Monterey Herald Column: A Walk About Town: Looking for the Perfect Dress

A Walk About Town:
Sometimes Walking Is the Best Medicine for a Heart in Grief

from The Monterey Herald, August 17,17

(In memory of Jennifer Hinton)

It’s a foggy summer morning, the right weather for sorrow. Though this time of year beyond all others — long days, warmth and the promise of warmth — is meant for happiness, mine has evaporated. Summer is the time of year for anything but death. This year has changed that for the many people who knew and loved Jen Hinton.

Jen was someone people trusted. She was sentry-like, tall and steady. You knew your confidence was rightly placed when you placed it in her. For nearly 25 years, she was the physical education teacher at Robert H. Down Elementary School in Pacific Grove. One of the parents whose children had been her students told me, “Jen was tender with my child who needed tenderness and a strong guide for the child in need of that.”

I’m despairing over Jen’s unexpected recent death, the result of a sudden and massive infection that hit her with the abruptness of a winter freeze, plunging this season into unmitigated grief. A person ought not die at 50. A good person wholly full of life with much more life ahead ought to have the chance to grab those years and live them. So much for “ought.”

When sorrowful, I find the best medicine is to take a walk. By putting one foot in front of the other I begin to grasp how to do that emotionally. The air fills my lungs and with each step the view changes, and that helps. I’m going the short distance from my home in Del Rey Oaks to Jen’s in Seaside.

It’s not that I’m eager for this sadness to lift; it’s that I’m in need of being in the remembered presence of Jen, to walk with her spirit and her abundant generosity, how she freely gave her attention to the needs of the children. I want to think on her depth, curiosity, and kindness. By taking me away from work and daily tasks, walking helps to make that possible.

This walk is being taken mostly on the street because there are few sidewalks, something I particularly love about living here. There is a dusty path and one hill between my home and hers, two stop signs, and quite a few old oak trees and pines. Fog muffles all sound, insulating me from the day.

Like me, Jen had two cats. Our cats and their antics were something we laughed about together. Hers were Siamese brothers, and Jen loved them fiercely. She loved how happy they’d be to see her when she’d return home at the end of a workday, and how silly they were, and even how they might wake her in the middle of the night to play when being awoken was not exactly what she wanted.

In addition to being many things, including a lover of Hawaii and a lover of the buoyancy of being in water, Jen was a writer. Jen had many stories and poems that she had yet to write. That is part of what makes me so sad. Those stories were waiting for her and she was waiting for the day when she had a little more time to tell them. And now that time will not come, and all those stories, how they might explore and reveal, question and answer, will go unwritten.

Writing is how Jen and I knew each other best, though we worked together during the years I taught poetry at her school. We were truest together through the bond that sharing intimate lives through writing brings. She often came to writing workshops I led, and she was part of a writing retreat I lead in New Mexico two years ago.

There is a look people get on their faces when writing — a furrow to the brow of focused concentration combined with a staring off into the space just past the page. That staring off is the writer looking and listening for the next part of her story, the part that’s just beyond view, just beyond hearing, toward the words that are on their way. It’s a look of anticipated and relaxed waiting, almost confident, almost, because you never quite know about a thing like an untold story — will the words come now or later or at all? I can see that look in Jen’s face now. Her blond hair falling forward around her face, her cheeks ruddy, her head cocked slightly to the side.

Sometimes Jen would read what she had written and sometimes, like all my students, she would not, and she was unwavering when she said no, she’d not read tonight. But from the look in her light eyes it was clear when she had written what most needed to be said. The thing is, though not everybody does, Jen had faith that her words, faith that when she had the time and space to do so, the stories would be there for her. What I’m left with now is wondering what happens to the untold story, to Jen’s untold stories, to all of ours?

We often hear that life is fragile, and this loss brings that truth home once again. But life is also sturdy and tenacious — there are all the days that Jen sturdily inhabited before her death. And in those days, she taught, offered guidance, honesty, tenderness, and patience toward those who came before her.

Jen’s death untimely death makes me want to hold dear ones close and squeeze their shoulders, to feel their bodies safe beneath my hands. A prayer by Saint Augustine comes to mind that asks God to “Rest your weary ones; bless your dying ones; soothe your suffering ones … shield your joyous ones. And all for your love’s sake.”

When this walk takes me past Jen’s home I pause to wish her spirit ease, thank her for gracing my life, and I send love to those who knew and loved her. And then I keep walking because my sorrow is too great to turn back. I head west toward the Pacific, the enormous blue expanse that made Jen so happy and gave her hope, “all for your love’s sake.”

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