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Some days you wake up to the sound of rain.

In your head, you know the deluge strengthens things that are just beginning to bud and brings the withered, dying things to life.

 But when a cloudburst catches you by surprise, you may not feel so benevolent in your heart.

 At times, you’re caught in the midst of it, and all you can do is stand there, or maybe call a friend.

 Sometimes it rains.

 But I have friends with umbrellas.

 We huddle together, waiting, listening, and watching things grow.

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Post-marathon running, to put it bluntly, sucks.

When you have completed a marathon, you are on a high that lasts for so many weeks, you can easily forget to work out, in which case, your body slowly begins to take on the form of the retired Mr. Incredible.

But the increased size and odd shape of body parts is not the only downfall: you also realize that your once-a-week long run is the exact same mileage as your previous daily runs.

Lately I’ve noticed the first four miles of my runs are hard.

Really hard.

I feel so completely out of shape and uncoordinated I seriously doubt I was the woman who ran 26.2 miles last July.

But once I get past the four-mile barrier, something amazing happens: I feel strong.

I can pick up the pace and really focus on what my body is doing. I can challenge myself in ways that, at the outset, seemed quite ridiculous. It’s at this point I begin to realize daily effort pays off big-time.

In life, working towards a specific goal is hard work. And hard work automatically implies a process that is uncomfortable and quite possibly smells bad.

Often as you approach your barrier, you feel like you should just give up and slink back to wherever it is you came from.

Why work so hard when the goal isn’t even in sight?

But if you press through it, you will find that the sweaty, smelly, difficult exercise has made you stronger.

Soon, you are flying along, not even thinking about what you can’t do, because your head is filled with what you are actually doing.

I once heard a pastor who kept talking about the Iditarod he ran once without freezing to death, which is all well and good, but he ran it in 1973.

What had he done lately?

If 1973 was your last great achievement, then you might want to consider that opportunities may be mushing past you. 

I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about the marathon she ran once, a long time ago. I want to be doing amazing things right up until the day I die.

Amazing goals don’t have to be grandiose: you could strive to be a healthy person when you’re in your 80s (like my Grandma), to have a good relationship with your kids (also like my Grandma), or to be the most awesome teacher, friend, architect, parent, or spouse ever—amazing goals are not necessarily the most public ones.

In fact, the most difficult goals to achieve are the ones that come without recognition.

I don’t know when I will run another marathon, but I do have dreams I’m moving towards. And while many of them seemed utterly out of reach six months ago, now, they’re starting to sound reasonable, achievable.

And that is exciting.

But it’s hard.

Really hard.

Sometimes the struggle doesn’t seem worth it. And at those times, the muscle memory of my highs will have to carry me through the lows.

But once I’ve made it past that four-mile barrier, I’ll be flying.

Then I can say:

Sure, the marathon was great, but look at what I’m doing now!

Whatever your goal may be (some of us would like to lose 20 pounds before the high school reunion in August:), keep working at it.

I guarantee once you’re past your own personal four-mile barrier, you’ll be flying too.

I want flat abs, and I’m not sure why.

I can’t blame Hollywood or the media or peer pressure. 

My husband is innocent too. During the course of nearly 17 years, he has seen my stomach stretched into shapes that defy the laws of physics. He currently thinks I can leap tall buildings in a single bound. So, if he doesn’t have a problem with my flabby abs, why do I?

Can’t I be content with how things are?

I contemplated this while doing crunches on the ridiculously big blue ball in the basement. The reason I desire flat abs is the same reason I wanted to run a marathon: because goals, no matter how great or small, make me feel truly alive.

Without goals, I begin to wither. I physically/mentally/spiritually need a trip to plan, a book to write, or a marathon to run. 

Life is more than shuttling kids to activities—my life has worth too, even if it’s not in mint condition.

I kicked the ball across the room, and as I quivered in plank position while keeping a close eye on the stopwatch, it occurred to me that my quest for meeting high goals, at the core, comes from an ember of low-self worth, which faintly glows inside me.

It is an uneasy feeling, which periodically fans the message:

“I am not quite good enough.”

I used to pray it would go away. For a while, I pretended it went away. When that didn’t work, I took meds to make myself think it went away. Finally, I worked hard to force it away. Despite all my efforts, nothing could completely extinguish it.

Insecurity, once it scorches the land of the heart, cannot be forgotten.

Despite new and more vibrant growth on the surface, the evidence lies forever in the soil record—never rekindled but always revealed if you dig a little.

The strange thing is, without this charred ground, I would not be motivated to reach new heights.

