Do what you love (if you can)

Other people’s words about … running, and life

I turned in the manuscript in September. I stopped seeing friends and only showered on days I ran and they weren’t even good runs. They were short, stuttering attempts that maxed out at 2 miles. I found no joy in them. They no longer served a purpose — not even a dark one … I set out on runs hoping I’d feel that soaring feeling from the year before, but it never came. I’d run, then walk. Sometimes I sat down. Once I lay down on a pile of leaves in the park. I didn’t care if I scared another toddler or his mother. I was too tired to move on, and stood up only after I was almost run over by a landscaper on a lawn mower bagging leaves.

From ‘Running: A Love Story’
by Jen A. Miller

I started running again recently, after a long time of not running (months, even). Just as Jen Miller describes in the passage above, my attempts right now are slow and stuttering, although the reason for this in my case isn’t heartbreak or depression, as it was for Miller, but rather the need to come back slowly and tentatively, as I regain my strength after an injury, which turned out to be peroneal tendonitis. (Sort of.) (But that’s a story for another day, perhaps.)

At the moment, I’m obediently doing run/walk intervals, just as my physiotherapist instructed me to. It’s not the same as running in one, delightful, uninterrupted trance, but I’m finding it joyful, all the same.

Following my path.

Running is many things to many people, as the plethora of books on the subject (ranging from how-to instruction manuals through to memoirs about how running helped heal someone’s grief or mental illness) will confirm. When I first started running three years ago, I devoured those books, seeking tips on technique (for which they were sometimes useful and sometimes not) and kindred spirits (which I sometimes found and sometimes didn’t).

But to be perfectly honest, I’ve grown tired of reading other runners’ thoughts on running. I’m tired of being exhorted to include speed runs and hill runs each week. I’m tired of being told, repeatedly, that unless I enter a race, I’ll never improve my PR. (Or is PB? I always forget. Is there a difference? If there is, I don’t understand it.) I’m tired of reading that running is a social activity, best done with friends. And I’m very, very tired of being told that, in order to prevent myself from getting injured, there is only one way to run (for example, barefoot running. Or forefoot striking. Or running very slowly. Or running a minimum of 180 steps per minute. Or running every day. Or ensuring that you never run two days in a row. Or practising yoga. Or focusing on strength-training. Or stretching before running. Or never stretching at all. Or running on an empty stomach. Or ensuring that you fuel up correctly before you run. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

Because what I’ve realised during my time away is that I don’t run to keep fit, or to challenge myself, or to keep my weight down. Nor do I run so that I can call myself an athlete, or to get faster, or to reduce my anxiety. I don’t even run, as some writers do, in the hope that I’ll get better at writing.

Sometimes, I admit, running helps with some of those things. But sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t run far, and I don’t run fast, but I’ll still keep running, anyway, for as long as I can, if I get the choice.

In the end, I run because I like running, and that’s enough for me.

Reflections along the way.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Riches

Other people’s words about … bitter weather

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

‘Time to Be Slow’
by John O’Donohue

I met with a friend for coffee a couple of days ago — a friend I hadn’t seen for a number of years, someone I thought had moved on in her life; someone I thought, I guess, that I’d never see again. I have come to understand that friendships come and go, and that the friendships that don’t last aren’t any less rich for the shortness of their duration, though they are still worth grieving. And so, though I had missed this friend once we stopped seeing each other, what I mostly felt when I thought about her over the last few years was gratitude for having had her in my life, however short-lasting her friendship may have been.

But last week she reached out to me again, and over coffee we found ourselves taking up where we had left off. And so now I am feeling doubly blessed — for the richness of the friendship we’ve had so far, and for the richness of a friendship that has begun again, for however long.

Time to be slow

We talked about our lives over the last few years, and — of course — about this particular, strange year. And a few hours after we had said good bye, she sent me a link to the poem I have quoted in this post. (The original link she sent me was here.)

Because it is a lovely poem, and because life, like friendship, can have twists and turns that seem utterly bewildering despite our every attempt to make the most of it, I’ve quoted the poem for you here in its entirety. 

As I write this post, we are coming to the end of 2020 — though not, I think, to the end of this strange, troubling time. I hope this poems reminds you of life’s richness, however troubling it may be.

