellow walkers take a break from work or their other daily activities? I now realize that most use the trail in favorite areas, unlike my original plan to walk the entire length in short segments. How will my new bike meet my need to feel that I am going somewhere, not simply back and forth? I know it will be a great help as I return to areas to take additional photos.

The second story involves an adorable elderly couple I met as I returned to the parking lot on the edge of Furman's campus. They walked to what they thought was their car, identified by a Furman sticker on the back window. They did not realize until they tried to unlock the doors that this car was black and their's was white. Somehow this seemed like a valuable lesson to me in how people observe and use information as I try to make sense of clouds and shadows and color quality on any given day.

I'm giving my knees and feet a rest this morning but hope to take a short walk later to get photos in the afternoon sun. I do want something to work on Saturday when I go for my painting lesson.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Last Walk Without a Camera

I walk two miles total today, up and down the stretch of the SRT between Old Roe Ford Road and Duncan Chapel Road, starting at about 9:15 am and ending right at 10 am. It is terribly overcast as I begin, but the haze lifts as I finish, revealing a beautiful cloudless morning. The temperature is between 55 and 60 degrees. The haze makes it appear that it is extremely humid, but my breathing isn't really affected. There are no observable shadows on the trail, but there is lots of contrast in the foliage, even in the shorter growth just to the side. I can easily spot the colors of small wildflowers amid the native greenery. I feel like it is a perfect spring day – good temp to be out, lots of activity on the trail, native trees in bloom, all my favorites.

I can easily see a first painting in the works today. My focal point will be the entry to Furman’s campus at the north end of Swan Lake, coming from the Old Roe Ford Road side. The site is landscaped with boulders, small trees not yet adorned with flowers or leaves, and, most importantly to me, a small green sign indicating mileage to downtown Greenville for hikers and bikers. Measuring distance on the trail has been a challenge; I’ve searched the trail map, used Google Maps, added and subtracted as I see mile markers midway, and relied most heavily on signs to specific landmarks. I’m starting to make a little better sense of it. But, for someone whose excellent sense of direction has always been a mystery to my friends, it’s disconcerting not to have a better feel for where I am.

I begin to take note of things that I could add to that point on the trail to build a composite picture of this morning: the dogwoods I love blooming deep in the woods, the deep red of a thistle opening at my feet, violet wildflowers on slender stems, tiny pale yellow blooms on vines, the dusty blue berries of mahonia, and the glossy greens of magnolia leaves contrasted next to the more highly textured leaves of cedar. I make the commitment to walk this stretch every day for a week so that I can concentrate on getting the photos I need, especially at this point in the spring.

There is a lot more bird activity in this stretch, too. Anyone who knows Furman’s beautifully landscaped campus will understand the opportunities for songbirds to feed in this area. I see my first cardinals and mockingbirds of the week. As I approach the overgrown field across from The Woodlands, I can pick out the individual voices of four crows engaged in a heated discussion. Suddenly, a pair of small birds flies right in front of me, mating in mid-air. How is it that I’ve never known that birds do that?

And a second idea for a painting occurs to me, as well. Something fun that perfectly reflects my concern over taking “furtive” photos of trail users. It seems that Sunday mornings are the perfect time for this particular idea.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Watch Your Step. I'm Packing.

Disclaimer: My enthusiasm for my newfound mobility is triggering a flood of colorful language. There are so many great words in the English language to express our feelings. But I've suddenly discovered my blog has readers, not only here but in other parts of the world. From now on, I will restrict myself to the use of "damn" or "dammit". If that is too offensive for you, dammit, read someone's else's blog.

I am walking two and a half miles this morning - my longest venture yet on the trail. George and I try something new today. He follows me to the parking spot at the end of my planned walk. I leave the car and ride with him in the truck to be dropped off at the big intersection on the trail in TR. I'm equipped with a cell phone, just in case I've bitten off more than I can chew.

First, however, I stop in our local outfitter to look for a day pack that will accommodate my growing list of supplies for my walks. Diabetes requires me to be better prepared than I have been. I find a fanny pack with a bright pink pouch that holds a new water bottle. I'm a cancer survivor, although not breast cancer, and the pink appeals to me for that reason as well as my growing conviction that it is very feminine indeed to sweat profusely while exercising in public.

