Sunday, June 5, 2016

My favorite place and the two loves of my life

I've written before about my love for Roxboro Ravine, the section of Doan Brook in Shaker Heights in between North Park Boulevard and Fairhill Road. It's a really wonderful place, and a sort of hidden gem that doesn't attract nearly as much traffic as most parks in the area, which I think is due in large part to the fact that most people don't know about it. Cara once told me, while we were on a walk there, that it was a "special" place. Later on that same walk, I asked her to marry me, so I obviously agree with that assessment. About a year ago, after visiting the ravine for the first time after her death, I mentioned on Facebook that I had realized it was my favorite place in the world. I still feel that way.

I've been going to the ravine a lot recently. I think visiting there has become a sort of spiritual thing to me. For one thing, I love nature, and being able to enjoy the seclusion and all the beautiful trees and rocks and rushing water in a spot that is right in the middle of a residential neighborhood near where I live and where I work (I've recently taken to stopping there on my drive home from work) is wonderful. But beyond that, Roxboro Ravine is so tied to some of the most important experiences of my life.

I suppose that started in the summer of 2006. It was in the ravine that I broke my arm, just days before Cara and I (still "just friends" at the time) took our first trip together, to Washington, D.C. to see the band Ozma perform. As a result of my injury, Cara had to do all the driving and she also helped me with simple tasks such as opening a bottle of water. As the celebrant at her funeral so eloquently put it, "Their first meaningful time together was Cara as caregiver; Jeff as the patient."

Walking the trails of the ravine now brings about many emotions in me. Certainly feelings of happiness, peace, and contentment, but also feelings of loss. I'm reminded of how much I miss both of the two major loves of my life. You see, although Cara is the only person I've ever been in a relationship with, she was not the first love of my life. The first love of my life was distance running. It was easily my greatest passion throughout both high school and college; I pursued achievements in cross country and track with much greater vigor than any of my academic pursuits. After my collegiate running career was over and I found myself doing almost all my running on my own, the ravine became my favorite place for a run. The combination of beautiful scenery and rugged, challenging trails is something I've rarely found elsewhere, and located within easy running distance of where I lived, it was perfect. Now, as I walk those same trails, as much as I enjoy the experience, I wish so much that I could once more feel the wind in my hair and see the foliage rushing by as I barrel down those trails at a fast running pace.

The last time I went running for real was last summer, almost a year ago. I had not run for several months because of an issue with my left hip. I decided to try going for a run in the ravine for old times' sake. I loved it, but my hip did start to hurt again afterwards. Despite this, I proceeded to run the 5k at Breathe Deep Cleveland, Cara's lung cancer charity event, later that week. In fitting tribute to her, I was the first finisher. Unfortunately, my hip started to hurt a lot more, and continued to bother me greatly for over two months. (Cara experienced a lot of pain in her left hip due to a bone metastasis, so perhaps this was also fitting?) Every time since that I even begin to try running for distance, I feel that same pain coming on, so I stop.

By the way, I sometimes see or hear people who can and do run talk about how they don't enjoy running. I have to say this tends to grate on me, because there's little I enjoy more than going for a really good run, but I'm unable to do that.

There are times when I feel like I miss running even more than I miss Cara. Not all or even most of the time, but there are times.

There are also times when I miss Cara more than I could possibly miss anything else.

Actually, recently I've been missing Cara more than I had in quite some time. I see this as a good thing. Why is that? The reason is that the chronic pain and depression that I was suffering from throughout the winter have significantly improved. This has had the effect of allowing me to feel all sorts of emotions, normal emotions, that were sometimes difficult for me to feel. Happiness, but also sorrow. But not the crushing despair that I felt at many points during those very difficult months.

Honestly, although Cara's death was a horrible thing, I really feel that for much of the first six months following her death, I felt more alive than I ever had before. I was instilled with a sense of urgency to take nothing for granted and live life to the fullest. I had many moments of deep sorrow, but I also had so many wonderful, life-affirming experiences, spending time with friends and family, as well as the fantastic trip I took to Colorado where I saw the band Belle and Sebastian perform at Red Rocks and also went on an amazing hike in the Rockies. Then, just after the half-year mark had passed, I was suddenly stricken with horrific, near-constant pain. And for most of the ensuing five months, not only did I no longer feel more alive than ever, I felt less alive than ever before. It was like I wasn't really living, only surviving. So now that there has been a real, tangible improvement in how I'm feeling, the contrast with how I was feeling a few months ago is amazing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not completely better. I'm still struggling with pain, but not nearly as bad as it was. At times I've momentarily gotten giddy just because I once again feel like a mostly normal person and can reliably enjoy the things I normally enjoy doing. I'm once more starting to feel a desire to (to quote a pair of socks that Cara sometimes wore to her treatments) "carpe the fuck out of this diem."

