Sunday, March 30, 2014

When Running Loves You Back

Running is my teacher. She is patient and forgiving, but also relentless and rigorously honest. She welcomes me back, even after a long absence, but she never forgives snow days, and she never gives extra credit. Her grades are hard to earn, but hard lessons have a way of rooting  more deeply than the easy ones do. 

I love to run long distances. Love it. Love. It. Two miles? Four miles? Six miles? Yeah, they can feel like work sometimes. Those routine runs that you squeeze in before dawn or over lunch or after work, just to keep up your conditioning. The ones where you have one eye on your watch because you're shooting for the right training pace, or you're checking your cadence or you have a time goal to hit... they can be a chore some days. 

But the long ones... oh the Long Slow pleasure of ten or sixteen or twenty miles on a Saturday morning... whether you're watching the fog burning off the hills, or dodging the bread trucks as they make their deliveries... The initial warm up as your heart begins to race, then calm itself to find its steady rhythm. The mindful attention to every curve and bend, each hill and rise making your eyes widen with anticipation or narrow with delight. The fire deep inside that flares or smolders, fueling muscles and nerves as you stride silently along the road, feeling texture and temperature through your feet, your hands, your face. And ultimately comes the moment you disappear. You are no longer breathing; you are breath. No pain. No will. No thought. You are pure presence. You are no longer running. You simply are.

Once you've been there, you want to go back. You dream about it. It's a holy place. But the chances to get there are rare. And they don't come cheap.

It takes time. 

Lots of time. You have to invest the hours. You have to earn the miles. You don't run twenty-six point six just because you want to. You have to earn it. You have to run eighteen first. And fifteen. And ten. Not just once, but many times. 

Running rewards respect... Disrespect her and she will humble you. With pain. With setbacks. With injuries. You're going to doubt yourself. You don't have the strength. You don't have the legs. Too slow. Too fat. Too far behind. Your heart will break along the way. It will break. And when that happens, you have to learn to keep running.

You have to learn to run with a broken heart.

And that takes trust.

You have to trust yourself. You will get stronger. You will. Every step will make you stronger. Believe it. Your heart will learn to beat again. Injured joints will mend. Burning lungs will clear. They will. You have to trust that. You have no choice. You can trust, or you can quit. Because only your trust will keep you out there on the road. In the weight room. In the whirlpool. Going wherever you have to go, doing whatever you have to do to earn HER trust. 

She has to learn to trust you, too. Because you see, she is more than a teacher. She has secrets you can only guess at... and stories you've never heard before. She will show you things inside yourself that you didn't know were there. And she will give you parts of herself that you never imagined could exist. She will tease you, amuse you, frustrate you, lead you on, and shut you down. And one day, if you are faithful and lucky, she will open her arms, and give you the most sacred part of herself.

In my life, running and I have gone to heaven together. But always on her terms. She has no use for my good intentions or heartfelt desire. She doesn't care about what I've written or the books I've read. She needs to know me, and needs me to know her. She needs to know that I will be there. That I will give her my time. That I will honor her trust.

Only then will she open her arms to me and welcome me into her heart. 

There is a place out there on the road. Marathoners call it "The Wall." Physiologists will tell you that it's the place where your glycogen stores are exhausted and there is nothing left in the tank for the engine of your body to use for fuel. You hit the wall and you crash. You bonk. You fail. Nothing but will, training, and insanity can get you past The Wall. 

But if you are lucky, she will be there waiting for you. She will let you keep going. You don't earn those miles. . Those are the ones she gives you. They come from her heart.

That's when you've learned your lessons. That's when running loves you back.

Monday, March 24, 2014

To See and Be Seen

I've been contemplating this guy for a few days now. In the waning days of winter, I used an old lion for my profile picture on Facebook. But with the first day of spring, I wanted to make a change. I have always identified with these beautiful animals. Their strength. Their ferocious loyalty. When you grow up big and maybe a little too sensitive for your own good, you don't really connect with the cheetahs and the rabbits. So you can either resent the "big ape" thing, or else embrace it and make the best of what you have. I was never very good at chest pounding or swatting fighter planes out of the sky, but the dark browed, broad shouldered scowl came in handy on the subway a couple of nights. It's good to have it in the repertoire when you need it.

