“Though I walk in the valley of death, I will not fear, for You are with me.” –Psalm 23
I was fifteen when the trauma happened that overshadowed my life. I wasn’t yet able to comprehend the tortuous impact it had on me because I was a tough, “cool” teenager with that exterior façade built to protect me from harm. It had seemed that nothing could faze me ever.
I certainly wasn’t going to tell my parents, or even my closest friends. I just recoiled within myself and didn’t share the details because I was too embarrassed and devastated.
With only one friend I tried to open up, but then, two weeks after I confided in her, her father’s job transferred her to North Carolina. Now we were separated by a vast physical distance. And we were too young to know what trauma was and that I needed help.
My parents couldn’t tell that something was wrong because I still looked, on the outside, like their same aloof, rebellious teenage daughter.
Lack of communication was the norm imposed by me. And how could I tell my mother what had happened when she had grounded me for being out late the night before? Therefore, it was all my fault. Unrelenting guilt devoured me. I wore dark, baggy clothes to hide in, that resonated with the shattered way I felt inside. Suicidal, depressing thoughts engulfed me. The world was a scary place with evil people that couldn’t be trusted.
A month before my sixteenth birthday, my friend’s mom lent me a book by Dick Gregory, “Cookin’ with Mother Nature.” His book testified how he lost over 200 lbs., going from morbid obesity to a slim, healthy athlete.
I don’t remember why I was willing to read his book. I didn’t care about anything. I was failing most of my classes in high school. Who cares what we eat? And yet, he wrote about the connection between the food we consume and how we feel. Could it be that all the sugar, candy, ice cream, junk food, French fries, pizza … my whole teen diet… could exacerbate how depressed I was?
Somewhere inside of me was a spark of life bursting to be reborn.
My soul was desperate to emerge from the pit of despair where I was stuck for so long.
I had never stopped praying. I didn’t know Who else to turn to in those bleak days when I was feeling so alone. I don’t know what influenced me to pray, but from the very beginning, I did… “G-d… I feel so dirty, disgusting and yucky. I feel lonely and hopeless…. What’s the point of being alive in a world where people hurt each other??”
And I cried. A lot.
I knew that I can’t control anything or anyone around me. I could only make choices about myself.
Something inside compelled me to choose life.
Right then I decided to go “cold-turkey” from the junk-food diet, from smoking and drinking and drugs that I consumed and focus on eating fresh fruits for breakfast, salads for lunch, whole grains and vegetable soups for dinner… It was an inner physical cleansing that could cleanse my mind, heart and soul. If I would take care of myself, maybe that meant I was worth something. Maybe my life mattered.
And slowly, cautiously, tentatively, I started running in the morning before school. It was only ten minutes around the block, but it was a beginning: the beginning of a new life.
This new routine evolved into going to sleep early and arising by 5:30 am. Ten minutes became twenty, then thirty, and eventually an hour in the awesome fresh morning breeze. Awakening before sunrise, hearing the chorus of chirping birds surrounded me with a buoyant feeling of renewal and rebirth.
Running was like flying.
It began with that first step around the block: invigorated, revitalized and restoring that lost sense of self-esteem and self-respect. And off the “typical American diet” it seemed like my brain was coming out of a fog. I could learn, absorb, study and pass exams in school again. My grades in school went up. My communication with my parents improved dramatically as I tried to make up for how disrespectfully I had treated them. Though I sometimes laughingly wondered if I was running away from my problems or running into a new future, those morning runs were a soothing, therapeutic, meditative time of prayer, reflection and contemplation, a time of healing and reconciliation with my inner being and with G-d Who I had felt estranged from.
It was during those walks that I sensed that G-d was always by my side, coaching me on.
He had never left me, though I had left Him.
Two years after I started running, three years after the trauma, I was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. I was only eighteen and I was sure that the early trauma was connected to my illness. How could my body fight back when I had wanted to die?
But everything was different now. I wanted to live!! I had to live!
I couldn’t run after major abdominal surgery, but I could walk, though at first it was excruciatingly painful.
I survived that cancer, but six years later I found out that the operation and radiation that helped save my life also made it impossible for me to have children without undergoing more invasive treatment. I didn’t want more drugs and more operations, but I walked through that challenge.
Baruch Hashem, I walked through births and raising children.
I walked through cancer again when I was forty-four – twenty-six years after the first battle with cancer. “Twenty-six” years of precious life – the number that represents Hashem’s Name of compassion. I walked through more surgeries, more radiation treatment and chemotherapy, feeling Hashem’s ahavah raba surrounding me.
Walking became my everything. It was my route of escape from the death dungeon I was entrapped in for one horrible year when I was fifteen. It was my way of claiming back my self-worth.
But it was and is more than that.
There have been SO MANY ordeals… a really long list. I have walked through them all, almost every morning, including Shabbos and Yom Tov and fast days, with G-d by my side, helping me always.
It’s been forty years since I first ventured around the block for ten minutes. Forty is that auspicious Biblical number of rebirth: of wandering in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land; and forty days between the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, until Yom Kippur, the annual season of teshuvah.
The number forty represents the concept of transition and change; of an auspicious time for personal growth and renewal, of making a new beginning. Forty is the number that represents the power to lift a spiritual state, to be purified and transformed.
Like in the story of Noach, the rain poured for forty days, and when the waters of the flood subsided, the world was purified from corruption and given a new chance.
Since that new beginning in the spring of 1978, I have walked through so many difficulties, including the ones that seemed impossible to face.
I can hardly believe that I am here to write these words, living forty more years on borrowed time!
Every step, for me, is another opportunity to thank G-d and celebrate the precious gift of life, the life that I can hardly believe I am here to live.
What do I do during my morning walks? I daven. I say Tehillim. I say thank You. I daven for an end to personal and national suffering, abuse, oppression, greed, hunger, turmoil and pain, for an end to ignorance and illness, and for true world peace: geulah shalaimah, teshuvah shalaimah, refuah shalaimah.
Walking is a celebration of life!
A lot of people need their morning coffee to begin the day.
I need my morning walk.
“But they who wait for G-d will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint.” – Isaiah 40:31