A Cage Of One’s Own

Self-imposed prisons. I find myself thinking of them a lot as I make my way in the world, mostly noticing the constraints I place upon myself daily but also observing others’ prisons, the contours of which are different from my own but sources of suffering just the same. Always there exists the mystery: if I am aware I am doing this, living in these depressing, demoralizing, self-defeating ways, why can I not live otherwise?

I was struck recently by the words of Philip Roth, the 81-year-old prolific author of 31 books who retired from writing in 2010, ending a career that began in 1959. Roth granted an interview to Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at the Swedish publication Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish translation in that newspaper and in its original English in the New York Times Book Review of March 16, 2014. Sandstrom was asking Roth about his “struggle with writing” over the years, to which the author replied:

“Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and that I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.

Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.”

At first it seems shocking: the thought that it can be a profound, almost meditative sensation to have nothing more to worry about in this lifetime than death. But upon deeper reflection, it seems absolutely true, at least to me. I know the cage of which Roth speaks—don’t we all, in some respect?—and to be free of that cage seems unspeakably liberating.

In truth, I have spent a large portion of my 45 years on this Earth alternately imprisoning myself and struggling to break free. Willingly, desperately keeping myself in the cage—for a feeling of safety, order, knowable constraint. I keep myself there until I almost am suffocating, my beak tired from pecking at its bars, at which point I just as desperately spring free, devour a taste of freedom and experience its savory richness, then rush back to the cage, shut the door, and throw away the key.

At times I have thrown the key not quite beyond my reach; far enough, not easily accessible, but still there if I stretch my wings and really make a go of it. In those cases, the same key still works. Other times I have thrown the key into a deep, dark river, where it sinks to the bottom, never to be found again in the muck of life. So I craft a new key, one with slightly different contours and indentations, though it works because I, too, have changed, and the details of the lock on my cage have changed as well. So there is a new key, a new fix, a new salve, albeit temporary.

One of my keys used to be wine, enjoyed under controlled conditions, not too frequently but with a fair amount of abandon when the time was right. If the moment was deemed acceptable, then four glasses of the richest red wine was standard protocol. I contented myself that it was OK, despite the fact that I’d go running back to the cage the next day, hungover, with a speed that surpassed my last retreat. So the return, the punishment, increased along with the enjoyment. Until I realized I was not, in fact, enjoying myself with that particular release, that particular key. A tough realization but one I believe I needed to make: that particular freedom was not really freedom at all.

So I turned to other freedoms, also when the moment was deemed acceptable. But as the years passed, I noticed that “time rightness” was a mutable concept and the goalposts moved constantly. Not only was it harder to find “acceptable” freedoms, freedoms that did not cause so much existential angst (as one prone to guilt, I hardly need one more thing to feel guilty about), but also it was harder to arrive at the moment when I felt I deserved even an acceptable treat, a day-pass from prison. My releases ceased being very extreme at all—take-out from a favorite restaurant, forgoing a proper dinner in favor of extra dessert, a day off from exercise (and not just any exercise, but excessive exercise). A lack of extremes can be a good thing if the items foregone are, in fact, harmful, but I began to sense that my abandonment of extremes was merely an additional way to punish myself. Somewhere deep inside, I knew I was moving further and further away from a locksmith who could craft the key to my soul, my deepest desires, my truest and best self, if such a thing exists. I sensed I was on a dangerous treadmill.

The most vexing part of self-punishment of any kind is the not knowing: why, precisely, am I doing this? What am I so afraid of that I choose this activity over another, perhaps more gratifying, enriching, compassionate (toward myself and others) activity? If I wasn’t doing this, what would I be doing instead? In Roth’s case, one could hardly argue that writing was a frivolous activity. He produced 31 novels, one a Pulitzer Prize winner (American Pastoral, 1997), and he is widely considered one of the preeminent authors of our time. But he may have experienced writing as a form of prison at times, an activity he could not step away from despite the constraints it necessarily placed upon his life. In his words, it was also “good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and that I had no compassion for myself.” Whether he would state it as such, he surely is implying that writing did not always make him supremely happy, however he conceives of happiness, and that he felt no sense he deserved to be engaged in activities he might have found more rewarding, easier, less time consuming, or simply more fun.

Roth also suggests his writing kept him safe: “Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.” In his deepest, most internal musings, what might Roth have imagined that worse menace to be? Alcohol? Drugs? Womanizing? Lethargy? Laziness? Gluttony? Which of the seven sins was he most afraid of? If it was fear that kept Roth writing for so long, producing literature that brought and continues to bring joy to the hearts of many, who are we to proclaim his fear such a bad thing? Does he truly believe his fear—if that is indeed how he views at least one of the forces that fueled his writing—kept him imprisoned, and that such fear was truly pernicious? Would he have lived his life differently were he given a second chance? He may say he could not have done otherwise—“If I did not do it, I would die.”—but is that his rationalization to justify not pursuing a different path, to balance the knowledge that he missed out on other, perhaps more rewarding experiences in life? Roth was married twice but never had children. Is he sorry to have never experienced the joys of a big family? To have never learned to cook like Julia Child or climb mountains like Sir Edmund Hillary? Does he regret devoting his life to a singular pursuit to the exclusion of many others? Is he purposely and in self-deprecating fashion not giving voice to the pride one imagines he must feel at having produced such a vast oeuvre of literature?