Ten years ago I started having to use a seat belt extension while flying. Needless to say, I'm not at all sure the fanny pack will fit. A tiny young woman helps extend the waist strap to its fullest. I'm telling her my recent life story while we work - I'm recovering from knee replacements on both knees, I'm diabetic, I haven't been able to walk like this for about 10 years. I'm not embarrassed; I just want her to appreciate what this means to me and to the others like me who continue to struggle to find what health can be for them. Dammit, I want the pack to fit me, not only fit around my waist.

Fit it does, with the strap completely extended. It's snug, but not at all uncomfortable so I'm OK.

I also buy protein bars and a carabiner to attach the full water bottle that I brought from home. I walk out of the store clanking with enough supplies to tackle the Appalachian Trail and I am honestly more excited than I can stand.

Today it seems to me that there are two kinds of people using the trail: those who take "it" for granted and those who don't. "It" will certainly mean different things to different people, but for my purposes today, "it" means age. I notice that people my age and/or size grin as they approach and speak as they go by. They wear street clothes , whether walking or riding. Their T shirts tell me something about their life history and I hope they take time to stop at the outfitter and share their visual personal stories with the helpful young woman there.

Truthfully, I know the others are of an age that accepts fitness as a responsibility for a lifetime. I'm honestly happy they have been raised that way and hope they never face the lifestyle illnesses that will kill most of my generation. But, I 'm feeling damn uppity today and enjoying it. The youngsters are all cyclists, riding bikes that may have cost more than my first car. Their clothing looks like it is applied with spray paint and has logos in languages I doubt they can speak. Except for the variations in color, they all look alike. I couldn't pick a single one out of a police line up.

I make a mental note to start treating my T shirts from physical therapy with more respect and hang them up right after they come out of the dryer. They will be my trail wardrobe from now on. They are truly woven of the fabric of my recent life and I'm proud of it. I decide to wear the "Joint Camp" shirt for my next foray, confident that the motorcycle cop patrolling the trail will notice the hospital name before he assumes I'm trolling for registrants to some backwoods gathering for illicit agricultural products.

This is the first time I've accessed parts of the trail that I have never been able to see from the road and I suddenly think that it will be like that from now on until I manage to hike my way into downtown Greenville. Unexplored territory, but I want to cover it in full. I make new mental note to add my tiny trail map to my trusty new pack. I'll be ready.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Communion of Saints and Sinners (or His Catholic Guilt is Beginning to Rub Off on Me)

My purpose for accessing the SRT is to build a series of stories that I can express visually. A possibility seemed to come to me during my first walk on the trail. I had no idea how far I had come, although it was a very short distance, and didn't want to go farther than my new knees could take me back.

I thought I found my image at the first street crossing. A stop sign on the trail. Stop. Meaning, me. Stop here. Don't go any further. I walked to the sign, peered both ways down the street, looked across it into the woods to see what the trail might have in store ahead.

I took the trail's advice that day. I accepted the limit. I stopped and went home to share the good news that I had walked about a mile total. My husband knew that was indeed cause to celebrate after years of forced inactivity.

Celebrate, I did. All the way to the grocery store where I bought a cake from their bakery. I had two pieces that night. And, then, the story truly began to tell itself, as it always does.

For the rest of the night I envisioned myself walking that mile, carrying that cake, arms outstretched in front of me, loaded with the full weight of the cake, after just a quarter mile, a half mile, an entire mile.

I see it on the next walk I take, too, feeling the missing slices now hanging off my belly, my thighs, my legs. Gradually its weight slips down my legs, adding a greater burden to my already overloaded feet. No matter what I do, the damn cake won't go away.

A friend of mine who was raised as a Roman Catholic once told me that everything in the Catholic church is Forbidden until it is Required. Somehow I understand the kind of logic it takes to believe that. The story isn't about the limits I accept. It's still about the limits I ignore until I have to pay attention.

Next week is my 60th birthday. I no longer need to hear "Happy Birthday" sung badly by the wait staff in a neighborhood restaurant. I think a long hike to a nice Gregorian chant of "Cupcake, cupcake" would be more appropriate. It is about time it is Required.

