The family dog and me, circa 1999
Have you ever had a special place of solace, somewhere you could go to think, or get away? It could be a quite coffee shop with comfy leather armchairs, or a wooded trail with scenic overlooks. Mine is a quaint, little park, just up the road from the house where I grew up.
My memories at this park go back to my early childhood, before the park was even a park. My siblings and I used to walk the two-tenths of a mile up the road with our friends to explore what seemed to us like a HUGE expanse of land at that very young age. The owner of the land lived in a sprawling one-story home on the property, and let the rest of it pretty much go wild. As wild as you can be in the middle of the suburbs, that is. There were a few unique features about the property, primarily the stable building and carriage house that sat a couple hundred yards away from the house, which had several actual stalls for horses – a novelty to a bunch of kids from the suburbs! And, as if that wasn’t cool enough, there was also a historic log cabin on the property that appeared unoccupied and abandoned, making it quite mysterious to our group of young adventurers.
When I was around the age of 10, the lady who owned the property passed away and there was a big uproar about what would be done with the land. I don’t remember much about it all, except that people were debating whether the land should be turned into a park or used for a new housing development instead. My siblings and I were rooting for the park to be built – a playground sounded much more fun to us than just a bunch of new houses. In fact, my entire family was pretty deeply invested in the park idea, to the extent that my mom took my sister and me to some of the city hall meetings regarding the outcome of this land. I felt pretty grown up, listening to the aldermen and townspeople discuss what should be done.
Eventually the decision was made: the land would be turned into a park. We were ecstatic. After waiting for what seemed like forever, the land was cleared and the park built, and our town held an official ribbon cutting ceremony on a hot and humid day in June. It wasn’t long before we were up there all the time – taking the dog for walks, playing cops and robbers with our friends, and just reveling in the excitement of having our own little park. It was a pretty big event in the timeline of my childhood, to say the least.
Fast forward a few years, and the park had sadly lost its shiny new allure and become just another landmark on the drive home every day. I was about 13 years old, and was beginning to go through one of the most confusing times of my life – that terrifying transition known as “puberty.” I’m pretty sure every girl can relate to this in some form or another. All of a sudden, it seemed I’d lost complete control of my emotions and fallen prey to things like mood swings, random crying spells, and other unexplained behavior. My brother joked (years later, when I was able to laugh along with him) that he could have said “Pass the butter, please,” and I would have broken down in tears. It wasn’t quite that bad….but close. 😉
And so, I returned to that park on those days when I just didn’t want to be around anyone. On my toughest days, I would go up there just to cry, where no one could hear me. I didn’t even know what I was crying about some of the time (oh the joys of being a girl!), but it felt good to cry it out. On the better days, I would take my journal and sit on my favorite bench to process things in my favorite way – with paper and pen.
This park was my spot. My place to get away and deal with all the crazy things I was feeling at the time. Somehow it was comforting, just sitting on my bench and being there.
Senior year of high school
A few years later, it was my senior year of high school, when I had taken up running as a form of exercise. That park became part of my usual route. The path around the perimeter of the park was only ½ mile long, but I loved running up there, doing a few laps, and heading home. Altogether, it was about 2 miles. As I became a more proficient runner, I abandoned the park for longer routes and busier roads. I’d run 7, 8 or 9 miles at a time, sometimes to the Walgreens on Manchester Road or the seminary a few miles away, but as I ran out of my neighborhood, I always went past that little neighborhood park.
Then again, during another crisis in my life, the park reappeared as a place of solace and comfort. It was 2011 and I had moved home suddenly from India and begun treatment for my eating disorder. This park was there for me (not that the park had a choice, really…) during my recovery from anorexia, when I woke up daily at 5am to run. Obsessed about hitting at least 6 miles before I would allow myself to head home, I would often stop in to this little park to finish out my quota for the day. I remember running along that ½ mile path, thinking about my meals the day before, trying to count my calories and make sure I hadn’t gone over. I remember pushing myself to do one or two more laps, because I knew it would quiet the voices in my head and make up for any calories I’d missed from yesterday’s tally.
Months later, after many sessions with a counselor and a lot of hard work, I begun loosening up on my restriction and extreme exercise habits. But now, my battle with food took on a whole other twist. I couldn’t STOP eating. I began eating in secret, bingeing on large amounts of food, making myself sick, and being afraid to leave the house because of how “fat” I felt. In reality, I’d only gone up about 2 sizes in pants, but it happened so quickly that I was sure everyone had noticed and I felt embarrassed to even leave my house. I wore t-shirts and sweatpants whenever I could get away with it, and baggy tunic-style tops the rest of the time. I was so mad at myself for “losing control” with food and didn’t know how to stop the bingeing and weight gain.