So many of us, vowing to make changes in our lives, are driven by the sense we are missing out on some existentially more fulfilling, meaningful way of being. If only we could give up X, or spend less time doing Y, we’d have so much more time to pursue Z, which would be the key to a feeling of true peace and contentment. But is that an accurate construct? And do we have a choice? The answer is easy when we look at self-destructive forms of addiction. It is easy to say that if [s]he gave up alcohol or drugs, for instance, [s]he might finally be able to unleash his/her true potential. But what about less dangerous habits?

I still struggle with a tendency to spend large chunks of time, i.e., a few hours most days, running. For the past few years, I have sensed this is more time than my heart wants to devote to this particular activity, yet I am finding it difficult to alter my routine and cut down on the amount of time I spend pounding the pavement. In many respects, I am pursuing this activity in a healthier fashion than I used to, in that I have learned to fuel my body more effectively for prolonged exercise and take rest days when I feel too tired to run. Nonetheless, I do not believe I have reached a state of balance with my running, such that I am content with the amount of time devoted to it, able to know how much is enough versus too much, and appropriately carefree when circumstances prohibit my daily dose. Don’t get me wrong, I am better than I used to be, but I also sense my journey toward balance has not yet reached its conclusion. Perhaps it never will.

Clearly my running is vastly different from Roth’s writing: I am not producing anything concrete or lasting through my runs. I come back from a 15-mile sojourn and cannot review my work and send it to an editor for review. My nieces, nephews, and step-grandkids won’t read my running log book and laugh at a turn of phrase or breathe with the recognition of a universal human experience. And yet, to play devil’s advocate, I generate numerous ideas during my runs, some of which serve as the basis for pieces I write, some that are the source of new experiences for my husband and me, some that spur me to contact friends or family members with a heartfelt sentiment I want to share. Depending on my mood, I may consider such ideas and subsequent actions as the positive fruits of my runs, and bask, if only temporarily, in the glory of the process.

My running is similar to Roth’s self-described experience of writing, in that I often feel if I did not run, I would die or, more accurately in my case, suffer tremendous anxiety. Like Roth, I also believe—and this is the stronger driver for me—that running protects me from an even greater menace, which I suppose I define as some combination of gluttony, lethargy, and depression. As I write this, I acknowledge I don’t truly harbor the notion that I would open the fridge and start eating its contents with abandon should I hang up my running shoes for good. Nor do I think I would cease to engage in some form of productive activity. I do believe my mood would decline, but perhaps I could find other healthy activities to take its place, either alternate forms of exercise or, god forbid, less running. I also believe I would have to construct some sort of new identity for myself: no longer primarily defined as “a runner,” I would necessarily start to define myself as someone or something else. Perhaps I would experience that someone/thing else as more—what is the right word?—likeable? In tune with the Universe?

Yet I am 45, and running and exercise are such a large part of me that I cannot currently conceive of a life that does not include them in some respect. The question becomes how, precisely, I incorporate running or another form of exercise into my life and whether the way I practice it causes me unnecessary suffering. Others might spend similar amounts of time exercising, but it might not feel quite like the burden it has become for me. Others might experience it differently, practice it in such a way that most of the time, exercise doesn’t feel like a burden at all but more of a joyful pursuit in which they feel lucky to be able to engage. That is the ideal, of course. Which suggests there is something about the way I practice running that is either unhealthy or inefficient; it is fueled, perhaps, by negative energy or from an unskillful perspective. Otherwise it would not feel burdensome, no? I wonder if the same was true for Roth, at least on some of the days he found himself at his desk yet again, anxiously trying to craft words to fill the pages of books his readers would treasure. Could there have been a way he could have practiced his writing such that it didn’t feel burdensome, so much like a cage from which he is delighted to be sprung now that he is 81 years old? Is such a concept even possible?

Perhaps much of what is worth doing necessarily feels difficult and burdensome most of the time, with only rare moments of metaphysical bliss resulting from the activity. Yet I often wonder whether (and sometimes believe) there is an ideal, Zen-like way of doing things such that they almost feel easy. Is anything less just a form of mental fog interfering with flow? But then I question whether this is a delusional view of the world that does not match reality.

When Roth refers to his current experience of NOT WRITING as being like a bird sprung from a cage, my brain alights at the recognition of that sensation, some form of which I feel on those days when I decide to NOT RUN. I may pursue some other form or exercise—hiking with my husband and dog or doing weights at the gym—but there is definitely a liberating aspect to not having the pressure of a run out there in my day. Frequently I notice the decision not to run evokes a predictable pattern of reduced anxiety for the first half of the day, a form of joy resulting from the absence of the cage. Sometimes this feeling persists throughout the entire day, but oftentimes the anxiety returns or a sort of depression sets in, a sense I have lost that day’s battle with no avenue to recapture the feeling of victory—or at least safety—until tomorrow.

