The One In Which Mailboxes Count for Something

It’s been a year! Actually, it’s been a little more than a year, but who’s counting? Any chance to celebrate is good enough for me. This isn’t a conventional anniversary we’re celebrating, folks; no, this is rather a unique anniversary. A little over a year ago, my life broke. But we’ll get to that.

Once upon a time, I decided to become a runner. I made this decision the way I make all of my very important decisions: spur of the moment. Join the Cross Country team? Sure? Why not? I wasn’t exactly out of shape, but I wasn’t a runner either, and I struggled. One day, while complaining to my very patient mother, I blurted out something about how hard my training was. In a moment of motherly wisdom, she taught me a secret I’ve never forgotten.

When I ran in high school, I’d tell myself I only had to keep going until the end of the next block. So I would just focus on getting to the end of that block. When I got there, I’d go to the next block. And from there to the next. And before I knew it, I was done.

This secret sounded a little simplistic, and a little bit like lying to myself. If I knew I was going to make myself run the whole distance anyway, what was the point? And since as an eleven year old I knew everything, I decided it was dumb. But in order to avoid an eye roll, I’d humor her. So I laced up my shoes and headed out.

It was dark, and I was tired, so instead of counting blocks, I counted telephone poles. (They were closer together, and I was lazy.) When I started to hurt, I told myself I only had to make it to the next pole. So I plodded forward, reached the next pole, and then set my sights on the one just beyond. I eventually made it home, and breaking the journey into smaller steps did make it a little bit easier.

Nearly a decade later, I remembered this secret wisdom as I was fighting my way through a marathon. An old knee injury was flaring up, and the pain was almost unbearable. I wanted to quit. I wanted to sit down right in the middle of the street and cry for my mother, because I was hurting, and I was tired, and there was too far to go. I did, in fact, sit down a few times. But each time, I got up and used my mom’s trick. Blocks were too far apart. Telephone poles were too far apart. But I could count mailboxes.

And so I began moving forward in a way that had once seemed to me to be simplistic self-deception. Mailbox by mailbox I limped onward, and I began to see the real wisdom in Mother’s strategy. Intellectually, I knew there was still the rest of the marathon ahead of me. But all I had to do was survive until the next mailbox before I could rest for a second, look behind to see how far I’d come, take a breath to celebrate that victory, and then reset for the next leg of my journey. I didn’t make it the whole way–at mile 18, the medics intervened and made me stop—but not before I learned how powerful Mother’s principle of doable pieces could be.

My knee healed, but last year, my life broke. Literally.  I looked it up and everything. One of the word’s connotations is elasticity. You know how when you stretch a rubber band really really far it starts to thin and blister? And then if you stretch it even farther, past its point of elasticity, it snaps? That was me, just over a year ago. A rubber band stretched too far, starting to show the signs of wear.  And then it happened.

The stress, panic attacks, and powerlessness all combined forces to stretch me beyond my limits, and I broke. I spent a week in the hospital, and when I got out, my marriage, which had been ending, was finally over. And then everything else followed, until I felt empty—stretched out and useless as a snapped rubber band. I could no longer hold my life together, so it was fortunate that I had an army to reassemble me, piece by piece. I spent a year crying, sleeping, yelling, cursing, rebelling: healing.

A couple of weeks ago, while in that moment before sleepiness becomes real rest, it occurred to me to look around. I reached for the light and pondered the sparse dorm room around me: so far from home, so far from where I’d been a year before. It must have been the stark contrast that made me realize that, without being fully conscious of it, I had been passing mailboxes.

Tears filled my tired eyes as I glanced at the piles of graded student work on my desk, the palm trees outside my window, and the empty bed beside me: all mailboxes. I was simply overwhelmed at the difference of it all. It seemed like just yesterday I’d been mired in that very darkest of times, but I’d made it a full year! I’d picked up the pieces of my life and assembled them in a new way—a way that was completely my own choice, and would require me to pick up again the mantle of the strong, independent force of nature (inherited, as you’ve no doubt guessed, from ma mère) that I’d dropped somewhere along the way.

It hasn’t been easy, and I can’t take credit for most of it, but I’m beginning to become a whole person again. I have a long way to go to regain the strength I lost when I broke, and I can’t promise to regain that ground all at once. I certainly can’t promise perfection—at this point, I can’t even guarantee that I’ll finish the race. What I can promise is that I’ll go on for another mailbox, another telephone pole, another year. Thanks for the secret, Mom.

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2 thoughts on “The One In Which Mailboxes Count for Something

  1. Your mother is a wise, strong woman indeed. You are blessed to have her and you too, are wise and strong to be able to take her advice, apply it to your life and most importantly, reflect on it in retrospect and realize how far you have come. Keep on keeping on. You are a great inspiration!

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