The story of this friendship starts around a small lake in Grand Rapids, Michigan. From Calvin College and back, I believe the route is six miles — a nice jaunt for a bike ride, a run, or plenty enough time for a walk with a friend.
I have biked the lake countless times. It was my workout of choice in my college days, and for the last two summers, my husband Jesse and I have run 10Ks around the water. I don’t usually like to run the same route, but this one has bridges, and trees, and turning paths, and inclines, and so many memories it’s impossible for me to be bored.
I haven’t walked Reeds Lake in over 20 years, and I suspect doing so would be the most difficult, but also, bring me the most joy. If I were to walk around the lake, I’d walk with my friend Alison, as she and I used to in our college days. We’d walk and we’d talk, and maybe it was our compatible personalities, or the movement of our bodies, or the landscape of water and trees, but on these walks we’d name things, we’d admit things, we’d doubt and wonder about things, and that is why walking with Alison around the lake would bring me joy, but also would be difficult. It is one thing for me to name frustrations, curiosities, love, and animosities to myself as I run six miles on a sunny evening after work. Or to name these things on paper, to see it, and then to create something with it. I’m used to those methods. I depend on them. However, it is something entirely different to tell a friend what’s on your mind, to have those words float out and enter another human’s soul and mind, as the two of you walk.
I’ve no plans to give up writing, but I’ve understood lately that all the unfiltered work I do before a book or essay is published, while necessary, has left me believing that only my revised, publishable truth is acceptable. It feels like a long time since I’ve expressed the truth unformed, the truth vulgar, the truth untamed. I wonder what would happen if I did.
My mom had a friend she walked with for years. They walked all over town – in the morning before work, on summer evenings when it was still light out, on weekends. My mom would always come back from her walks vibrant, exuberant, full of life, and I don’t think it was only because of the exercise. It was because of her friend, Judi.
But that is not what I am considering. I am remembering their last walk. Judi was moving, and while it wasn’t far away, it was far enough that their casual, wild walks could no longer be had.
I called my mom not knowing that it was the day of their goodbye walk. My mom, who is normally as lively as a firecracker, seeped sadness over the phone line. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she told me she said to Judi before they began to walk. I’d never heard my mom say anything like that in my life. As far as my 29 years of life were concerned, my mom could do anything. It was a moment when the idea of who my mom was became more layered. She was not only mine. Further, there was nothing I could do for her in this moment.
Coincidentally, I had just moved to a 500-square-foot apartment in Washington, DC. I was learning how the Metro system worked, thinking about starting one of those weblogs everyone was talking about, and — most daunting — wondering how and when I would make a friend.
I didn’t talk about this with my mom. I knew she was worried about me and quite frankly, a bit heartbroken that Jesse and I moved about five states away. She didn’t blame us for moving — she was nothing but supportive. But where I saw adventure, she felt pain, and I think it was difficult for us to consider the pulse of where we believed the story drew its breath from. So in part to protect myself, I kept my wanderings and small quests to myself. The other part had to do with what I was learning about the mother-daughter relationship: there are more than a few things we must do for, and go through, by ourselves.
My move to the nation’s capital, I think, paired with Judi’s move made the vacancy my mom felt as palpable as a Nor’easter. And I think now, that it was because of Judi’s friendship and their walks together that my mom could let me go — to high school, to try out for drill team, to give up the flute, on dates with boys she knew probably didn’t have the best intentions, to college, to teach in the Chicago Public Schools, to marriage, to Washington, DC. I bet on those walks my mom and Judi shared their untamed and tangled truth of motherhood (Judi has a daughter who is a great friend of mine, and who I know gave her mother as much fodder as I gave mine).
I bet there were tears, but they kept walking. I know there was laughing, and that probably slowed the walking down a bit, but I know they kept going, because they always came home. I know whatever it was they talked about made it so they could let their daughters grow and go. And so could they.
“I don’t know if I can do this” was my mom’s untamed truth that needed to be released, that needed to be heard, and even though at 29 I was without an inkling of what it meant to be a mother, I am thankful I was the one who caught her words. And I am thankful they stuck.
Because fourteen years later, with one girl in middle school and another ending fourth grade (an age, I recently learned, when girls’ self-confidence peaks), at a point where I feel a change in a career coming on but am unsure what to do about it, with a life so busy and social I’ve taken up the habit of having anxiety attacks, I am saying what my mom said to me.
I wish I could say it to Alison.
I wish we could take a six-mile walk along Reeds Lake and say all that makes us afraid, angry, in love, joyful, overwhelmed. I wish we could say these things we think we can’t do so that we and our daughters (five of them between us) can grow and go.
And so on a day after work, when I am feeling particularly lost and lonely, directionless and undefined, I cue up Voxer on my phone and find Alison’s name. I’m fixing to leave her a rambling message (as all of my Voxer messages are) when I see she’s left me one. Turns out, she beat me to it, and as I listen to her version of “I don’t know if I can do this,” I remember a scene from the book Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. In short, one woman is having an “I don’t know if I can do this” moment and another woman says to her, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and put your feet up.
I decide to take a slight detour on the way to pick up my kids from school, and I head to a coffee and tap house for a cup of coffee. Sure, it’d be better in a mug with a book or my latest work in progress. Or sure, it’d be better to take it on a walk with Alison. But she is in Colorado and I am in Michigan. Even so, we are going through the same thing and I have this snippet of a story to tell her, and I think doing it with a cup of coffee while I drive to get my girls and bring all of us home is the right way to do it.
The woman at the bar knows me by name and has the coffee ready for me before I give my order. Her daughter attends one of the schools I work in, and we exchange pleasantries for a moment. “I’m so glad you do this for yourself,” she tells me.
Her comment makes me feel like I could fly home. I feel so lost, but here is when I find myself. A thousand goodbyes happen throughout my day, but so do a thousand hellos.
I want to tell Alison all of this — about the detour for coffee, about Fair and Tender Ladies, about how I’m so lost and a little lonely, about my mom, about how I wish she and I could walk along Reeds Lake and hash all of this out, about how I know we are going to be OK. We are going to be great.
I get in the car, take a sip of coffee and a deep, satisfying breath, press the little walkie-talkie button, and begin.
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