I don’t imagine Roth feels this way now that he has stopped writing, though one never knows. Having written 31 novels, including a Pulitzer winner, he is more than entitled to feel like a bird sprung from a cage. Are there days he feels anxious or defeated as a result of his choice to abandon writing? Maybe. Or maybe it truly is as he describes, close to a sublime experience to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Nothing more to worry about than death. Hmmm. Is that a proxy for nothing more to accomplish than death? No pressure to perform, to produce, to prove to the world your worth? Perhaps that is it. If so, is Roth’s experience any different from that of people who, often in their later years, give voice to experiencing the joys of being rather than doing? In that case, is my running a perverse form of my need to achieve, to prove my worth, either to myself or the world or, more likely, both? If so, could I not gain this sense through other pursuits? Why have I adopted this particular activity? Because I can and many others cannot or choose not to? Is it something inherent in me? Is it necessarily wrong or misguided? If some part of it is misguided, does that mean all of it is misguided? Do I have to toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

In my best moments, running in and of itself is close to the sublime experience of which Roth speaks. Other times, NOT running is more akin to that experience. It depends on the day and my frame of mind (as well as the state of my physical body, no doubt). It would be lovely if I could confine my running to those moments when it is gratifying and wonderful and spiritually enriching, but I have not yet found a way to do so. Perhaps it is not possible. But I sense there is a way for me to run that would not feel as burdensome as it currently does much of the time.

I suspect the key is being able to take it or leave it. To not care in just the right proportion, such that if I do not run on a given day, or run fewer miles or less skillfully than I intend, it will not rock my world. If a run happens, all the better, especially a good, energizing run; certainly I should strive for it to happen more days than not, but the Earth will not stop orbiting the Sun if I am unable to run one day or the next. I must not be too attached to the outcome.

I also have noticed with most tasks, I perform them best when not focusing too closely on the details, when I am able to do the work without getting hung up on the minutiae. Most of the time, attention to minutiae is inversely proportional to completion of the task at hand. I must learn to run without focusing on every step.

It also helps, in running as in life, to pursue it with a sense of gratitude—in my case, for the ability to run at all, for having two functional legs that can carry me down the street and over the horizon. And too, when I remember to run with a “beginner’s mind,” i.e., a mindset that does not expect me to be an Olympian or even a smooth, coordinated runner right out the front door: I am just an average, everyday plodder who wants to move her legs and be outside, nothing more. That is enough.

Maybe these are not keys to creating masterpieces or Pulitzer winners, but instead to experiencing the world and oneself as friendlier and more forgiving. Returning to Roth’s claim that, “It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and that I had no compassion for myself,” perhaps those qualities made for a robust work ethic, but did they serve him well in other respects? Could he have written as skillfully or prolifically had he possessed more self-compassion? Would the world have been denied the fruits of Philip Roth absent his lack of self-regard?

I suppose my take-away is that I yearn for more frequent experiences of being sprung from the cage. With keys that do not feel like forms of unhealthy escape but instead friendly modes of self-compassion. I desire more frequent feelings of joy from being rather than doing, less frequent feelings of urgency to accomplish and achieve and prove and perform. No one is pushing me in those directions except me. I am the one cracking that whip. I possess the key.

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Losing Control in Southeast Asia

There comes a point in nearly everyone’s life when the impulse to try to control every outcome and stage-manage all circumstances reveals itself to be futile. It always was, of course, but somehow many of us—O.K., I’m mostly talking about myself here—believe it had a measurable effect on keeping things orderly. Those who know me might agree that I have tried for most of my life to control things to an unprecedented, dare I say, unhealthy, degree. Some of the unfortunate targets of my search for control have included friends, family members, numerous daily tasks, and most notably, my weight. But over the past couple of years, I have slowly and finally come to accept that complete control is not only impossible but also undesirable. I am 45 years old, so this realization has come slowly, perhaps a little later than would have been ideal; it most definitely would have made things easier had I learned it in my 30s. Nonetheless, I honestly can report progress in my ability to let go a little and “go with the flow,” if you’ll excuse the cliché. I am not talking about giving up the central tenets of my life or revamping my entire paradigm of reality—you won’t find me taking advantage of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana law or booking a trip to a nudist resort in Mexico—but simply trying to incorporate a more relaxed view of the world and the impossibility of perfection and total control in any realm. The world just does not work that way. I thought it did for a large portion of my life, but the Universe has finally beaten into me that life functions according to its own set of standards, which often means no standards at all.

That I have tried to embrace a more accommodating attitude helped during my husband’s and my recent vacation to Vietnam and Cambodia. There is nothing like a vacation abroad to underscore the fact that events often occur NOT as you would hope and regardless of your travel itinerary and sense of propriety.