Insecurity is part of me, and I should make peace with that.

After all, without it, I would be a completely different person.

With it, only God knows what I might accomplish.

I may have flat abs someday.

Stats:

Miles last week: 23

Plan of action: Increase mileage until I’m up to 30 miles a week. Continue physical therapy for the knees. Be faithful to my hand weights and old-school upper-body festivities. Keep philosophizing about my abs.

Weather: We had a week of rain, which turned the lovely snow into mud, whereby I was forced into the dungeon, I mean, basement, to use the treadmill. Then we had a break of sunshine (temps in the upper 40s to low 50s), which makes me feel like I might just go a couple more days without fleeing the country in a gray-sky induced panic attack.

Wildlife: the deer are plentiful, and so are the hunters. To be honest, it’s only one hunter, the Village Hunter, also known as the Jaegermeister (some of you are familiar with that word), who has built a new deer blind. I try to scare the deer away from his lair (I waved at him up there during a run–he waved back), and I am always sure to wear colors not found in the natural world.

 
WANTED: Bold band of buddies to join me on the journey through 2011. The road will be fraught with frustration, fear, failure, but God willing, a treasure trove of triumph. Must have high goals, gritty determination, and no fear of hair-pin turns.

While it is admittedly cliché to make New Year’s resolutions for health and fitness, that’s what I’m doing nonetheless, and the road won’t feel quite so lonely if someone goes with me.

After going gluten-free in 2009, I began to feel so good that I took up running. Then a friend suggested doing a marathon. She said anyone could do it, and since I am the epitome of “anyone,” I thought I’d give it a shot.

I had a few goals when I began: I wanted to be able to do ten push ups, I wanted to get down to my ideal size, and I wanted to finish the marathon without killing myself.

While I fared nobly in the marathon by not dying, and I can indeed fit into my Misses size 6 jeans, I can not do a push-up to save my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to do great little things, but I also want to take control of my life in areas that are completely up to me. I can always control what I eat, and I can always control when (or if) I exercise. Therefore, my health goals for 2011 are as follows:

                –do my physical therapy exercises 4 days a week, along with weights

                –begin marathon training (just in case I see a tempting one)

                –start the Zone Diet full throttle (to lose enough body fat to ditch the Misses sizes)

                –do ten push ups (in a row)

What are your goals for 2011?

Whether your dreams seem small, such as completing a marathon, or big, such as maintaining your ideal weight, I would love for you to share your experiences with me, for mutual ego-boosting, condolence, and/or virtual happy dances.

I am not asking for a weekly weigh-in or embarrassing tape measurements, but I’d simply like to hear from those who are willing to take this road trip with me.

It doesn’t matter if we fly towards our goals at autobahn speed, become diverted on umleitungs, or get stuck in the occasional stau, together, we can find out where this new road leads.

Auf gehts!

The walls were scarred, and many of the booths had been patched by someone apathetic, colorblind, or both.

The entire place had the type of smell you have to wash out of your hair when you get home—that  peculiar mixture of sweat and deep frying that makes you wish your overcoat was not dry-clean only.

I dolloped the table with hand sanitizer and began to scrub it with a rapidly disintegrating tissue.

“What does that sign say?” my daughter asked, while my son woodenly pronounced, “Nür fur Kinder…”

 “Only for children under age ten,” I interpreted. They could both read, just not in German.

They gave each other the visual equivalent of a high-five: eyebrows raised, a flash in the eye, and a quick grin. At seven and eight years-old, they were in.

My two oldest groaned in disappointment—hard luck when you’re not quite kid, not quite adult. They went off to sit together at a small table by the window, where they could watch the lights and chaos of the Christmas festival across the street.

The play center had a padded floor, padded pillars, and a bathtub-sized ball pit. Wiry white stuffing sprouted from the seams like weeds reaching for light from sidewalk cracks. It wasn’t so much a play center as a safe cave for babies who signal the end of a meal by throwing half-eaten chicken nuggets across the room—a happy dungeon for cranky toddlers.  

“Take off your shoes!” I said, as a flurry of hats, gloves, and scarves fluttered down around me.  The coats were still warm from the now vanished bodies.

As I trudged to a booth, I noticed the long table. It ran down the length of the room right up to the stair well. A dozen pink plates and cups were arranged at the place settings. Golden paper crowns, boasting the logo of the establishment, were carefully set at select places.

At the head of the table sat a girl no older than my daughter, bedecked in deep pink satin with a face meticulously adorned with her mother’s makeup. Gorgeous dark tresses fell in gentle curls about her shoulders; she was a bright and beaming star, dropped, as if by accident, into the run-down little diner.

