It’s my last run here in Switzerland. I’m trying to decide which course I’ll take as my final farewell to this country that has been our home for a year and a half. And since our apartment is on the edge of a mountain full of endless trails, I have many choices, each route offering up different varieties of beauty.
Forest or meadow? I decide that rather than immerse myself in the thick trees, I will follow the farmers’ path up to the pasture so I can say goodbye to the animals.
It rained last night and slimy, bloated slugs lie all across the road. I have to weave around them on the wet pavement while I try not to think about stuff I need to do, what I need to pack for our trip home.
The late summer grass in the fields is starting to turn brown and the apples lie under the gnarled trees in rotten piles, mushed and now swarmed by drunken bees. I will miss these farms and watching them change with the seasons.
The animals have been escorted down from the mountains by the farmers and everyone looks a little worse for wear – fat, shaggy and dirty but, no doubt, happy to be back in the barn.
The sheep aren’t cute baby lambs anymore but randy adolescents huddling in a corner, no longer the fluffy bundles from Spring. Now they stink, their coats brown and muddy. There is always one odd one that is standing while the rest lie down, and he hovers and persistently butts his head in into their rumps, over and over, ever the outsider.
I will miss this view from the mountain, the sunsets each night a different palette, and the lights of Zürich twinkling beneath my kitchen window.
I will miss the sounds of dozens of clock towers ringing at all hours of the day and night, echoing throughout the valley. In a digital world, it has felt so cozy to have this hint of old world charm.
I am leaving this place where I grieved for my mother, after her death exactly two years ago today. In a way, I am leaving my grief here, my sadness tamped down into the ruts of the trail beneath my feet. I’m leaving my tears and loneliness next to the water trough on the hill.
I’ll never think of Switzerland and not think of Mom. This place has helped me find solace and relief. I think that being alone in nature is a balm in the way it leads by example, animals move forward without rumination and without pause. Here I have learned that analysis usually comes up feeling hollow in the end.
My mother was in my heart the first time I climbed this mountain and looked across the lake and saw the Alps. As I thought about the contradiction of their presence, how they are declining, sinking and shifting under ancient stone, yet will outlive me in the end.
I know that I’m dubious about going home, afraid to leave Mom here in this place. I want to bring all of my hard-won insights and grieving moments back with me, but in a real do-able, everyday way.
I want to live an integrated life, where I can return and still feel completely connected to the Swiss countryside. To feel the deep kinship with the pasture, the animals, the Alps. But maybe I will merely hold this Swiss snow globe of swirling memories, and that will have to do.
Last summer, while hiking in the Jungfrau region with my son, I watched him set up his tripod and take pictures of the stars. We were so high up, above the clouds, and it was the widest sky I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember how insignificant I felt in that moment, so lost, but full too, because I was next to him.
And I thought about his birth – imagining his entry into this world, after microscopic cells had come together inside of my body, in a creation so transformative – mysterious yet intricate, random and yet elegantly ordered. And it seemed to me so astounding how the universe unequivocably supports both the great and the small.
And now I pass the small enclosure where a large bull is bellowing his annoyance for being kept in solitary confinement for some bad-cow crime. He’s the fellow I heard when I lay in bed last night, his voice the emblematic sound of this country.
And also last night, as I lay there, I listened to the brook flowing over the rocks outside the window and I knew I would miss its sound putting me to sleep.
Making the turn to go back home, I make out a pair of owls hooting to one another, ignoring me boldly as I shuffle beneath the pines.
All of these things I count off with the paces of my stride, each a gift that I am so grateful for.
When I finish up my run and let myself back into the apartment, I feel the suck of energy out of my body when I contemplate the cleaning up and packing still left to do.
But then it makes me think of my mom again and how much she loved the planning and the anticipation of the next trip. She wouldn’t like my brooding. She always believed you should move forward and not get stuck in over-thinking. And even though it’s not in my nature, she taught me how to do it.
But she also taught me to be grateful, to say thank you. And I realize that all along that’s what my running has been about, being appreciative for this life I’ve been given, for all these stunning panoramic views, but also the little bits-and-bobs.
For the footsteps in the snow when everything seemed black and white to match my gloomy disposition. And for the sluggish treks in the hot summer, revived only by cold slurps from the bright burp of water coming from a metal spout.
I’ve been so lucky to have these days to explore a foreign country, during the tough times as well as the carefree ones. The choice was open to me, to initiate or not, to put one shoe in front of the other, one day after another, or just give in to laziness and stay at home.
And I surprised myself by writing here in Switzerland, a whole new trajectory. Running and writing and trying to sort things out, those were the words on the header of my first blog post – and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of all three.
They were small goals, but when I add it all up now, it’s a volume of chapters in my journey. And each run was different, even in its sameness. Each had its own texture and mood and over time became bound in my scrapbook of Switzerland. And the story has also been written inside of me.
I always thought that our lives were defined by big events when it’s really the small ones done faithfully, day in and day out, that mold us.
So later, sitting on the porch, I think about the little fox I came upon in the forest a few months ago. He wasn’t timid at all, just curious, as he stared at me with shiny black eyes, and then trotted back into the brush. And I wonder where he is now, I expect he is a fully grown creature, quick and wary.
And I see now that leaving has always been mandatory. Not a choice but a calling, some kind of question to be answered, like the lonely owl pleading for a mate in the trees overhead. The looking, the observations, were the important thing, and my writing them down became a reminder to keep on running, to keep going back into the woods.
And it’s pretty simple, reliant only on stepping out the door, and moving my limbs, opening my eyes and ears, taking deep breaths, and joining into the rhythm of the day. But the thing that has surprised me most, the lesson that I didn’t expect, is how it has all been a preparation for saying goodbye. Like the underside of a leaf, goodbye has been present every time I’ve even started to say hello.
Goodbye to the little red fox and goodbye to the gently worn paths in the woods, goodbye to the memories of my mom I left there – to Switzerland, to the laughter and loneliness and everything else strewn along the way – farewell, I’m headed home.