But ferocity isn't what attracted me to Old Silverback here. It was his eyes. They seemed to see. As much as I would love to be the kind of guy who sweeps the pretty girl off her feet and carries her to the top of the Empire State building, I think I'd rather be one who can look at her the way this fellow is looking. To see. To regard. To accept. To respect.

He isn't seeing himself in her. His failures. His fears. Those aren't eyes that imagine and project. They are eyes that embrace and perceive. He isn't afraid to know the truth. He isn't afraid to see what's really there.

Maybe that is because he isn't afraid to be seen. When I consider those strange, yet familiar eyes, I see open windows that let the truth pass through in both directions. He is able to know, because he is willing to be known. His strength is his defenselessness. 

He seems like the kind of guy who isn't afraid to take the time to get to know you. Or to give you all the time you need to do the same thing.

I want to be that kind of an ape. One who can look without staring. Who can see without judging. Who regards each detail with curiosity and reverence, and treats your love as a sacred trust, a holy exchange of personhoods.

Too often, instead of a gorilla I have been a chattering carnival monkey. Grabbing and snatching. Clinging to scraps and squirrreling them away as if I were certain that the supply could never last. Too many times, I have blurted and blundered my way out of love with impatience. "Take this," I cry. "Take me. All of me. Now. Today." As if love were a desperate race against time. 

But the monkey isn't pressed for time. He is haunted by fear. "Take me or leave me," he cries, " But for god's sake, get it over with. Don't make me wait for the rejection that I know is coming anyway." He thinks he's being brave, stripping naked for you to see. But really, he is a coward. He doesn't have the courage to wait for you to undress him yourself.

So I chose this beautiful old Mountain Gorilla to be my spirit guide for the spring. I hope he teaches me to see and be seen. I want to learn his courage and confidence. I want to learn his quiet strength and his tender patience. 

When I contemplate those eyes, I see... I suppose the word I'm looking for is "Presence." He isn't thinking about what's next. He isn't a million miles away. When Old Silverback looks at you, he says, "I am here with you. I see you. See me." 

If that isn't love, what is?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lenten Littany of Thanksgiving

Because there is no bad time to say "Thank You..."

Especially Ash Wednesday...

I give thee thanks, oh Lord.

For this sun shining, snow melting, eye blinding, face warming, gawd-amighty beautiful day after the last winter storm of the year...

For people whose hard work and joy inspire and infect me, even on my darkest days...

For a car that runs...

For a snug, warm hat, given to me by a friend...

For locker room talk that isn't what you think it is at all...

For a heart that keeps on pumping...

I give thee thanks, oh Lord.

For the touch of the Doc who first laid hands on my throat and knew that something very, very wrong...

For the friends who text you while you're in the waiting room to let you know they're thinking of you...

For the almost-secret parking lot for the walking almost-dead that lets you step out of your car and almost-right into the lobby of the Markey Cancer Center, instead of having to hike from a garage somewhere...

For an amazing device that lets the surgeon slip a video camera down your throat and shows you all the pink healthy tissue where the cancer used to live...

For insurance that lets me get the treatment and medicine I need to stay in the game...

I give thee thanks, oh Lord.

For Mediterranean Lentils at the Good Foods Cafe...

For the itty bitty bars of verrrrry dark chocolate that you can buy at the register on the way out...

For the chance to hang around and live this wonderful, ordinary, unremarkable, unforgettable day...

I give Thee thanks, Oh Lord.



