Somewhat relatedly, I got to see a friend a rarely do over the weekend and was thrown completely for a loop. Usually in a conversation I can arrange a list of answers that I’ve already honed in previous conversations* into set pieces: this is my work drama, this is how my mother is doing, this is how home ownership is coming along, etc. etc. And it’s true that I got to trot those out. But she also kept tripping me up by asking about things I’d forgotten I’d let it be known mattered to me. Had I read this author, had I heard about that book, and was I still writing?
I don’t anticipate these questions because in the past decade it has dawned on me that the price you pay for sharing such information amongst peers tends to be too high. As a result, when people forget that I do such things, I let it go. My in-laws remember my academic career, such as it was, rather than the awards I won for this or that story. My immediate friends remember the degree I just finished wading through, and the doors it would ideally have opened. (One day…) But I don’t usually field questions about my writing, and am so startled and sheepish and touched when asked that I stumble through the rest of the conversation, no set pieces to hand, trying madly to filter out what I do and don’t want to say about project A or B or C. But because this friend dated back the full decade, to when everyone, in either the arrogance or naiveté (probably both) of youth freely announced such pursuits without (too much) fear of repercussion, in the form of condescension or too-keen interest or otherwise, she knew. And, moreover, she remembered. And I was absurdly unprepared for it, and sat there mumbling to the cobbles about editing and deadlines and contests, all while blushing harder than my cherry tomatoes in their pots out back.
Which is ridiculous. I’m thirty years old. I have always done this thing. But to have that be remembered and respected, by someone I don’t see every day or even every year — and to be asked, and to be met with delight when I replied in the surprised affirmative that yes, I still did such work — pleases me. So much more than I anticipated feeling on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
*How I used to chafe, as a kid, hearing my mother do this! I’d hear the same words come out of her mouth again and again, to stranger after stranger, and resent the prefabricated nature of it; how she had something ready for a whole host of situations and it just came to hand easily, rehearsed, perfected. It was years and years before I realized that such responses held off-stage and at the ready grease the many less-important daily interactions along, grind us past their necessary ordinariness, so that we can get to those that matter.
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CharityMiles first came to my attention through Patrick Rothfuss, who hopes to be able to use the app to help fund his Worldbuilders charity. He brought it to his readership’s attention because of PokemonGo — if everyone was already out and about hunting pokemon, after all, why not use all that walking for good? The app translates mileage into donation dollars for a charity of your choice, and while Worldbuilders isn’t currently an option, it is a team. The hope is that if the team games enough visibility, the app will let the Worldbuilders charity itself onto the list of potential charities to which to donate your hard-earned miles.
In the meantime, however, would-be Worldbuilders donors are encouraged to send our miles to whatever charity we wish. And here I encountered a problem.
I run. A lot. I would have run a 50 mile race this spring if family health events hadn’t took a turn for the worst, and I have the MCM coming up this fall. (Yes, I am sorry Tim — this is a running post. Sort of.) I have, then, a decent amount of miles to pitch toward whatever charity I choose, and at first the choice was easy. I started scrolling through the then-alphabetized list (it has since been re-organized by other parameters, it seems — perhaps popularity, or perhaps the organizations compete to be first on the list?), saw the Alzheimer’s Association, and boom. Done.
Except it wasn’t.
I used to try to come up with mental games for running having to do with my mother and memory loss, it’s true. When first trying to acclimatize myself to longer distances, I would grow fatigued and try to trick myself into continuing with phrases like “if you just reach that tree before that guy, or the tracks in time to see the train, your mom will get well!” This is, at its heart, a childish gimmick doomed to failure, I know. I knew it then, too. But in the exhaustion of a 20+ mile run I was able to enjoy, in the sense-deadened alternate reality of the exhausted runner, the illusion that something I did, physically, mattered. That I could ask of my body something that would actually help my mother.
