I think I’m a runner. It still feels like I’m pretending when I say that about myself. Over the years I’ve run in spurts. Fits and starts. Then stops. The stops lasting much longer than the starts. But a couple of years ago I started again with a new resolve for a new reason. With the exception of one long break, recovering from a stress fracture in my right femur, and the occasional vacation, I haven’t stopped since. Running is many things to me: a release, a chore, empowerment, drudgery, a meditation, an obligation, and, very occasionally, and what really impels me to continue, a beautiful transcendence.
The need to run was born as my life careened around a blind curve, coinciding with “mid-life” ick, and the accompanying shifting reflections and reevaluations of myself. Who I wish I was. Who I want to be. Who I’m afraid I am. I run from the image of the women of my age in this part of central Pennsylvania who say they’re too old to exercise, too old to start something new, too old to venture outside their own self-imposed limitations. Their knees hurt, their hips hurt, they have bad feet, they smoke like chimneys. Happy to use age as the reason and the justification to sit and think about their blossoming list of symptoms, they wear their infirmities as a badge of honor, and great conversation is comparing menopause horror stories. I want no part of being the woman for whom the emerging gray hair means you can perm it up, put on a house dress and never take it off, and stop feeling bad about riding a Jazzy around the grocery store. At the same time, I have a self-conscious fear of being a cartoon – dressing too young for my age, having a body image that is perhaps just a little too positive. There’s got to be a middle ground but the fence around it is overgrown and I’m having trouble finding the gate.
Until we win the Powerball, and perhaps the best first step there is to actually buy a ticket now and then, it looks like I have to work at a job for a good long time to come. I like what I do now, administrating and teaching in a preschool, a field that became an accidental career that’s lasted 30 years for me, and it gives me deep satisfaction when I feel like I’m doing it well. I worry that I wouldn’t be able to support myself with this job, but looking back, my life has never been about a blazing drive for a career. It’s been about making a family and raising my children, and I would do the same all over again. I love the smart, witty, complex people my children have become, prouder of them than I ever thought possible. But I am also a lot less necessary for day-to-day parenting, and the way forward is a bit obscured. Now that they are almost all grown, at 26, 24, and 20 years old, I’m gradually being cut loose and, honestly and appropriately, cutting myself loose, and so now I’m casting around, wondering what my new role will be. While generally I trust my children to make good decisions, and with each good decision that becomes easier, it has taken me a couple of years to learn how to really let go and let them make those decisions. I’ve had to learn to relinquish my sense of responsibility for their actions, and my fears for the horrific consequences I imagine in the middle of the night.
Anyone who really knows me or has read any of my writing knows that I am, and always have been, an anxious person, issuing from generations of similarly anxious people. In the early days of struggling to figure all this out (still a work in progress, as my children will surely remind me), I stopped sleeping. Almost completely, and for weeks. There were some situations at hand and problems that I clearly shouldn’t and couldn’t “fix,” but that didn’t stop me from expecting it of myself. I obsessed over them, rolling them around and around and around in my mind, usually between the hours of 1 and 4 AM, falling asleep about 4:30. My eyes flying open again two hours later at 6:30, my first thought was “Now, what was I worrying about?”, and I’d pick up that backpack stuffed with emotional bricks and slide it onto my stooped shoulders, my neck already aching, my jaw tight from clenching my teeth, and carry it for another day. I hid it well. It was a surprise to friends that I was wound like a watch all the time. That was when my migraines really began.