Saturday, March 01, 2014

God Bless You, Old Lion

There's a slogan I've been seeing a lot on Facebook lately. "The lion does not trouble himself about the opinions of sheep," or words to that effect. I find it arrogant and disrespectful. I have pretty low self-esteem, but even I can't imagine how badly you have to feel about yourself before you find comfort in the thought that you are the lone, brave, strong creature surrounded by flocks of cowards and followers. And the Lion deserves better.

I was born under constellation of the Lion at the end of a hot July in Pittsburgh. I've always been inspired by the fire of the Lion. The sharp eyes. The rippling shoulders. The sandy color. The strength. Devotion to the Pride. I've always wished I could be more like the Lion of Summer.

But today is March 1, and there is another Lion on my mind. Ferocious. Powerful. Deadly. And dying. Whenever I picture March coming "in like a lion," I never see the mighty hunter, leader of the Pride, dreadful and courageous, standing on a rise roaring out his claim on everything he surveys. The Lion of March is an old lion. A few weeks ago, he could freeze the world with a low rumble from his mighty chest or a puff from his nostrils. Not long ago, a swipe of his giant paw brought whole cities to a standstill. Today, he is still dangerous. There is still power in those broad shoulders, but there is grey under the chin. His vision is still sharp, but he has to squint a little to see into the distance. There is still power in his stride, but he rises stiffly. He is still the King. But no longer the King he once was.

Last night, I was feeling pretty agitated. I had left the house early that day with an ambitious list of tasks... things that I had chosen and that mattered to me... and seemed to hit roadblocks at every turn. Procedures. Attitudes. The things I wanted were so simple. The people I needed to help me were so unwilling. Finally, I went home, too angry and frustrated to trust myself in public. I know when my temper is close to boiling. I start swearing to myself. I've learned that if I don't get away from people pretty quickly once that starts, I end up saying things that are stupid and cruel.... sort of along the lines of "the lion does not trouble himself..."

So I went home. Locked the door. Grabbed the ice cream. Screw it. I'll get drunk in a minute. Right now, I'm going to eat. Whatever the hell I want. As much as I want. I don't care.

I was angry. I wanted to hurt someone... so I decided to hurt myself.

I really don't know what changed my mind. I've been working on a new habit. I've been keeping a food diary. So without really thinking about it, I took the open half gallon of Mint Chocolate Chip and the spoon and walked to my computer to log them. Curious, I entered the value that would add the calories, fat, sugar, from half a gallon - 8 cups - of ice cream. And I stared at the number. Just under 3000 calories. Just about what I burned during my last Marathon. Was I really that angry? Did I hate myself that much? Enough to erase a Marathon's worth of progress in a 20 minute binge of self destruction?

It wasn't the sheep's opinion I had to worry about, you see. It was the lion's. It was my own opinion.

I put the carton back in the freezer. Chopped some peppers and onions. Cooked some beans and rice. Printed the workout I had decided to put off till the weekend.

After supper, I went to the gym. Treadmill. Weight room. Stationary bike. Almost two hours worth. Around 1600 calories burned. As I walked out into the corridor, drenched, with my clipboard in one hand and my empty water bottle in the other, my soaked towel draped over my head, a woman said something to me that I didn't hear. Headphones. I pulled them out and said, "Sorry? What?"

"I don't know how you do it." She looked like she might be around thirty five. Very pretty. Very heavy. Was she somebody's mom? Was she here on a Friday night to watch her kids play basketball, or to try to keep her New Year's resolution, or just to be someplace besides home alone? I didn't ask.

"I don't have any choice. I can either do this, or die a fat old man."

I didn't add, "like my father." But that's what I was thinking. I may be an old lion. And I may be so filled with anger and hate sometimes that I have to go hide before I bust... but I am not ready to die.

Not yet.

So, roar on, you old Lion of Winter. The weather prophets say you have a few more good fights in you before March goes out like a lamb. Bring 'em on. Don't give up, you old Lion.

Because every time you find the strength for one more hunt, one more fight, one more shout over the frozen ground that tells the world that you aren't dead yet... you give this old lion hope.

Roar on, Old Lion.