From her position at the head of the table, she could see each person who ascended the stairs: first the top of the head, which brought hopefulness; second the face, eliciting either joy or disappointment—every emotion was clearly communicated as she watched the people come and go.

As if on cue, the guests began to arrive one-by-one; the Prince Bishops of Würzburg could not have better coordinated such a ceremony.

When a face was recognized, the birthday girl remained placidly at her station, her face the only clue that she’d rather jump out of her seat and rush to them before they even reached the landing.

The guests came to her and greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks and happy tidings. The partygoers were dressed nearly as splendidly as their hostess, though they did not quite surpass her.

The girl’s mother was no less exquisite. Sporting a black sequence gown, every hair plastically held in place, and makeup an exact replica of her daughter’s, though on a broader scale, she rose to greet the guests and show them to their places. 

 Surely they should be someplace nicer? was my thought, tinged with pity.

I had been to parties at play centers before, but they were places where you drop the kids in like hamsters in brightly colored tubes, while you and your friends chat outside the glass tank. At those rough-and-tumble parties, the guests wear clothes they could spill ketchup and milkshakes on with little fear of reprisal.

But this was a gala affair, worthy of the finest palaces of Europe.  

The table was soon full, adults outnumbering the children. They spoke not in German, but in a language beautiful, yet unintelligible to me—a language even PhD’s would struggle to learn and never quite master.

The group was smiling, happy—happy to have each other, happy to be together in this foreign land. They wore their finest and held their heads proudly, rightly so. This was their celebration of a life—a single, precious, valuable life.

What kind of poverty, war, or oppression had they escaped? What had sent them away from their homeland, to a place so cold and strange, yet full of promise?  

Starting life over again, they had reason to celebrate. They had joy. They had love. It was shown in the way they spoke to each other, the way they greeted with a kiss. It was written on their faces.

What was written on my face? Weariness, perhaps. Worry. The fear of my kids catching germs from the Petri dish of a play center?

Perhaps they pitied me for seeing only shabbiness where they saw hope.

As we move through the holiday season, some of us wearing ourselves out with parties, and gifts, and decorations, let us learn from the people who have had everything taken away–everything, that is, except their hope spurred by love.

That beautiful child taught me something more valuable than any gift ever wrapped with a bow: Do not pity those who appear to have less than you, because quite often, they have more.

Hope was the last thing I had expected to find that night, as I sat there waiting for my fries.

“If it hadn’t been for me, you would all be living in shacks in Potter’s Field!”

That’s what I might say when the stress of real life returned after Christmas break, and people started taking me for granted again.

Of course, I’m no George Bailey.

Though I question the doctrinal validity of Joseph and God blinking like stars in the sky when they talk and bells signaling angelic promotion, Capra’s classic film still causes me to ponder what the world would have been like without me.

I’m not fishing for compliments or penning myself as some kind of saint, but I am pretty sure if not for me, Mike would still be an arctic bachelor, and some happy couple would be the fortunate custodians of four phenomenal kids.

If it hadn’t been for me…

Some of you would have missed out on a few laughs, while others may not have shed quite so many tears.

Some of you wouldn’t have had a Louise to go with your Thelma or an Ethel for your Lucy (depending on which stage of life you found me).

Some of you may not have been encouraged, or hugged, or loved quite so much. Others would have one less adventure, one less story to reminisce about.

Some of you would have imbibed less coffee.

There would be fewer quips, fewer quotes, fewer inside jokes. And maybe there would be an empty spot in your life where a precious friendship should have been.

I’m not perfect—I’m not even good. In fact, if my inner self could be posted on Facebook for thirty seconds, everyone would unfriend me, including my grandma.

But life isn’t all about me.

I can’t help but think what life would have been like without some of you. Sure, there are some people I wish I’d never met (the string of bad boyfriends in the early 90s), but I would be a completely different person now if any single character had not been written into the script.

Without my dad, I’d have no courage, no independence.

Without my mama, no inspiration.

Without my husband, no real love.

Without my mother, no imagination.

Without my grandparents, no role models.

Without my aunties, no feeling of specialness.

Without my friends, no sisterhood.

Without God, no hope.

There are many stories I could tell about individuals who have had an impact on my life, but even a really good screenplay couldn’t capture it all.

Whether we have been center stage together, or whether you raised the curtain,  lit the lights, played the music, whispered a line, set the props, gave me direction, or simply crossed downstage, every single one of you has played an invaluable role in my wonderful life.

Merry Christmas. God bless. I love you.