Encouraging Words

We’re running through downtown Portland, my daughter, me and thousands of other runners. June 2, the Starlight Run. Everyone knows it doesn’t get really hot in Portland. Today, though, it’s in the 90s. Sweat drips from my hair, my chin, into my eyes; everything I’m wearing is soaked.

I slow a little, thinking that if it doesn’t get noticeably cooler in the next five minutes, I’m calling it. I’ll walk back to the Start, find my friends. They’ll understand. I’m not a real runner anyway. Too old. Too unfit. Not dedicated enough. My shoes are too clunky. I hate the heat. I’m a fair-weather runner, and this is definitely not fair weather.

Then we turn the corner, the people in costumes and all the other runners and me, into a canyon of tall buildings. People are still at work, up there. And they’re cheering!

They’re hanging out of all the windows, waving and cheering as if they knew each and every one of us! They’re throwing confetti onto us, they’re yelling encouragement, shouting names, identifying some of us by costume or hair color or whatever they can see. They’re cheering us!

Me! They were cheering me!

Suddenly my feet moved faster. I looked up, smiled at them. My head came up, my back got a bit straighter, my stride got a bit longer. I was really running.

They were cheering me!

I ran on, through the canyon of buildings, back out into sweltering Portland, and on to the Finish line. I finished!

Would I have, otherwise? Surely I’m disciplined enough to carry through with a project, to finish what I start, without that.

And yet….

When you’re at the end of your rope, digging deep, other people matter. Deep in our psyches, we’re tied to each other. Strangers affect us more than we care to admit.

When I started rock climbing, I discovered this again. Some partners manage the rope for you as you climb without a word. You know they’ll catch you if you fall. But they don’t participate.

Some do. Some encourage, cheer, shout helpful things or silly things, or just words to make you smile. They help you climb.

I like to think I could do it just on my own. But when you know that someone else is pulling for you, hoping for you, things go better. Every parent knows this; kids need a great deal of encouragement. But don’t we all?

Will a day come when I no longer need that? Or is that a lifelong need? For where I am in life right now, it can be the difference between doing a climb, or backing off. Finishing a race, or walking back.

Or writing another blog. Or book. Or article. Writing is the loneliest job. One works alone, at a desk, at the kitchen table, in a car or in a café hunched over a keyboard, making thoughts visible. Alone.

If you’re lucky, you have an editor to read and enthuse. Or critique. If you’re lucky, you have an audience to read and react. Even luckier, people pay you for it.

People are the common factor in this equation. We need each other. I always knew that was true. But it took becoming an athlete for me to realize just how true it is.

Version 2

Hats off to Mom!


Did you call your mother “Mom” when you were little? I never did. On my block, where I grew up, each house had a different name for her. Matka. Mamaka. Mamma. Ma. Mutter. Depended on where they were from.

On our block in Queens, 25 two-story houses lined each side of the street, and the people who lived in them came from all over Europe. After World War II, New York was filled with “displaced persons,” as they were called, and immigrants. Our block was typical of a lot of New York, back then.

Decades later, I would read in the N. Y. Times that Jackson Heights, the neighborhood I lived in, was the single most diverse neighborhood in any city in the U.S. To us, it was just home. That’s how I got started learning lots of languages. Whenever I went to visit or play with a friend, I had to be civil to the parents or grandparents who let me in.

In that neighborhood, the terms “Mom” or “Dad” were pure Hollywood. The only time I ever heard those words was on “Leave it to Beaver” on TV, or in movies.

Whatever you used to call her — or still do, if you’re lucky — whether you are a mother, or have one, or had one you’d like to honor on this day, or hope to be one someday — I wish you a very

Happy Mother’s Day!