Sometimes those events take place even before you have left home. It was 9 PM on New Year’s Day, the night before our scheduled 6 AM pick-up from our house in Boulder, Colorado, in time to catch our 8 AM flight to Seattle with connecting flights to Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh City. Bags were packed, a late dinner about to be eaten. My husband and I were feeling relatively relaxed and excited about our trip. The phone rings, but who answers their landline after 9 PM when most of those calls are solicitors anyway? Except this wasn’t a solicitor, it was United Airlines with an automated message informing us our flight to Seattle was cancelled. No explanation, just a suggestion that we call to be rebooked on another flight. After an hour and a half on the phone with a United agent, we decided to go with what seemed like out best option: hope for standby seats on a nonstop flight from Denver to Tokyo the next day, which if it worked out, would have us arriving in Tokyo with enough time to catch our connection to Ho Chi Minh City. The United agent advised us against this option; the flight already was overbooked and we were not likely to get seats, meaning we’d have to wait at least another full day to be rebooked. But we gauged our standby chances as preferable to the alternative: a 6 AM flight the next morning to Chicago, where we’d hook up with a flight to Tokyo that would allow just enough time to make our connection to Ho Chi Minh City if all went according to schedule. Which it never does. Lo and behold, at 9:45 AM the next morning, we secured seats on the noon flight from Denver to Tokyo. We grabbed the seats, raced to the airport, and congratulated ourselves for making the best choice we could under the circumstances. A choice that worked out in the end. Having scored that victory, the 11-hour flight to Tokyo didn’t seem all that taxing, nor did the connecting flights.

All went smoothly during our first couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City. We had adjusted to the 14-hour time difference between Vietnam and Boulder and were feeling pretty excited about being back in this lovely country after our first trip to Hanoi in 2009. The hotel we were staying in was glorious, the weather comfortably hot (mid-80s, not overwhelmingly humid), and our plans included a trip to the Mekong Delta region and visits to the city’s museums, districts, and restaurants.

On our last day in the city, we awoke with plans to travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to spend a few days touring the temples of that region, including Angor Wat. We also awoke to the sounds of both our mobile phones beeping with incoming texts. Our dog sitter was trying to reach us with the news that our hot water heaters had burst and leaked water all over our finished basement. Several calls to a plumbing company and $5,300 later yielded two new hot water heaters, and a few more calls (highly expensive ones, as we had not signed up for a temporary international calling plan, believing we would be fine with texts back and forth with the United States) yielded a company to clean and sanitize the carpet. Peace of mind was restored. Remarkably during the whole ordeal, which actually took less than two hours to resolve thanks to the resourcefulness of our dog sitter, we did not panic or feel that our vacation would be negatively affected by the incident. Likely it was because we were dealing with it remotely and others were handling it for us onsite; we never had to witness the chaos of the actual event. Regardless, we moved on and continued our journey in Southeast Asia.

Siem Reap was lovely, interesting, dusty, and hot with a surprisingly vibrant night life. Going downtown for dinner felt like immersing ourselves in the craziness I always associated with a place like Phuket, Thailand, rather than one of the world’s largest religious sites. People were drinking cheap beer and dancing in the streets, vendors were hawking everything from raw chickens to cheap sandals, and the overall vibe was one of raucous partying and mischief. I suppose human behavior is pretty consistent regardless of where you are in the world, at least the behavior of tourists on vacation in a relatively inexpensive, no-rules type of environment.

We were scheduled to spend the last week of our vacation on Phu Quoc Island, located in the Gulf of Thailand and claimed by both Vietnam and Cambodia, but for all intents and purposes a Vietnamese island. We headed off early in the morning for Siem Reap’s airport for the short flight back to Ho Chi Minh City, where we would then board another flight for the 45-minute trip to Phu Quoc. That was the plan, anyway. Until we arrived at the airport and realized we had purchased only a single-entry visa for Vietnam, and we already had used up that entry during our initial visit to Ho Chi Minh City. Our options included paying $75 to apply online for an expedited Vietnam visa and waiting for it to come through, supposedly in as little as four hours; applying for a visa using the normal process, which might yield one by the end of the day if we were lucky; or foregoing our Phu Quoc Island visit entirely and heading home. We opted for the expedited visa and miraculously, it arrived by noon that day, three hours after we submitted our application online. We took a 1:40 PM flight into Phu Quoc, a mere four hours after our original 9:45 AM scheduled departure; managed to squeeze in a workout at the end of the day; and enjoyed a lovely dinner on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. I wouldn’t have believed it possible that morning as we waited for a visa in the Siem Reap airport, but sometimes things have a way of working out.

So really, all our little travel snags proved to be no more than minor inconveniences, nothing that affected either of us health-wise, and we handled them all calmly and with minimal fretting, as you have to do when you are traveling outside your home environment and subject to numerous circumstances beyond your control. Lanse caught some sort of mild travel bug or food-borne illness midway through our week on Phu Quoc, but even that passed within 24 hours and never was cause for overwhelming concern.