The CharityMiles app, it seemed, was an opportunity to live that fantasy. Suddenly my mileage did matter. I could exhaust my body in exchange for the knowledge that I’d contributed, however little, to a fund that would ideally go to research that would help combat, prevent, or mitigate the effects of the disease. Taking my former mental tricks as a cue, the opportunity to use the CharityMiles app to send money toward the Alzheimer’s Association should have delighted me.
But…I don’t send my miles that way.
Why? Because it felt selfish.
Hear me out. I talk about this disease all the time. I do this though it sometimes makes people around me a little squeamish. I do this because it seems logically unlikely to me that the reverse — trying to suppress my knowledge of this looming cloud over my life — would be healthy. So when my sisters-in-law waste their precious years left with their mother belittling her or encouraging these petty squabbles, I seethe. And I say so. When I am happily enjoying @midnight only to see their comedy team dip again into the rich pool of material that is mocking people too old and out of sorts to fight back, I fume. I don’t presume to go on some sort of Twitter tirade about these events with the expectation that such a tirade get results, but I don’t try to suppress such reactions in the privacy of my own home (or, often, car) either. It’s everywhere, for me. Every time Hulu forces me to watch an ad of a happy older mother at her daughter’s first this, that or the other; every time my dad complains to me about a coworker going on some romantic holiday trip with his wife, I am saddened. And because sadness is useless to me, I am then angry. Which is at least energizing, versus the paralysis of sorrow.
What I am saying is that Alzheimer’s is an ever-present fact of my life. And it’s true that as baby boomers age, it is becoming a larger fact of many other lives, too. But insisting that that scrap of dawn-lit running I do, too, be wrapped up in this years-long avalanche of fury and regret is something I am no longer willing to do. It feels too much. It is — I am — asking too much, when it and I demand that every moment everyone else still has with their healthy, cognizant mother be tender and thoughtful. It is asking too much that I demand of the technology I carry around with me daily to grant me the illusion that my very ability to move can help. It’s a gimmick, as much if not more than my “you’ll cure her if you run faster!” ruse. It’s a gimmick I’m tired of trying to believe in, because even if they figured something out tomorrow, they can’t bring back what is already lost. You can’t reconstruct memories that are already gone.
I can, however, seek to ensure that what memories other people, healthy people, create are able to be made in the places I hold dear. That’s why I send my mileage instead to the National Park Service.
Again, it’s paltry, I know. They are so underfunded and so underappreciated that my puny dollars won’t reconstruct sliding path slopes or fight off the demented lobbying efforts of anti-government wingnuts. This, too — not the app’s donation function, which is real, but my ability to convince myself that every paltry step matters in a measurable way — may be a gimmick. But it is one that feels, more so than dwelling on the disease that destroys my family, my loved ones, charitable. There are people who have not seen Glacier, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Olympics. Hell, most of the people I know have not. My own husband, before I dragged him out to the canyons, hadn’t been outside his state since before college. But even though what dollars my running donates end up being too small to directly attribute to a funded project — something measurable — the idea of running to preserve and protect, rather than to continue a battle that my heart loses daily, feels better. (Even if it isn’t.) The parks, at their cloud-fogged heights and flood-scarred depths, will outlast me, and my mother, and my family’s misery. They’ll be there for people beyond the touch of this disease to treasure, and they’ll be there, hopefully, long past the point where Alzheimer’s is even an issue. When people are able to hold onto their memories again, they should be able to make memories in places like the parks. Places we are losing. I would rather fight for that future than for the one I’ve already lost. It makes the very beginning of my day have more in common with the sunrise I run into than the inevitable darkening I try not to see.
In reading over an article I wrote the other day, my husband asked me why there wasn’t a firmer, more pronounced conclusion, and in the grim joy I take in the obliqueness of texting as a medium (we were at our respective workplaces) I responded that “if I knew if it was worth crafting memories only to lose them, I wouldn’t be writing.” While gratuitously morbid, this statement is at its heart true. I don’t know if it is worth it. I know I don’t intend to cease, but that doesn’t impart worth to the effort. Ensuring that the vistas to which I return, physically and mentally, will still be there for others, though? That has worth. That’s no mental trick I need to employ to make my running or writing or persisting matter.