Updated: Aug 12, 2019
Our house backs up to a catholic elementary school. We are not catholic, and our children do not attend the school, but we collectively spend enough time there to be confirmed.
All of the houses on our street have gates within their backyard fences that provide access to the school. Administrators of the school refer to us as their "neighbors." We all cheer for the soccer players in the evening from our back patio.
Each member of our family benefits from the access our gate provides. As if passing through that mythical wardrobe, everyone seems to discover their own Narnia back there. Jim enjoys peacefully reading on the steps to the gym while the girls play on the equipment. Lowery loves the long, narrow parking lot where she's able to build up the momentum and speed on her bike that our driveway can't provide. London delights in trying each identical swing in the protracted row of them on the far side of the grounds. Even our two dogs, Lucy and Daisy, enjoy being in our backyard during the school day so they can run along the fence and bark at the squeals of happy children periodically released from the confines of their classrooms.
But my own relationship with the school in our backyard feels perhaps a bit more ritualistic.
Just out our gate is a large soccer field surrounded by a well-maintained track. Since we moved in last year, I get up most mornings before sunrise and walk around the track before the children need to be awoken for the predictably chaotic morning rush.
Jim gets up with me--sleepy-eyed and groggy--and walks with me in silence down the stairs and to our back door. He sees me out and then locks the door behind me. He heads back up the stairs to shave and shower and get himself ready, knowing I'll be tapping at the back glass--45 minutes later--at which point he'll unlock the door, hand me a steaming cup of coffee, and we will both brace ourselves for the girls' screams over ponytails and pancakes.
Why don't I just lock the back door myself with a key so Jim can sleep longer? Why do I prefer Jim hand me coffee instead of ice water? Why are my children such monsters in the morning? I don't know, exactly. It's a routine that isn't entirely logical, sure. But its complexity feels precise, beautiful and necessary. So we continue it exactly the same way every day, except when we awake to the sound of rain or, as is sometimes the case, when I can't seem to get my ass out of bed.
School grounds are beautiful, if not eerie, when vacant. Swings squeak quietly against the cool morning breeze. Leaves dance across the sidewalks chalked with children's doodles. Dew dots the blades across the practice field. I feel a sense of pride for a school to which I don't pay tuition. Perhaps the way others feel about Notre Dame during the playoffs. I know it's okay that I'm there, preferred even--our neighbors assured us repeatedly of this when we moved in. But I still have a script ready in case I'm stopped by a groundskeeper, security guard, or overly inquisitive fourth grader.
In some ways I feel like a keeper of the school, in so much as I often pick up random bits of litter, or put back stray soccer balls. I can walk without my phone or a watch because the precision of the environment keeps me on track. When I've walked exactly 5 laps around, a red pickup truck appears at the far corner of the parking lot. A white-haired man gets out and arranges small orange traffic cones along the building's circle drive in preparation for the upcoming school drop-off line. Though pick-up and drop-off at any school is an unseemly nightmare, it feels promisingly calm because of this man's diligence each morning. When the church bells chime I know I have three laps to go.
Despite my deep commitment to this routine, there's something almost sacrilegious about my morning walks. Not only do my kids not go to the school, but I don't have a religion to speak of. To be clear, I was raised in a church. I went to church camp as a teenager, and I was in more than my fair share of nativity scenes as a young kid. But as it stands now, attending Christmas Eve service with my parents is the extent to which I--or my little family--elect to be involved in any type of religious practice.
And yet, most mornings you can find me out there in the grey light, walking out any worry, enumerating the day's to-do list, outlining the next book proposal, ruminating over bigger goals, or fretting over the current parenting dilemma. I get so much done, and yet nothing done at all, every morning in the quiet sanctuary before sunrise.
Lately, I've been a bit run down. I always seem to lose steam in May. A lot transpired over the course of the school year, and not just with my day job at the university. Writing the book, and the process by which it was edited, formatted, titled, and approved by legal, took up quite a lot of my head space. As did the first season of The Handmaid's Tale. But there's still more to gear up for, like boosting pre-order sales, book signings, speaking tours, and season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale. Which says nothing of my fall teaching schedule or the fact that I need to get started on the next book--if I could only settle on the right idea.
When I get like this, run down, overwhelmed, and unable to think clearly, I've always believed in the power of walking.
Recently, an idea for the next book hit me so hard, in the middle of the seventh lap, that I felt myself pick up speed as if I'd been pushed by it. I didn't know if I should run back through the gate and pound on the glass for Jim to let me in, or search the grounds for a piece of chalk so I could write across the basketball court. I was overcome with thoughts, overtaken with panic, and overwhelmed with excitement. The next foot rapidly in front of the last, my brow furrowed, as if I were trying to outpace my idea.
It could work! I thought. Chapters one, two, and three felt as if they were outlining themselves. I closed my eyes. Knowing the track as well as I did, I felt safe to speed walk blindly. I quickly worked to slow my brain. Stop, Meg. Stop and think. What was the title? You had it a minute ago. What was that opening line? Dammit woman! I tried to temper my breathing, but my feet and mind continued to race.
Suddenly, thoughts vanished and I was startled into mental blankness. I snapped open my eyes at the sound of someone else's feet pounding on the pavement. There was someone running full speed at me. Before I could dodge, or even blink, a nun--in full tunic and habit--came whizzing past me.
Her eyes darted to meet mine and her mouth turned up at the ends in a faint smile. But then, she was gone. By the time I turned my head she was already around the bend of the track, the tail of her habit whipping in the wind.
I kept pace, eager to talk to this nun when we crossed again at the next bend. But this time, she didn't move her eyes toward me. She kept running, eyes fixed ahead, habit flapping. We did this for nine more laps, the nun and I. Her, running with a crucifix around her neck so large it seemed to double for resistance training. Me, walking in a hole-y orientation t-shirt from college.
What were her worries? I wondered. What was on her to-do list? Was she running to outpace an idea? Should I suggest a bucket of sidewalk chalk for those of us struck by divine inspiration?
She had far more right to be there than I did. She lived with the other nuns on the property. This was more than a school to some and a personal gym to me; this was her home. This was a life she fully lives, but to me, this was just something I did each morning before tending to the life I live fully. And yet, there we were. Together and alone, headed in opposite directions.
Friends have asked, while standing in our back yard and seeing the school rise up over our fence, why we don't just send our kids there. "Drop off would be so easy!" they coo. Seriously, parents will say they want the best education for their kids, but really, we are all just looking for the easiest drop-off/pick-up situation. I think their point is, why wouldn't we take full advantage of the circumstance?
But that's the thing about gym memberships, private schools and religion. You don't always have to buy in to them fully to still benefit from what they have to offer.