Our last morning on the island, a Saturday, we finished packing and prepared for an early breakfast and a short trip to the airport for our 25-hour odyssey back to Boulder. I was in high spirits as I brushed my teeth, excited to be headed home after two weeks on the road away from our yellow lab, Eli. Being the thorough person I am, flossing follows brushing which precedes mouthwash. I never made it to the mouthwash phase, after the crown that had faithfully served as my top front tooth for nine years went flying across the bathroom and landed in the wastebasket as if I planned it that way. I hadn’t. All that remained was the post onto which the tooth had been cemented. Luckily, the tooth was intact, so I was able to jimmy it back on to the post and keep it there as a decorative device and embarrassment avoider throughout the flight, despite pieces chipping away as I tried to eat at various points during the journey. We arrived home late Saturday night Mountain Standard Time and fell into bed, my tooth still relatively intact and not at the top of my mind. I planned to call a dentist first thing Monday morning for an emergency repair but figured I was in the clear until then. Alas, the remnants of the tooth disintegrated while I ate dinner Sunday evening. Despite the fact that my regular dentist was on vacation for two weeks and unavailable, I was able to find a dentist who crafted a temporary tooth for me Monday afternoon, a tooth that was soon replaced with a shiny new permanent crown that looks spectacular, in my opinion. In the meantime, the situation provided an opportunity to whiten the rest of my teeth so that they look far better than before the “Katie Crown Affair.” Lemons into lemonade, my friend; lemons into lemonade.

Longtime friends know I am not as easy-breezy as all this sounds, but I must say, even as my own worst critic, I am amazed I handled it all as calmly as I did. The four massages I had while traveling might have had something to do with it; as anyone who has traveled in Southeast Asia knows, massage is dirt-cheap in that part of the world, even in more upscale places like the spa at our resort on Phu Quoc. One of my two-hour massages cost me about $20. But no, I don’t think it was the massages per say. It was the overall feeling of relaxation, connection with the larger world, and intuitive sense that hot water heaters don’t matter that much in the end. Easy for me to say because of course we were able to replace our failed heaters with ease and did not have to worry about the cost. The same with the tooth. The same with the visa. And really, the same with the flight uncertainty at the beginning of the trip. If for some reason we had had to cancel the entire vacation, it would not have mattered that much in the end, except to limit our exposure to different cultures and places in the world. Life would have gone on, and quite satisfactorily at that.

So what is my take-away? Hmmm. I wish I had some profound thoughts on the matter, but really, the main thing I am left with is that I wish I had that same equanimity, peace of mind, and easy-going attitude I possessed during the bulk of this trip ALL THE TIME. Can you imagine a relaxed attitude 24-7? Can you imagine what you’d accomplish on a daily basis if you didn’t worry about every last detail, or if not every last detail, most of the insignificant ones that don’t matter in the end? So many days I set out hoping to lose myself, by which I mean hoping to lose that oppressive sense of getting tied up in my proverbial underwear about everything from what type of dental floss I use (hopefully not the kind that removes crowns in foreign countries) to making sure I’ve gotten the best deal on the toilet paper. So many days I aspire to wake up and effortlessly NOT CARE about anything except the things that really matter, like the people in my life I love and the rest of the world at large, most of whom I don’t know quite as well but who still need and deserve a helping hand, a smile, a warm gesture from me. Those are the things that really matter, and now that I am 45, I realize it more and more. Not every moment of every day, maybe not even a preponderance of moments in a given day. But I have gotten to the point where I think about it at least a portion of every day, and that is something. So while I might climb out of bed in the morning wanting to be as flexible and relaxed as I was in Southeast Asia, I climb into bed most nights knowing that I can’t shed myself entirely—i.e., my particular neuroses—but that at least I made an effort to be a better, more relaxed, intuitive, in-tune-with-the-Universe- type person who does not stress about the stuff that, in the end, does not matter very much.

Except the dental floss. I am hoping my new crown lasts a while, at least until my next epiphany regarding the meaning of life or our next trip abroad.

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Chasing Peace 

It is time for the edifice I have spent my life building to perish. I know this with every cell of my physical body, mind, and soul. I know it but am still learning how to translate this knowledge into concrete action. But knowing is a step toward freedom.

I have been a runner since my freshman year of college. It began as a way to lose the ten pounds I gained my first semester, the weight that caused my older brother to ask during Christmas break that year, “What the hell do you and your friends do, sit around eating ice cream in your sweat pants?” I don’t even remember feeling fat or bothered by the comment; I merely recall resolving at that very moment to do everything within my power to lose weight. I went back to school in January, reduced my meal plan at the cafeteria to ten meals a week from the required nineteen for freshman (I was permitted to do so since I had enough credits to qualify as a sophomore), and began running three miles a day. That’s it, just three miles every day. I was disciplined about it, never missing a day, and soon people began recognizing me as “a runner.” Within months, guys who had barely noticed me before were saying things like, “Hey Katie, did you drop a few? Call me some time.”