And perhaps that's part of the reason why I've been spending so much time out in nature, particularly at the ravine.

It was from 2007 to 2009 when the ravine really became a big part of my life. That was the first time that I was battling the pain issue I've been dealing with recently, as well as the depression that accompanied it in periods of time when the pain was particularly bad. Running those trails was my escape from it all. So I guess it makes a lot of sense that I'm drawn to the same place now.

Between the broken arm and the numerous walks we went on there, including the most important one that culminated in our engagement, the ravine was already tied to Cara for me in many ways. It was much more tied, though, to the first love of my life, running. Recently, however, I've (without really planning it) found a new way to connect the ravine much more deeply to my second and greatest love, Cara.

Since last fall, there were several times when I felt like I was getting better, only to go back to feeling worse again. The last time this happened was in early March. I was prescribed a low dose of the antidepressant Zoloft. The doctor told me it wasn't something that took effect immediately, but rather would take up to six weeks before I would really notice the benefits. So I wasn't expecting to feel better right away. But what actually happened, initially, was the opposite - the difficulty sleeping I had been having temporarily become much worse, and this resulted in my pain becoming much worse. I had a very bad two weeks.

The third week was when things started to turn around. During that week, I went to a Cavs game with one of my best friends and had a great time, I went to an amazing concert by Lucius at the Beachland Ballroom, and my parents visited me and enjoyed a dinner I prepared, one of my favorite meals that Cara used to make for me (sweet potato gnocchi from Ohio City Pasta with chicken and a cinnamon nutmeg cream sauce). So it was a good week, all in all, although I still had a long ways to go until I would be feeling nearly back to normal. I worried, as always, that the improvement would be temporary, but that time it turned out to be not another false start, but rather the beginning of a real trend.

Going back to that terrible two weeks now. On one weekend day during that time, a dreary, rainy day (matching my mood) I decided to just head out on a long walk. I thought it might make me feel better. And it probably was better than just staying in, but I was still feeling quite down the whole time. I walked from my house to the ravine. I headed down those familiar trails. And then I decided to explore a side trail that was not part of my regular running routes because it dead ends. This trail leads to the waterfall in the ravine. And there, on the north side of the brook, I discovered a neat little place - a ledge next to the waterfall that was covered by a rock overhang. I climbed up to the ledge (it almost seems like it was made for me, because I think a short person would have a much harder time climbing up there) and sat there for a while, staring out at the water that fell from the sky and the water that rushed over the falls. I was feeling very dejected. Wondering if my life would ever get better.

Some weeks later I returned to the same spot and marveled at how much better I was feeling compared to the last time I had been there. And then a thought occurred to me - it would be a nice place to sit and read a book.

During a phone conversation with Cara's mother some time around the anniversary of Cara's death, she brought up the tattoo Cara had on her back between the shoulders and asked me if I knew the significance of that tattoo. The tattoo, I told her, was a symbol from the Thomas Pynchon novel The Crying of Lot 49.

It was the first tattoo Cara had gotten. I remember her showing me her new tattoo during the summer of 2006 when we went to a movie together in Columbus. Cara was a big Thomas Pynchon fan, and obviously The Crying of Lot 49 was a book that had on impact on her. She gave me her copy of the book, oh those many years ago, and I also read and enjoyed it. During that conversation with her mother, I realized that I should read the book again.

I remembered my thought that the ledge by the waterfall would be a good place to sit and read, so one day I headed over there with The Crying of Lot 49 in one of Cara's messenger bags. I began reading the book, and memories rushed back from the first time I had read it. And I was right - that spot was a great place to read a book. It's sort of a hidden sanctuary. So then I decided I'd read the whole book there. It's not a long book (152 pages), so over the course of a few visits to the ravine I did just that.

There were several times as I read that I became very emotional, partly because of the content of the book but more because of the connection with Cara and the early days of our relationship.

There's one passage I particularly like, in which the main character remembers looking at a certain painting:
Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry.
I certainly enjoyed the book the first time I read it, but I'm pretty sure I appreciated it a lot more this time, largely due to the life experience I have now and didn't have back then. And so I found myself wanting to talk about the book with Cara. We talked about it some back then, but in retrospect, I think it was at a fairly superficial level. There's so much more to discuss. But she's not here to have those discussions. And I want to ask her, what was it, exactly, that made you want to get that tattoo? (I may have asked her back then. I'm not sure.)