I decided to give myself a goal that had nothing to do with my obsessions about my children, or my ambivalence about my career, and signed up for the November 2010 Richmond Marathon, my 3rd marathon. In the past, I had noticed that when I was training for my races, I was the calmest I ever was, was in great shape, and slept like a contented baby. I wanted that back. I trained through the spring to walk/run the race, and by the summer, decided I was done with fast walking. I really needed to challenge myself, and I began to train to run it. Slowly at first, interspersed with walking, soon the balance shifted, and I remember vividly the day I ran all the way to the top of the hill on Beagle Club Road for the first time without stopping. I was exhausted, half-dead, and almost threw up at the top, but so happy. Strong and empowered. Deeply calm. And sleeping again. Since then, thanks to force of will, therapy, chemical help, and the running, I am finally making progress in my battle to retain a sane perspective. My resolve no longer to be a hand-wringer is coming along pretty well, and I welcome knowing that there is at least one certainty that I hold warm and glowing in my heart, honed and polished during those long training runs: What I will not do is bind my children to me with wishes that they stay right here near me for the rest of their lives. My most fervent, most heartfelt wish is for them to launch themselves into life, grabbing opportunity and holding it tight. Going wherever that opportunity takes them, whether it’s across the state, the country, the world. I drive, I negotiate airports, American or foreign, I have a passport, and I will visit them. And I believe they know that home is always here and it’s a place where they will always find a welcome, a hug, a bed and a dinner. That one certainty is so welcome, and it gives me hope that more certainties may follow. Running drains off the adrenaline that my body seems to pump out by the gallon. I have had hardly any cold-sweating-panic-My-God-I-have-to-sit-down moments since I started running. I laugh more. I make better, more measured decisions. I still worry, yes, but I return to my center more quickly and more permanently than before and maintain a reasonably optimistic perspective. I’ve lived the dark nauseating panic. I like this better.
Running mile after mile, my music in my ears, is my meditation. One of my struggles in this transitioning life of mine is a faltering faith. I’ve been an unquestioning believer in God and in my Lutheran church my whole life. In the past 5 or 6 years, I’m experiencing a long slow fall out of faith. Or at least out of certainty of faith. Most certainly out of acceptance of any particular church’s strictures on what is right and what is wrong. In the hands of The Church, with a capital C, faith has too little to do with love and growth and outreach, and instead becomes a weapon of judgment and a tool of control. People for whom I care deeply are deemed not acceptable by the church because of who they love. I can’t accept that there is any right in that, and that is where the Church and I part company, and I’m left to try to reframe a belief in God on my own. The unstructured freedom confuses me – so what is true and what isn’t? – and I am suddenly questioning everything I took for granted for 50 years. If there is no God, and for the first time in my life I’m considering that may well be the case, who do I look to for strength and help? Myself?! Well, we’ve seen how that usually works out, and that terrifies me! This isn’t close to finished for me, and I’m nowhere close to answers. I may never be. I accept that it’s a process, and, if there is a God after all, I hope that He or She or that Energy understands my struggles and my questions, and will be patient with me.
And so I run in the morning, in the mist, in the rain or the snow, with the rising sun when the weather’s hot and humid, or after dark when landmarks dissolve in shadow and it feels like I’m flying, invisible in a formless world. I run smelling the grass, the trees, dying fall leaves, the crystalline frozen air, and glimpse deer, rabbits, and wild turkeys, hawks, wrens, and bluebirds. Creation, Nature, all around me and just being with me. One morning I ran, all alone, down a long hill, a flock of starlings flying together above me, turning together, doubling back together and flying on together like a blowing black ribbon. In my ears the rhythm of my breathing and my running feet and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”. The moment was so perfect, it made me cry. And it was just for me and my doubting troubled mind. And the beauty of it brought me such peace.
I began logging my running miles during my last marathon training, and even after the race was over, I continued to keep a record of how far and how fast I run every day. Today, after my 6 miles, I notice that I’ve run a total 1,294.8 miles, close to halfway across the United States. I’m proud of that. If I miss too many days I feel the itch to get back out on the road again. I pace, I have trouble concentrating, can feel an edge of tension creeping back into my days. And some depression. I need the run to oil my muscles. I need the run to oil my thoughts. I need the run to release my soul to fly as fast as my feet will take me. It’s part of me now that holds on fast. It taps me on the shoulder and whispers Let’s go…let’s go…let’s go…. And finally I have to listen, and off I go to push through stiffness, sweat, and ache to find peace in that pace that is so right, so comfortable, I could go forever. Running to the place where I finally know that not having the answers is just life, and that’s fine. And it’s full and messy and beautiful and painful, but in the end, I laugh again and answers come as they come. If they come. And I keep running.