Mantra

Other people’s words about … language

I watched them walk down the steps, [and then I] turned around in the hallway, and heard myself say, ‘I’m so lonely’. It shook me because this sentence had become an involuntary verbal tic. I seldom realised I was saying it or perhaps didn’t know that I was speaking the words out loud. I had started to experience this unbidden mantra even while I was still married, mumbling it before sleep, in the bathroom, or even at the grocery store, but it had become more pronounced in the last year. My father had it with my mother’s name. While he was sitting alone in a chair, before he dozed off, and later, in his room at the nursing home, he would utter Marit over and over. He did it sometimes when she was within hearing distance. If she answered the call, he seemed not to know that he had spoken. That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed.

From ‘The Sorrows of an American’
by Siri Hustvedt

Have you ever had the same experience as Siri Hustvedt’s narrator Erik describes having in the passage I’ve quoted above — the experience, I mean, of a single phrase that comes to you frequently and (often) unbidden?

Threshold between sky and sea

Until I read this passage, I thought I was alone in this experience, although the phrase that comes to me is not the same phrase as Erik’s phrase. This phrase, my phrase, sometimes comes to me when I’m awake; and it sometimes comes to me when I’m drifting off to sleep; and it sometimes comes to me when I have a pen in my hand and am writing. The phrase, my phrase, is so familiar to me that it has written itself into my very sense of self.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around: the feeling I have when the words come to me is so strong, and so familiar, that it has formed itself into words.

Threshold between bird and world

As I’ve said many times before, I read to find accord with other people whom I will never meet in real life — either the writers themeselves, or the characters whom they create in their writing. Books are words, but they are more than words: their words cross a threshold between words and lived experience.

That, as Hustvedt herself puts it, is the strangeness of language. And, I would add, of life in this world.

Threshold between night and day

Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Savour it

Other people’s words about … moments of beauty

Her head nested in spindly weeds [as she lay down in the grass]; the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her breathing slowed, she noted a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bee’s were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savour of [the stolen loaf of freshly baked] bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.

From ‘Tess of the Road’
by Rachel Hartman

I love this passage, in which the protagonist of Rachel Hartman’s novel, Tess, feels utterly present in a single moment of her life: feels herself watching the moment as it unfolds. Tess’s experience of this moment, her sense of being present in it, is what a meditation teacher might call an experience of mindfulness. And yet the description is beautiful rather than didactic, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Stripes in the sky (1)

Hartman’s words are, I think, a description of the practice of mindfulness at its best. Mindfulness, to me, is not about mantras or breathing or (heaven forbid!) colouring-in books. Instead, and far more simply, it is about slowing down, about looking around, about noticing the world around you. It is, most of all, about seeing.

Because the practice of mindfulness — this kind of mindfulness, anyway, which to me is the only kind that makes any practical or spiritual sense at all — is about stepping outside, into the living, breathing world, the one that exists beyond walls and ceilings and computers and cars. It’s about looking and seeing. And about being grateful for what you see.

Stripes in the sky (2)

This year has been a strange, uneasy year for me: a year of trying to make a living from freelancing, and then trying to readjust to a salaried living, working regular hours, meeting KPIs and targets. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned throughout the year, and grateful most of all that I was able to seek out other opportunities when freelancing alone wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Still, at times this year, when things got hard, I felt myself becoming frighteningly disconnected from the things that usually matter most to me: those still, small moments like the one Hartman describes, those moments when you stop and breathe the world in, exactly as it. Call it fear that stole those moments away from me; call it loss; call it depression; call it change. Whatever it was, it shocked me. I felt that I had stepped away from the world, and I didn’t know how to step back in.

And yet here I am now, months down the track, and I’m still here, still breathing. I’m stepping back in.

The labrador and the mandala

Other people’s words about … mindfulness and meditation

I am not a fan of ‘mindfulness’. I have tried. I have really, really tried. I was first taught it in a hut in Cambodia, by a smiley, wizened old monk. The main thing I remember, as I sat cross-legged on a very hard cushion, was trying not to think about the pain in my hips. Then there was the chi gong instructor on the holistic holiday in Skyros. Then there was the hairy American at the Thai spa I thought might be a cult. By then I was used to searching for my ‘inner smile’, but I drew the line at laughing on demand while flexing the muscles of my pelvic floor.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

As I’ve mentioned before, I go back and forth on the topic of meditation. These days, I feel both less caustic and less flippant about it than Christina Patterson describes feeling in the passage above, but still, overall, ambivalent.