Fast forward twenty-six years. I’m now 44 years-old and I run too much. Far too much to feel happy, content and suffused with a sense of well-being a lot of the time. It is not so much the actual amount I run; it is more the amount of time I spend on the activity and the way I organize my day around it, what it means to my sense of self, and the mental challenge it poses for me to take a day off, despite physical or mental fatigue or a lack of desire on any given day. I have become accustomed to feeling “less” if I do not run six days a week, sometimes five if I am feeling more generous toward myself. But that is the bare minimum—five days a week. I haven’t dipped below that threshold in I don’t know how long, and I’d be afraid to try. I also find it hard to run any less than ten miles at one time, unless I anticipate being able to take a second run later in the day. My usual minimum is twelve miles a day. Not that this is insane by elite running standards, but I am not an elite runner, and I am not doing this for training or fitness purposes. I know full well I am doing it for other, not-so-healthy reasons. Some part of it still is connected to weight control, despite the fact that I actually am underweight. I could cut back and still be fine on that score.

But in truth it seems to have more to do with a perverse need to feel like I’ve punished myself adequately on any given day. Have I striven hard enough today? Have I “earned” my rest and relaxation, my dinner, my sense of peace? A sense of peace is a challenge sans run. In that sense, there seems to be a masochistic impulse at work. I suspect there is also something to the notion that others—my friends, family, and acquaintances—are not running this far, that this somehow makes me special. I’ll admit I do not feel so special in other ways. I have never felt particularly attractive physically, though in truth I think I used to be, blessed with blond hair, blue eyes, and a relatively youthful appearance thanks to good genes from my parents. But my inner experience always has been one of not looking quite as attractive as my friends, as most other women in general. Combine this with the fact that I have struggled to define myself professionally—I used to be a Washington policy wonk with a full-time job, then I got married and pursued journalism as a freelancer, now I am trying my hand at fiction writing with no job at all—and my identity is rather ill-defined, other than as…well, you guessed it, a runner.

I used to gain strength from running. A sense of peace, relaxation, physical and mental prowess, a sense I was pursuing a healthy and worthwhile endeavor far preferable to evening cocktails, the drug of choice for my mother and many people I know. I used to come home from an afternoon or early evening run, shower, change into comfortable clothes, and read before dinner with a sense of well-being I knew I had created, peace so unlike the chaos I experienced growing up in a divorced household with an alcoholic, angry, and often violent mother. Running was my place of serenity; I knew it existed in the world if I could find and pursue the right and proper path, the road my mother chose not to take. A rather simple view of the world but it worked well through my 20s and early 30s.

But then my life changed course, and things began to feel not quite so black-and-white. At age 34, I married a great guy, 23 years older but my soul-mate nonetheless. He and I are immensely compatible and I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else, but I harbor an independent streak that often makes me crave time alone, regardless of how wonderful my husband is. Navigating the path of togetherness has been a challenge for me. But the greatest trial hit me at age 39, when my father, who had been my protector throughout my life, died from prostate cancer. He had been sick with the disease for five years, but I never truly imagined it would kill him, because men’s prostate cancer is notoriously treatable, right? But my dad elected not to have radical prostate surgery, and radiation was not enough to stave off the ravages of the cancer, which had metastasized to his bones. During the final months of his life, my dad did not let on how far the cancer had progressed, and living two thousand miles away from him cemented my ignorance of his condition. So during what I expected to be a relatively routine visit to Colorado to see my brother and me, he ended up in the hospital and died six weeks later. As soon as he got off the plane, I knew how dire the situation was: his hair was almost gone and we needed a wheelchair to get him to the car. Six weeks later, as my brother and I and our spouses watched over him at the hospital during his final hours of life, he assured me that, “It’s going to be OK, Katie.” Though I may have believed him at the time, the torrents of grief that washed over me during the months and years ahead were nothing I ever could have anticipated.

In a mostly subconscious effort to cope with my sadness and fear and assure myself all was “OK,” I began running farther each time I went out the door. A mile here, two miles there. At first it felt great; empowering, like I was conquering a beast trying to fell me. Over time, the extra miles started to catch up with me in the form of physical and mental fatigue, but at that point, they felt almost compulsory; if I didn’t run that far each time, my sense of rightness, control, and well-being seemed at risk. I was chasing a sense of peace, but the further I ran, the more it eluded me.

The chase continued. I sunk deeper and deeper into the despair of depression, augmented by the exhaustion, malnutrition and isolation that accompanied my running. What I didn’t realize was that I was chasing the knowledge I would be “OK” right where I stood, not sixteen miles down the running path. I would be “OK” even without my Dad in this world with me, “OK” because I was powered by my own strength and courage. That I didn’t need a run every day to feel this strength; its origin lay not in the miles I ran but deep within my soul. I needed to reconnect with the inner knowledge of how to access my strength in a skillful rather than self-defeating, soul-denying manner. My life was the living embodiment of the Morrissey song, “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get,” with grief and a sense of surrender being the central things I was trying to ignore. The costs of doing so became greater as time passed.

Close friends and even casual acquaintances began to comment on my gaunt appearance; fatigue became a constant factor, such that I found it hard to motivate myself to walk our yellow Labrador Retriever, Eli, whose daily jaunt used to be one of my favorite activities; I was constantly hungry but never sure what to eat, such that I often ate the wrong thing or nothing at all; and I snapped at my husband frequently, creating a situation where he began to tread lightly just to avoid a confrontation. I knew I needed to change, but at the outset I honestly could not envision how to begin.

