On Running Away and Coming Home
I don't know why I felt compelled to do it, but I ran all the way to the church building that afternoon. I didn’t realize until I doubled back through the empty parking lot that maybe I just needed to see the building and feel as if I had been there myself.
Nico had been up half the night, writhing from the pain of a stomach ache that hit him suddenly at bedtime on Saturday evening. I admit that I suspected the whole thing was exaggerated, not entirely fabricated but heartily embellished at the very least. I admit that I expected him to have a miraculous recovery as soon as the rest of the family drove off to church and left us in our pajamas, with the most exciting prospect for our morning being the pile of dirty dishes left over from breakfast.
So, when that boy happily started rifling through his craft cabinet and piling art supplies on the table before I even had a chance to wipe the morning’s crumbs off it, I started making a series of sounds that could only be described as harrumphs. A quiet soundtrack for the opening of my own little pity party.
I started cooking when I realized I was too irritated to sit around watching reruns of Law and Order. Tortilla soup for lunch and a casserole for later in the week and a chocolate cake because did I mention I was having a bit of a pity party? I banged pots around that poor kitchen for two hours, talking myself into a frenzy, telling the flour bin how I never get to go anywhere or do anything, and how I really could have used a morning at church because I’d been doing my level best to fall apart all week. And all the while, Nico hummed happily at the table, drawing and cutting with his little blue safety scissors and pulling out pieces of tape three times too long.
By the time Sam came in the door, I was whipping a batch of chocolate buttercream in the mixer and muttering to myself and swiping at angry tears with the back of my hand.
What’s so ridiculous about that whole silly tantrum is that every single Sunday I think of twenty reasons why I can’t possibly go to church. Always, in the back of my mind, I am contemplating taking some time off from organized religion. Always, I am trepidatious about dropping my kids off in their classrooms. Always I am waiting for someone there to find me out, to learn that I am a scandalous, angry, doubtful, feminist, bleeding heart liberal fool who must be escorted from the building by a couple of indignant ushers and left to wait in the car like a scolded child. Or, perhaps worse, I am always waiting for that ENOUGH moment when I find myself stomping down the aisle after one too many sermons on Colossians 3.
Every week, I have to talk myself through the same old fears that kept me out of church for over a decade, and every week I think that maybe I’ll take some time off soon, bow out of my volunteer ministry post, sleep in late the next Sunday and then maybe take the family out to brunch. Every week, I hem and haw and pretend I am not committed to being a part of this community we’ve joined, but then I can’t deny that when I’m kept from it, I miss it. This week, I missed it enough to wind myself into a full-fledged tizzy as I slung diced vegetables and cocoa powder all over the kitchen counters.
Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in my thirties, it’s that when I’m in a mood that foul, the only thing for me is to get out and run. If you knew me at any other point in my life, you would understand how ridiculous it sounds for this girl to anticipate going for a run, but glory hallelujah there is one healthy habit that age has developed in me. So, I laced up my shoes and leashed up the dog and hit the pavement.
Most of my runs are limited by a fairly rigid combination of full-time-working-mom-of-two time restrictions and asthmatic-who-hates-her-inhaler speed and distance restrictions. Those restrictions became pretty unimportant as soon as I realized that I am running for me, and I don’t have to go anyone else’s speed or match anyone else’s mileage. Still, on Sunday, I knew I needed to generate one hell of an attitude adjustment, and I decided to run until I could come home with a smile on my face.
I took the long path around the edge of the neighborhood, and then instead of turning around at my usual spot to head home, I just kept going. I didn’t realize until I was almost there that I was running to church. I ran along the sidewalk, past the big stone sign at the second entrance, down the driveway and through the parking lot. And for some reason, as soon as I saw that big, empty building, the tightness in my chest began to ease. I thought of how Nico used to say, “Oh there’s Nico’s church!” when he caught sight of the building, and just as quickly I realized it had been some five years since our first baby was in the habit of making that pronouncement.
Though it’s hard to believe, the way time moves so fast these days, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in the house we're in now. And I have never, at least in my conscious memory, been at one church as long as we’ve been at this one. For a kid who moved a lot, it feels both nice and also somehow strange to sink my roots into a place.
On the way home, it felt as if I’d actually been to church, not just run through the parking lot. The morning’s anger had been burned out of me, and all that was left was the rhythm of movement and the cool air finding the beads of sweat on my neck. I looked around at my neighborhood, the one I've run through so many times and yet still see as a surprise, as if I'm seeing it for the first time.
And I had to wonder if this was just another instance of comparison thinking and plotting where I am now against where I thought I would be. I look at our neighborhood in the suburbs as if I were a stranger to it because I can't let go of the idea that we are supposed to live in some funky Austin neighborhood where everyone paints their house bright colors and puts Obama signs in their front yards. I hesitate to call myself a runner because I have to slow to a walk when I lose my breath. I pretend I am only just noncommittally checking out this church and not five years into membership with kids who have rotated through half the classrooms in the building. "Oh there's my church," my son used to say, claiming that place as a trusted landmark on the map of his two year old life. But I, with three decades more experience under my belt, am still blinking in surprise every time I pull into the parking lot.
And yet, I'm out there in my worn out, discount running shoes, seeking the place that I've gone every week for half a decade to ask the hard questions about faith and prayer and hope and peace and life and death and just about everything in between. Sure, they are probably as ready to break up with me as I am with them some days. But they just keep opening their doors to me, and I keep opening my doors to them, and I guess there's something to it because when I am used up and broken down and throwing a real jewel of a pity party, it's there my feet lead me. So that day, I came home after going to church, even though I missed church, and I put my shoes under the bar stools in the kitchen, where I always put my shoes though it drives Sam crazy, and I was thinking how running can be like worship and how silence is sometimes the best prayer and how it's the hanging your hat part that makes it home.