Top of the Trail to Ya

Yesterday I chose to begin at the trail's start in Travelers Rest, expecting to go another half mile before turning around. I carefully measured the distance in the car before beginning so I would remember the landmark at the turnaround point. But, TR is prepared for walkers like me. Each street crossing is marked with a sign describing the landmarks in the distance - none of them tell you how far back it is to the parking lot.

It's much more intriguing to consider how far you can go than to focus on how far you have to go back. And, so, I kept going. It took me longer to walk past TR's new high school than it took me to walk a mile to school as a teenager. Other walkers passed me on their way out of the parking lot and passed me again on their return trips. I told them "Good morning" once more, as though I hadn't said it to them just a short while before, and kept walking.

Why didn't I bring a hat with a broad brim? The trip out was all about the scenery to the sides of me, thanks to the sun that fell fully on my face. I kept walking, past a cemetery I never knew was there, marveled at the different kinds of flags and banners that hang along the main street of a small town, memorized every house for sale on every side street.

It took me just short of a mile to reach a bench where I could sit down. But first I walked past it, all the way to the corner that marked a full mile from the parking lot, creating a new mental signpost of my own. I thought I would need to rest at least thirty minutes and was surprised when I was ready to go again after ten.

The return trip was slightly downhill and I knew I was making better time. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of my favorite view in the area - the magnificent Blue Wall of mountains that wraps around the western end of our part of the state. I never knew where to expect it next - between a gap in the trees, over the top of a low building, ahead or to the side of me?

Just as my car appeared in the distance and a grin spread itself across my face, the Trail God decided it would be good for me to bring it home in a full headwind. I leaned into the wind like a stick figure in a cartoon and ignored the plastic flowers blowing off the graves in the cemetery. One slow motion replay of step by step, opposed by tumbling fake blossoms in fast forward.

I kept walking.

Just to Walk

I had a very brief encounter with the Swamp Rabbit Trail last fall in between my two knee replacements. It was enough to walk a half mile with my cane and my husband, stopping frequently to rest.

But, last Sunday I had my first real walk - less than a mile total, no cane, no husband, no friend to be there just in case. In less than a quarter mile I was celebrating the solitude. It was my time to think about what I wanted to and some of the things I always have in the back of my mind at home never appeared at all. I found it far more gratifying to flirt with the risk that I might go slightly too far before I turned around to worry that I might not be able to get back to the car.

I realized quickly that the answer is not to turn around, to arrange for George to drop me off and pick me up at some new intersection, compelling myself to walk an unknown path, until I manage to experience the trail in its entirety through short segments, the goal just to walk, to keep one foot stepping in front of the other.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

One Foot at a Time

About a year and a half ago, I realized my world was getting smaller and smaller, due to the combined effects of diabetes and reduced mobility from the deterioration in my knees. I’ve always been a risk taker and able to evaluate healthy levels of risk, so I decided to use those two strengths to push my boundaries back out. Despite the fact that I have never had an art class in my life, I decided to take painting lessons with two new friends, both accomplished artists. (JJ Ohlinger,, and Darlene Fuhst,

Last fall I finally realized it was time to replace both knees because I was no longer able to exercise and was beginning to lose control of blood sugar. After surgeries in August and November, I am now able to walk for as much as an hour and a half and my blood sugar is under the best control since I was diagnosed with diabetes seven years ago.

At my last lesson, JJ and Darlene surprised me with the news that they expect me to have Show and Tell within a year. JJ specifically suggested that I consider a series of paintings along Greenville’s wonderful Swamp Rabbit Trail because he knew that one of my goals following surgery was to finally be able to enjoy the trail for myself. The trail provides about 13 miles of paved trails for walkers, runners, and bikers, and will eventually find its way across the entire county.

JJ also says that the collection of paintings I show should reflect my love of story and my continuing journey to improve my health. Each piece should be accompanied by a brief narrative.

OK, I commit. Suddenly my life is about possibility again and I don’t want to take that for granted. I certainly don't see myself as an artist, but I never stop seeing myself as a learner and this offers possibilities.

I've walked two days on the trail this week and hope to write more about that later today. Those two brief trips - less than three miles total - have already taught me that I want to walk or bike the trail in its entirety. More to come as this adventure unfolds.