With the help of a wonderful therapist, supportive friends, and an unbelievably patient, kind and loving husband, things started to shift for me. The sorrow began to surface, even subside, and things started to look less bleak. I renewed relationships I had severed partly—I see now—as a result of my judgmental view of the world and, most significantly, myself. And yes, I began to run less. I won’t lie to you: not earth-shatteringly less. But less, as in two fewer miles here, another day off there. Change I could handle. Change that would not create a backlash within my brain delivering the message that I actually am the slovenly heathen I fear becoming, an image I probably developed earlier in life than I’m even aware and that clearly I still carry. It emerges to greater and lesser degrees on any given day, but it is undeniably there. Yet the image is becoming less powerful, such that most days, I at least manage to keep the beast at bay, if not slay him entirely. He’s nasty, but he is no longer an all-powerful force in my life.

I am a perfectionist my nature, which is absolutely not a good thing since it has contributed to my self-defeating behavior—including my excessive running—throughout my life. But I have begun telling myself, in an effort to highlight it to my conscious brain, that the perfect lays within the imperfect; perfect does not exist independently or even at all. It is a fiction I and other perfectionists have created in our minds to foster the absurd notion we can control the world—every circumstance, nuance, feeling. But that is not the way the world operates. Nor do I believe our Creator intended it to work that way, and by “Creator,” I simply mean whatever force assembled all this energy and matter in the first place. I do not harbor the belief that life involves suffering so we can pass on to some sort of perfect Heaven-like afterworld; this world may be all there is, and I think I am “OK” with that. In fact, I’ve got no choice but to learn to be “OK” with that. It is only through accepting imperfection one can attain the sense of “good enough” that is as near to perfection as I believe any of us can hope to achieve in this lifetime.

Five years after my father’s death, I honestly can say I have begun to surrender to the knowledge that my bodily strength is not limitless and that at this stage in my life, I need to recalibrate the balance between physical and mental strength. In fact, the latter will carry the day in the end. Running appeals to me less now; treating myself kindly appeals more. I am trying to infuse my days with a spirit of gratitude and celebration in ways large and small. I am attempting to re-learn the art of enjoying myself, which I have discovered is not so simple. While I continue to struggle with allowing myself to take days off and run fewer miles at one time, I know my intentions and focus are beginning to pay off. Some days, I still look for some sort of “blessing” that it is acceptable to take the day off, that the Universe wants me to give myself a mental and physical break. Oftentimes I look to my dear husband for this blessing, and he usually delivers it, even offering to skip exercise too, such that we can be couch potatoes together or perhaps catch a movie or get a massage. But other days there is no choice but to bless the day myself. My husband is looking forward to his gym session and I know I cannot expect his need to rest to coincide with mine every time. I must learn to sanction the event myself, based on the internal knowledge it is right for me even if no one else in the entire world needs a rest day.

Yes, my edifice has started to crumble. Little changes are key, whether it’s taking that rest day, trying new foods, meeting new people, or doing everyday tasks in new ways. I am starting to write more frequently, writing being one of the few activities that takes me out of myself in the same way running used to and, on good days, still does. I envision a future where my time will be spent writing more and running less, if at all. I don’t believe I actually am in danger of becoming a slovenly heathen. Again, good genes and a relatively active lifestyle even without my daily run have, I hope, inured me from that fate. But as I prepare for the second half of my life (and it could be less, depending on that ever-present thing we call chance, luck, or lack thereof), I would like to believe fear and compulsion will rule me less often, and inner strength and courage will direct the show more of the time. I want a sense of balance and freedom to be the roadmap for my life, not a false belief in “perfect” or control or order. I know the spirit of living to which I aspire, even if I have not arrived at my destination yet. Life is messy. I am messy. Things have a way of working out anyway.

I will be “OK,” Dad. You were right.

Aside

Eli’s Dream

I awoke sometime near 3 AM the other night to the sound of my seven-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, Eli, dreaming. I love to hear and see him dreaming; he is adorable to watch, as he twitches and tries to bark in the midst of his dreams, chasing what I imagine is the elusive, plump squirrel of his fantasy world. I find it fascinating that dogs, like people, find it hard to speak or shout out during their dreams.

That night, when I first awoke to his dream-induced sounds, I mistook Eli’s whimpers for distress. I almost got up to check on him, curled up on his dog bed at the foot of my husband’s and my king-size bed, but then I recognized the familiar sound of him trying to bark, and I realized he was only dreaming. As I drifted back to sleep, I contemplated the number of times Eli actually has been in distress and realized it has been relatively few. No, like most Labs, Eli is pretty content most of the time. He’s only in actual distress when something is, well, actually wrong, like it’s too hot and humid outside and he’s panting and needs water, or he’s hungry and ready for breakfast, or he’s threatened by Bear, the German Shepherd who lives down the street and who, despite his calm demeanor, looks threatening. Otherwise, Eli is good. He has no need to generate additional drama in his life or fall victim to imagined ills.