Overnight it seemed, I’d become lazy and unmotivated. I’d completely lost my interest in any kind of exercise. It was all I could do get outside and go for a walk, but when I did, I would go up to that park, often in tears, and slowly make my way around the trail. I would mourn the long-gone days of 5am morning runs and the “high” they gave me. I missed the sense of control I used to have and the way I made my body obey me. But, looking back now, I can see that this was an important time in my recovery. During those months, I learned to exercise because I wanted to. I learned (slowly) to give up my compulsion and obsession with working out, and I gradually won the battle over binge eating. As my eating balanced out, so did my exercise routine. Now, I looked forward to those walks in the park and always felt refreshed and content as I soaked in the beauty of nature. Being outside filled me with hope, even on my toughest days. I began once again taking my Bible up to my favorite park, to read, journal, and think. I would talk to God as I walked, sometimes thanking Him for recent baby steps of progress in my recovery, other times begging Him with tears to get me through this hellish struggle. So many ups and downs, but many of them spent at that same park.
By the fall of 2012, I was in a more stable place in my recovery. I had begun to find myself again, learned to relax about my weight and diet, and found new hobbies to enjoy, now that I wasn’t obsessing about food all the time. I’d recently broken off a toxic relationship that had been feeding into my poor body image and insecurity, and I was feeling alive and free. Exercise was a part of my life, but it wasn’t my whole life. I ate a balanced variety of foods and stopped counting calories altogether.
My sister (left) and me, at her wedding
My sister was getting married, and I was the maid of honor. For once, I didn’t diet in order to feel comfortable in my dress. This was a huge step for me, and I felt the gravity of it and the progress it signified. The morning of my sister’s wedding, I woke up and realized I had about an hour until the day began with the arrival of the hairdresser and bridesmaids. I decided to walk up to my favorite park, and just enjoy the brisk, November morning. The temperature was perfect – the sun was out but the breeze made things just a little bit chilly. As I walked by the playground, I stopped to swing on the swings and go across the monkey bars, reliving all the times I’d done those things years ago.
As I left the park, I decided to run the two-tenths of a mile back to my house, but not because I wanted to burn calories; I actually just wanted to run because it felt like the best way to express the peace and happiness in my heart. As I sprinted down the road to my house, I felt like a little kid again, and the excitement of the day ahead made me giddy and free.
A year later, in 2013, I found myself in a new, much healthier, relationship with a guy. He and I went up to the park together in the evenings and made our way around the trail, often with my family’s dog in tow. We’d enjoy the sunset as we discussed our plans for the future, places we wanted to see together and things to check off of our bucket lists.
This is right before I started jumping…
By the fall of 2013, he was down on one knee with a ring in his hand, and I was jumping up and down. (Literally, I started jumping and waving my hands around like a crazy person when he proposed… I’m fairly open about expressing my emotions…)
As we’ve made plans for our wedding and future life together, I’ve continued to visit this park from time to time, just to walk and think about everything happening in my life. I’m a very internal processor, so I need those times of solitude to sort through all the swirling thoughts in my head. Being outside, at that park, calms my heart and helps me relax. There are usually kids playing on the playground, who often ask to pet my dog. It feels comfortable and right, being there at that park where so many landmark moments in my life were spent.
A few weeks ago, I woke up on a Thursday morning and got ready to move my fiancé into our new place. We had an appointment to sign our lease together at 10, but I was wide awake at 7 because I was so excited. I leashed up the dog and walked to my park once again, enjoying the morning sunshine and spring breeze that felt just right. As I meandered along the path, I saw the big open field where we used to play catch or kick the soccer ball, or just run around with our childhood friends. I hollered at my dog and the two of us set off in a sprint across the field. We finished with a collapse on the other side of the field, and as I lay there in the grass, I realized how much this park has meant to me throughout my life, and the idea for this blog post was born.
Friends that know I’m into fitness have asked me if I plan to run on the morning of my big day…some even mentioned they’d heard of brides who run a race on their wedding day, which made me exhausted just thinking about it. Who knows, maybe I’ll take a quick run around the neighborhood, or maybe I’ll opt to sleep in and sip coffee on my parents’ screened-in porch. But at some time that morning, before the hustle and bustle of the day begins, I know I’ll make my way up to my little park that holds so many memories for me. Maybe I’ll be swinging on the swings or sprinting across the field. Or maybe I’ll just be sitting on the bench with my journal in hand, soaking in the excitement of the day.