This morning, I left the house for a run at 8:06am. I’d checked the time on the stove before heading outside into the rain, leaving my phone for once at home. I ran up the hill to the center of town, then a bit around Amherst College.
Somewhere right around the campus green, I had such a vivid memory of these words: Сколько лет этому слону? That’s Russian for “How old is this elephant?”
The memory wasn’t only of the words themselves, though. It was tied to a moment in the fall of 1990; I’d have been a senior in high school. In addition to this being my fourth year of studying Russian, I was by then taking Spanish classes at Amherst College. I was the youngest of three and the only daughter still living at home, though my middle sister had graduated and gone on to Hampshire College, where our mom was on the dance faculty at the time, so we saw each other here and there — more so than I saw our oldest sister, who’d moved to Southern California.
In the memory, I was walking from the high school over to Amherst College for my Spanish class. I passed by The Black Sheep, a deli and cafe on Main Street, and bumped into my sister there. I’d been practicing the Russian dative case in my head. (Something that was — is still — fun for me. Weird but true.) One phrase in particular was on repeat in my head. I bet you can guess what it was.
That day, the one I remembered out of the blue this morning, I was 16 and high on fall colors and Russian grammar and unattainable crushes and the prospect of finishing high school soon. I was a smoker and a straight-A student. Elephants everywhere. I was probably a good 10-15 pounds underweight by then; that summer would be a low point when it came to swallowing myself whole and the implosion that is bulimia.
A year later, I’d start to emerge; at 18, I’d transfer to Barnard, declare my Russian Studies major, quit smoking (for the first but not even close to the last time), and — this part might be important — proceed to ignore the whole herd of old elephants in the room. Or maybe I started to learn how to coexist with them.
This morning as I ran through that campus — all five feet, one inch, 110 pounds, and 42 years of me — I remembered walking there as a teenager who lost and found myself in foreign languages.
“Hello!” I’d said to my sister at the Black Sheep, feeling grown-up about traipsing to my college class alone in the middle of the school day. I was probably showing off a little for her and her college friends. “How old is this elephant?” I asked, in English first, and then with exaggerated intonation in Russian, just as we’d learned it in class. She laughed and we said hi and then bye and off I went and off she went and that was that. I doubt she remembers this minor encounter.
Why did this question resound in my head this morning, as I ran through that elite swath of green? I wonder. Wondering is one of the reasons I write. Running, too, helps me clear my head, especially when it’s stampeded by elephants. Old, old, ancient elephants. Old as the hills, the grass, the seeds.
I smoked my first cigarette at 13. My brain literally grew up around nicotine; nearly 30 years later, I’m not smoking, but some days still more than others, it’s as if I have to manually peel the clinging ivy of addiction from my sticky brain.
How old is this elephant?
I ran and remembered that moment — me at 16 and my sister at 20 — with a flash of compassion for us both and a mind’s eye glimpse of us today: sisters still, mothers now, three out of four of our own kids the ages we were then, when…. and so it goes. The generations of elephants lumber and grow. I want to say I’m doing my best, but even that feels too easy somehow, too pithy.
Here’s what it comes to: I miss smoking, and I struggle with the choice not to, almost every day. Not when I’m running — then I feel strong and free and so very glad — but for sure when I’m writing. (Or grabbing a latte in the middle of a busy day. Or irritated for no good reason. Or overwhelmed. Talk about rewiring.) I could light up again in a heartbeat and it wouldn’t be smart — not nearly as smart as conjugating Russian verbs and practicing case endings I learned oh so long ago and barely remember today.
I close my eyes and imagine sitting on a pile of colorful cushions with golden tassels. I open them again and find that I’m right here, writing about memory and elephants, sitting with reality and with how hard it can be, sometimes, to do the right thing. And then doing it anyway.