But I do respect the practice of being present, which is, I believe, the essence of the Western interpretation of mindfulness. I see the value in being able to sit with your thoughts and feelings, being able to observe those thoughts and feelings and then let them pass. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that wellbeing, at least for me, isn’t about happiness, or clarity, or contentment. It’s about co-existing: with the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s about living despite these things. Living anyway.

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how my feelings had changed, over the years, with regards to writing a journal. At the time I wrote that post, I couldn’t seem to overcome the disgust I had come to feel at the thought of returning to writing in my journal regularly, as I had when I was younger. I felt unable to bear the repetitiveness of my thoughts, spelled out on paper. I understood that journal writing had at one point served a purpose for me — the purpose of venting, and also, sometimes, of clarifying my thoughts — but that it no longer served that purpose. Or rather, that that purpose no longer served me.

This year, I contemplated trying yet again to return to a daily meditation practice. But instead, at the last moment, I decided to take the principles of meditation — that is, bearing witness to my thoughts and feelings and then letting them go — and to apply them to writing in my journal. At the time, I wasn’t sure why this decision, which felt so spontaneous, also felt so right; but I see now, a couple of months down the track, why it did. Writing in my journal each day, I’m starting to see how my thoughts and feelings and mood ebb and flow. It’s not all about despair, after all. Sometimes I write with sadness; sometimes I write with joy. Sometimes I write with boredom. Sometimes I write about myself and my inner world; sometimes I write about the things I’ve seen as I’ve gone about my day — that is, my external world.

And what I write about doesn’t puzzle me or bother me anymore. Writing so frequently, so — sometimes — inanely, I’ve learnt not to impose judgement on anything I write. I just write it, and let it go. That, to me, is, as I’d hoped, exactly what meditating is about (just without all the candles and mantras and breathing exercises).

But there are other things I like about writing (almost) daily in my journal, too, things I hadn’t anticipated. One is, I feel as though I’m not losing my life anymore. In years to come, I’ll be able to look back at these pages, as I look back now at the pages that I wrote in my twenties, and remember the woman I was. I’ll be able to remember the life I lived, the things that happened, the people I loved and lost. To me, that feels like a good thing. I’ve always wanted to live a life rich with memories, even if those memories are incredibly trivial and insignificant. Writing in my journal again is making that possible.

And finally, it’s a writing practice, too. The more I write, whatever kind of writing that is — journal writing, or blog writing, or fiction writing, or essay writing — the more I learn how to say what I want to say, and what it is, exactly, that I want to say. Journal writing, random and undisciplined as it is, is part of that process.

In the end, if nothing else, it’s another way to learn.

My 12-year-old labrador is clearly a Buddhist in training

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

Tip your head back and look up at the sky

Other people’s words about … the sky

Axel … breathed out, trying for calm. He tipped his head back, looked at the sky, wide and empty of trouble. His heart slowed. The moment passed.

From ‘Shell
by Kristina Olsson

Oh, that beautiful sky …

On purpose

Other people’s words about … meaning

Some people … believe they have to find their purpose to live fully … [But] it is perfectly fine — and in fact recommended — to simply live each of your moments fully and marvel at it all. What if that is your purpose?

From ‘The Energy Guide
by Dr Libby Weaver

I am not much one for self-help books, these days, especially ones that focus on how to find happiness or health. I don’t think — as I did when I was younger, as young people so often do — that health and happiness are things you can seek out or earn, or that they are things you can, or should, feel entitled to.

But I do like Libby Weaver’s words here, even though her book falls squarely into that category of books I’ve just derided. I like her words because what else does it make sense to do other than to simply live each of your moments fully, no matter what each of those moments is like, or what is happening during it? What better thing can we do as we live out our days than marvel at it all?

Weaver goes on to say:

Consider that the real purpose of anyone’s life is to be fully involved in living. Be present for the journey. Act on what you care about.

You could call the attitude Weaver is advocating mindful, if you so chose. Or you could call it sensible. Or humble. Or grateful. Whatever you call it, I think it’s an attitude worth cultivating.

Winter sunrise: be present.

Because unlike health and happiness, unlike riches and freedom, unlike love and success, unlike youth and beauty, unlike wisdom and intelligence, being fully involved in living is achievable. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.

And that, I think, is a good place to start.

Chasing clouds

Running affords the freedom of distance, coupled with the literary appeal of solitude. There’s a meditative cadence to the union of measured breaths and metered strides. Writers and runners both operate on linear planes,
and the running writer soon realises [that] the relationship between art and sport is a mutually beneficial one.’

