I tried to hang a wrought-iron curlicue thing on my deck a few weeks ago to suspend a planter full of impatiens.
I don’t know the technical or gardening or metalworking term for whatever the thing was – an arm of sorts with holes for two screws and some dips and swirls to make it look pretty enough, or, as Paul Simon would say, all right in a sort of a limited way for an off night.
It was the first item I’ve purchased since being divorced that would rely on me and my mediocre skills of home repair or improvement. But it’s two screws into a wooden post, I thought, it can’t be that hard. The kids and I brought it home and I went into the garage to get the drill my dad bought me when I moved out of the house 22 years ago. My ex-husband Philip had left me a small pile of tools and a home in good enough repair that I wouldn’t have much to worry about.
Memory served enough for me to get everything assembled, and I leaned over the rail to position the screw into the post. It was a weird angle, sort of half bent sideways with my arms over my head. I considered getting a stepstool. Didn’t. I drilled a bit of a hole so it wouldn’t be so awful once I had to hold the bracket up, and I confess to patting myself on the back when I remembered how to reverse the drill to back the screw out.
I then immediately dropped it and watched as it rolled between the slats of the deck and fell into the rocks and weeds and who knows what else below.
“Crap,” I thought, “I’ll never find that.”
Then, “Oh well. It’s not like I’m hanging a tree – I’m sure this thing will hold my pot of flowers with just one screw.”
I picked up the bracket, fit the screw onto the drill, did the weird lean over the railing and pressed ahead. I felt it go in, and as my pride swelled, I leaned back and took pressure off and immediately stripped the screw, halfway in.
“Good grief,” I thought, and wondered how the heck one gets it back out. I tried to unscrew it with my hand – impossible on every level. I tried the drill again – which whined and spun and did nothing to help me. I tried just staring at it all, hoping I would somehow figure it out.
When all that failed, I did what any self-respecting suburbanite does: I went to my neighbor and asked for help. My neighbor Zahur, always friendly, offered to come over. When he did, he took one look at my tools and went home to get his own. Five minutes later, my bracket was hung, with two screws, including one he had from home, and I had another basket of impatiens to water.
It was one of a string of firsts, and it sounds so small: I got out my drill, remembered how to use it, then flubbed up the job I was doing.
Two weeks before, I had mowed my lawn, the second time in my life I’d ever used a lawnmower. I had to have a friend show me how to use it, and when he did, I cried with gratitude, then immediately wished I could mow in the dead of night so my neighbors couldn’t see my try to navigate the flower beds and curbs and my pitiful upper body strength as I tried to start it.
I made it through that, too. And while I still can’t answer what seems to be everyone’s question about yardwork, “How long does it take you to mow?” (I don’t know … depends on how many times I have to stop and get something for the kids or how much Diet Coke I drink between the front and the back, or if my neighbor wanders over and we sit on the deck and gossip for a while.)
Every step is incremental progress.
Now I know how to mow a lawn. Now I know to apply pressure when using the drill. And now I know how to use an edger.
I had realized this weekend the grass near the swingset was out of control. The kids could have begun playing some random war movie over there, or become covered in ticks, or maybe it would all just grow long enough to hide the swingset itself, and save me from ever having to tear it down and figure out what to do with it. These were all viable options to me.
Instead I went into the garage, looked at the edger and saw it had directions on it. I followed them. It wouldn’t start. I tried again. No luck. Called Philip. I’ve tried to not ask him for help – we’re both respectful of one another’s time and the untangling. He asks me for help with his schoolwork sometimes or for my pumpkin bread recipe, and I ask him things like, “Where is the thing to make the sprinkler things work?”
We do our best to answer each other, gently and honestly, knowing we have a lifetime of negotiating to do as we raise two young kids. And I always say you marry someone for a reason, and just because you get divorced, some of those reasons remain. It’s not always amicable – if it were, you wouldn’t be divorced in the first place. But we continue to try, sometimes harder than we did to stay married. Or maybe it’s because there’s no obligation now, and every decision to be kind is made and meant intentionally.
“Look, I’ll just come over, it’s fine,” he said, and arrived a few minutes later. We stood in the garage, our hands in our pockets, and looked down at the offending and unstarting edger.
“You have to try to start it like 30 times,” he said. My sapling upper arms whined just thinking about it. He knelt down to do it, and I stopped him.
“Can I do it? I’m going to have to do it,” I said. “Just tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
I got it to start. He showed me how to hold it, told me to tap the disk at the bottom when I needed more string.
“What?” I asked. “Isn’t there a blade somewhere?”
He explained the string thing again. I must have looked stricken.
“On the ground,” he said hurriedly. “Tap it on the ground, not with your hand.”
I started to laugh. “God,” I said. “I’m glad you explained that. I was like, wait, you want me to tap it while it’s spinning? How does it not cut me? Also I just don’t have that kind of wingspan – I didn’t know how I was going to reach it and hold it at the same time.”
We both laughed – and it was a rare and wonderful moment between us, the kind that maybe would have saved us had it happened more often in the decade before, or maybe it could have never happened with who we were then. It doesn’t matter – my regrets from the past year are over the little things, not the big decisions, and all my gratitude is for moments like this, when we can be human to each other.
He walked around the yard with me, offered tips.
“Don’t get it too close to the …” and I gouged a hole in the earth. “Or the …” and a piece of the swingset ricocheted off the slide.
As Philip got ready to leave, he looked at the back of my car. “That’s a sweet sticker,” he said, about the Celtic-style owl and the Zumbro logo.
Since that race, I’ve struggled to run. At first I thought I broke my foot, so I took a few weeks off. I’ve had enough stress fractures to know what one feels like, and there’s nothing any doctor can tell me that I don’t already know. Rest. Come back slowly. Make sure it feels OK before you start at all.
That’s good advice for just about anything, really – from your love life to your running life. I’m trying to follow it in both. It’s all incremental progress – but moving forward is moving forward, and each step takes you a little farther.
This week I ran consistently for the first time since Zumbro. It was nothing amazing: a 4.5-mile run on my treadmill on Tuesday night to force the issue, 6.5 miles on Thursday at Good Earth State Park, my favorite place to run, and then 5 miles at noon on Friday with a former coworker, doing the same route we ran together for a decade. Saturday I joined the 605 Running Co. morning run and potluck breakfast (thank you, Benson, for that amazing tea). And then on Sunday my friend Kelly took the kids so I could get another 6 miles in.
It’s not a ton – not quite 30 miles this week, but better than the 5 a week I’ve been logging as I throw a test at my foot here and there.
But it’s something.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.