So that spot in the ravine became, in a way, not just my spot, but my and Cara's spot. (Thus joining the spot, near the other end of the ravine, where we got engaged.)

I had never read any other Thomas Pynchon, but I decided that I should. It's a way for me to deepen my connection with Cara in her absence. She also had in her collection the much longer novel Gravity's Rainbow, which I plan to tackle but have not yet begun, and the short story collection Slow Learner. Cara received Slow Learner from my sister for Christmas in 2008. (I had remembered that she had gotten it for Christmas, but not the year. I determined the year by searching my chat history for the book's title, which brought up a message from Cara on 12/29/08: "Mitters says Slow Learner is a good book." 2008, incidentally, was the one Christmas after Cara had moved to Cleveland but before we lived together. It's funny the way time goes by, because before doing that search I would have pegged the year Cara got that book as much more recent, perhaps 2012.)

And so I've been reading Slow Learner at the same spot in the ravine. It's a collection of Pynchon's very early work, and it certainly doesn't affect me the way Crying of Lot 49 does, but it's been an enjoyable experience. I've especially liked coming across things in the book that Cara underlined. She underlined the last sentence of the book's second story: "Whitecaps danced across her eyes; sea creatures, he knew, would be cruising about in the submarine green of her heart." I guess she  really liked that description. Again I wish I could ask her about it. In one of the other stories, she underlined a single word: "laudanum." Seeing this, I immediately tried to think of why she'd have underlined that one word. And then I thought, it sounds so familiar - like I've heard it in a song - a song by an artist Cara and I liked. But which artist, and which song? Andrew Bird, perhaps? After a little searching I was able to determine that it was actually a Decemberists song, "The Legionnaire's Lament." (In a nice bit of happenstance, I'm listening to that song right now - I intentionally listened to the Castaways and Cutouts album while writing this entry but the fact that I'm on that specific song at the same time I'm writing about it was unplanned.)

I have no doubt that Cara outlined the word "laudanum" because she recognized it from those Decemberists lyrics, but did she remember specifically where she had heard it? Or did she underline the word because she wasn't sure where she'd heard it and wanted to figure it out? And if the latter, did she ever figure it out? I'll never know.

Cara was a really amazing person. I knew her better than I've ever known anyone else, but as time goes by I realize there are many things about her that even I didn't know, and I wish I could have more time to talk to her about life, the universe, and everything, but I can't. And so there's a lot of sadness. But there's also a lot of joy that she brought and continues to bring into my life. Cara Sadness, and Cara Joy.

My life really has been a lot better recently than it had been in a long time. Last weekend I went to Columbus for the first time since Christmas. I was trying to remember when was the last time I went five whole months without going on any out-of-town overnight trips, and I couldn't think of anything. The fact that I went that long without taking any trips was definitely the result of the pain and depression I was experiencing. I had a really good time in Columbus. I spent some quality time with my family and also had fun hanging out with a couple of good friends from high school, and even had a chance encounter with a classmate I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen since high school ended, with whom I shared a very nice albeit brief conversation. I also went to another place where I used to love running, Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, and enjoyed a long walk. I ran there many times at high school cross country practice, and also over the summer while I was in college. It's a great place. There are some very large hills, of which I have both fond and painful memories of running. I hadn't been there in many years, but all the trails were as familiar as if I'd traversed them just weeks ago. And again, I found myself wishing I could run those trails.

I remember that I once told Cara, some time in the year 2013 but before we knew she had cancer, that I didn't think I could ever be truly satisfied with my life if I wasn't able to run, because running was my greatest passion. The last few years have given me some new perspective on life, for sure. I no longer feel that way. I miss running a lot, and still hope I'll be able to take it up again some day, although I'm quite confident I'll never be able to do nearly the volume of running that I once did. I miss Cara a lot too, and I know that she's never coming back, but I also know that her spirit will always be with me.

Yet now I know something that I didn't know a few years ago. Even having lost both of the two greatest loves of my life, I can continue to have a very fulfilling life, because the world is full of amazing things to do, places to go, and people to meet.

I wrote most of this post Friday night and yesterday afternoon. As it turned out, yesterday was an amazing day, so I think an addition is in order! I went to see Florence + the Machine at the Blossom Music Center. Blossom is in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, so I decided it would be a good opportunity for another hike in the afternoon before I headed over to the venue. I enjoyed a great hike on the Lake and Salt Run trails beginning from Kendall Hills, another place with strong ties for me to both running and Cara. In April 2009, I ran a 25k trail race there. It was the first and only trail race I've run, and it was a great experience, with fantastic scenery as well as much more challenging terrain and elevation changes than any other race I've run. During the race, Cara told me that she got into a conversation with another woman who was also there to spectate. That woman was there to watch her son, and she told Cara about how her son was quite good at running. And he did do pretty well, finishing second place - about nine minutes behind me.