From ‘Why Writers Run’
by Nick Ripatrazone
in The Atlantic

I’d heard about the connection between writing and running before — or at least about certain writers, like Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami, who run as well as write, and who believe that their running helps their writing. And I’d always understood the connection instinctively, though I don’t think I could have put it into words as Ripatrazone does (fairly baldly and glibly in some spots, it must be said) in his piece for The Atlantic, which I’ve quoted throughout this post.

Running, the argument goes, clears the mind. Writers stuck on a sentence should lace their sneakers and go for a jog, knowing that when they return, they will be a bit sweatier, more tired, but often more charged to run with their words. This is Ripatrazone’s advice, at any rate.

While I would quibble with any shoulds when it comes to either running or writing — what works for some people won’t work for others; and one person’s meditative jog is another person’s sweaty, heart-pounding, back-spasming nightmare — Ripatrazone also has this to say, which I love:

Writing exists in that odd mental space between imagination and intellect, between the organic and the planned. Runners must learn to accept the same paradoxes, to realise that each individual run has its own narrative,
with twists and turns and strains.’

I’ve been struggling for some time to articulate why writing became such a tortured process for me over the last couple of years, and, equally, why I turned to running around this time with such joy. I knew that when I ran I felt a sense of clarity that I don’t otherwise feel; but still, I didn’t think the two things were connected — especially since, not long after I began to run again regularly, I made the decision to stop writing altogether, at least for now.

Now, though, reading Ripatrazone’s words, I wonder if it was that odd mental space … between the organic and the planned that running creates in me that allowed me to stop writing.

The only way I can explain this is to tell the story behind the pictures in today’s post, which I took on a short, gentle run in late July, after a particularly torrid day at work. I’d got home just in time to change into my running clothes and make it onto the beach before the sun set. Once there, I ran in a northwesterly direction, with the sun ahead of me rather than at my back. And at the halfway point, at the breakwater, I stopped.

I stopped.

I stopped.

I took these photos, and I breathed in, and I felt the lowering sun on my skin, and I felt everything inside of me, finally, stop.

This, I think, is what running does for me: it allows me to stop. It brings me into a kind of stillness I don’t feel at any other time. Running, stopping, finding stillness: to say that these things are intimately connected with each other seems a contradiction in terms. But perhaps it’s not, because something shifted inside of me when I took up running again last year: I felt it almost immediately. That shift was what allowed me to stop writing, which was something — I see now — I had to do, in order to move forward in my life: and to move forward, also, in my writing (again, that contradiction in terms).

Perhaps, in the end, Ripatrazone puts it better than me — not in his clichéd injunction to writers to run in order to improve their writing, but in his description of the paradoxes that both writers and runners must face.

In any case, on the day that I’m speaking of, the day that I took these photos, once I had stopped for a while to breathe in, and to look about, and to rest, I knew that I was ready to move again. And so I ran home, with the sun sinking into the sea behind me and the air gradually chilling, and a sense of stillness all about me, and also inside of me.

Deep, deep inside.

Chasing clouds

‘It took me years to see that path and to find my pace.
When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.’

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

We’ve had an unusually dry, cold winter in South Australia this year — the driest, I heard recently, since the mid-1960s — and so the days in the last few weeks have been mostly clear and crisp. Global warming and environmental concerns aside, I love this weather.

And here’s a first — I have even grown to love the short days this year!

Sunrise, bird, tree.

Some mornings, I get up around 6 am, and go for a run before work, as the sun rises. Running before breakfast, I’ve discovered, is a completely different beast from running later in the day: sleepy and not yet well-fed, I run more slowly (which may not seem possible, but apparently is) but also somehow more smoothly. It is as though the calm of the night, the deep, rhythmic breathing of sleep, still hang over me. I feel light, buoyant, in my body and in my mind, as though I’m still moving through my dreams. My joints are loose and easy, and the exertion of the run seems somehow separate from me, not part of the dream I’m in.

Meanwhile, as I run along the esplanade path or by the shore, the sky grows rosy to the landward east; and the sea turns from silver, to grey, to blue, to the west; and the scent of the sand drifts up to me, filled with chill and damp; and sometimes a sliver of moon hangs above the tops of the pine trees lining the coast.

And I know that I’m awake. Alive. Grateful to be here.