I guess one of the reasons I miss running so much is knowing how good I was at it, and also knowing that I never came close to unlocking my full potential.

Kendall Hills is also a place that Cara and I enjoyed visiting in the winter to go sledding. We had so much fun there. I walked by the spot where this picture of her was taken and couldn't help but think of it:

I also remembered the last time that Cara and I visited Kendall Hills, in July 2013. We went there to go on a little hike in preparation for our upcoming annual trip to the Adirondacks. I remember how much Cara was struggling on the uphills. Walking very slowly because she would become very short of breath if she went much faster. It seemed so wrong, because the whole time I had known her, she had gradually but steadily improved her physical fitness. Now she was having a hard time doing something that would have been easier a year before. She attributed the difficulty to the "asthma" she had been diagnosed with two months prior. It was very frustrating for her. It really seems, looking back, like we should have realized something more serious was going on. But who would ever suspect a 34-year-old never-smoker would have lung cancer?

All those memories were with me as I walked the trails, and I certainly felt sad at moments, but I very much enjoyed the walk. It's a great thing to have a national park so close to home. A notable aspect of this particular hike was the presence of a multitude of cicadas, having recently emerged after 17 years. The sound that filled the forest was incredible!

Next up was the concert. Florence + the Machine are one of my favorite musical acts, and I had never before seen them live (a few years ago I balked at the price of going to a show, and later came to regret not going). Despite this, I had been uncertain until quite recently about whether I was going to go. Why? Because I knew going to the show would be a significant commitment of both money and time (in particular, leaving the venue is a nightmare - once I got back to my car it took nearly an hour until I exited the parking lot). And I was afraid that I might be in a lot of pain and not have a very good time. It was only in the last few weeks that I became confident this wouldn't happen.

So I decided to splurge and get a GA pit ticket. It was the most expensive concert ticket I've ever purchased with my own money (only surpassed by the Springsteen show earlier this year that my dad paid for), but I figured why not? You only live once. I can only imagine how Cara would have reacted to seeing the price of that ticket. But it was worth every penny. I was perhaps ten feet away from the stage, and it was an utterly magical experience. Florence Welch brings so much energy and sheer joy to her performance, and that voice! Wow! Listening to her albums (over and over) did not prepare me for experiencing the same music in a live setting.

Before playing the title track "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful" from her latest album, Florence asked the audience for one song to put away all of our phones. She said recently as she had been traveling to all sorts of interesting places, she realized she was spending too much time looking down at the phone in her hands. She also said that she had written the song while falling in love, and then when she started to look up and around her, she started to fall in love with everyone, and with all the beauty that exists in the world. You know what? At that moment I could really relate to what she was saying.

I could also relate to these lyrics in that song: "Maybe I'll see you in another life, if this one wasn't enough."

There was, near me in the audience, an annoying guy who kept yelling "No Light" over and over between songs. Because you know, if yelling it twenty times isn't enough, surely the twenty-first time will be the one that will convince Florence and her band to change their (already predetermined) setlist. At one point he even yelled "No Light" during a song - a quiet moment in an absolutely stunning rendition of "Cosmic Love," my favorite song from Florence's first album. At this, I turned toward him (I don't think I even made a conscious decision to do this, it just kind of happened) and exasperatedly told him to shut the fuck up. I can also only imagine how Cara would have reacted. She told me several times that it would really weird her out to hear me swear because she never had. Inwardly, I laughed, thinking about this.

It was such a great concert. I had so much fun. This is something that has happened a few times at concerts recently - Magic Man and Tokyo Police Club being the other notable examples - me just really having fun in a way I hadn't been able to do since last fall. The show last night was the best of all. I guess after Cara and running, I do have a third major love of my life, and it's music. And that one hasn't been taken from me.

As I drove home (finally having made my escape from the parking lot), it really hit me: I have my life back.

I'm always afraid that something bad will happen. I'll have another bad pain flareup. Or something else totally unanticipated. I can't help but be this way, considering everything I've been through. But for now, things are good.

Let me close this by saying that if you are depressed, for whatever reason, do not be afraid to seek out help. Of course, the sad truth is that depression itself can make it much harder to try to find the help you need. But it's worth the effort. Between physical therapy, medication, counseling, increased exercise, and several other factors, I do not know the size of the contribution of each to why I'm now in less pain and no longer feel depressed, but I do know it's a wonderful thing. And I hope that anyone else going through a similar experience can also get that assistance to find their way out.

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