Unlike the rest of us. Or let me specific here: me. The list of items that might plague me on any given day range from the way I cooked the broccoli (did I cook it just right, tender enough but still crispy and green, full of vitamins?), to the price I paid for said broccoli (I currently live in New York City, and I have discovered something native New Yorkers know instinctively: it is inevitable you will find a grocer somewhere in your neighborhood selling the exact same product you just bought at another store, only the second grocer is selling it at half the price), to the friend I didn’t have time to call back (she needs me now, but I just didn’t have time today—I want to call her when there’s adequate time for an extended conversation), to the writing I did not get to (I’m never going to do it if I don’t sit my ass in the chair and write, but I can’t sit my ass in the chair and write until I go shopping, walk the dog, go for a run, and pay the electric bill). Some days I remind myself of the character in A. A. Milne’s poem, “The Old Sailor.” I won’t recite the entire poem here, just the first and final two stanzas (but if you have not read it, you can find it at http://ahistoricality.blogspot.com/2005/08/thursday-verses-old-sailor.html):

 

There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew

Who had so many things which he wanted to do

That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,

He couldn’t because of the state he was in.

So he thought of his hut…and he thought of his boat,

And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,

And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst)…

But he never could think which he ought to do first.

 

And so in the end he did nothing at all,

But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.

And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved –

He did nothing but bask until he was saved! 

 

That poem is one of my favorites, as I completely relate to its portrayal of a man who can’t accomplish one task without thinking of all the other things he could or should be doing. In the end, he accomplishes nothing, makes himself fairly miserable, and fails to quiet the existential unrest I surmise is at the heart of his frenzy.

At the end of many days, I have a vague sense I haven’t accomplished all I could or should have. I notice this sense regardless of whether I actually managed to call that friend or write those few pages or pay those bills. No, this sense can visit no matter how many tasks I have tackled. I have come to the conclusion, in fact, that it is not actually connected to the amount of work I have completed. On other days, when I have done very little work and allowed myself to see an afternoon matinee with my husband or get a massage or go shopping, I don’t have the sense of having failed in some unnamable respect. Some days, it is almost as if the sense of incompletion is inversely proportional to the number of tasks I actually have completed. Fascinating. This vague sense, no doubt, allows very little room for peace or a feeling of well-being. And there it is: I have managed to create my own sense of dissatisfaction, sometimes even approaching misery. Something Eli never manages to do.

Why is it that on the days when I actually do allow myself to metaphorically or actually put my feet up and relax, I often have a greater sense of peace than on the days when I am straining to accomplish numerous goals, even finishing many or all of them on my list? Do they not matter? Are they not important in the end? Does my brain somehow know that it is more important to allow rest and the occasional afternoon matinee than to run one more mile or wash one more load of laundry? All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl, so to speak. Add that to my list of worries, why don’t we? I’m dull, too.

But Eli never goes there. He lives his day easily, like clockwork and seemingly with very little stress. A typical day for the seventy-pound child my husband and I never had goes like this: he wakes up when we do, usually around 7 AM, goes for his morning walk around the block, comes back to enjoy his daily breakfast of kibbles in a broth of water and special joint powder, takes a nap until his midday walk with my husband and me, naps some more in the afternoon, eats dinner around 7 PM, chews a rib bone while we eat our dinner, and embarks on a final walk at the end of the evening. His days don’t change much. And he seems to be one of the happiest creatures I know on this planet. No complaints, no drama or self-criticism about the squirrel he didn’t catch, the nap he didn’t take, the tail-wagging he didn’t accomplish. He wagged his tail, by all accounts, as much as he desired and didn’t think about it further. What a concept.

Eli, otherwise known as one of Buddha’s disciples, seems to be saying, “Do what you need to do, Mom, and then stop striving so hard. Wag your tail a little more, self-criticize a little less. You can chase that squirrel tomorrow but for now, enjoy the moment and be glad you arrived at the end of yet another glorious day and are here to reflect on it. Enjoy your dinner and a get good night’s rest, with Dad by your side and me at the foot of your bed. It’s all going to be O.K., Mom, really it is. You’ve taken care of the big things and the Universe will take care of the rest. Relax and chill. I love you, Mom. Here’s a tail wag and a lick to prove it. And don’t worry about me if you wake up in the middle of the night and hear me dreaming; I’m fine, just cleansing out my dog-like thoughts and recharging the batteries for tomorrow.”

Remarkable advice from a relatively non-verbal creature, but there you have it.

Eli’s Dream

Aside

“No One Can Fill My Father’s Shoes”

That was a quote on a cheap plastic plaque I gave my dad for Father’s Day when I was maybe nine- or ten-years-old. It was the type of thing a kid could find at the local drug store that perfectly captured that child’s sentiment. That’s how I felt about my dad, who died a little over five years ago. I found that plaque as my older brothers and I cleaned out his apartment and was touched he had kept it for so many years.

I thought of my dad a few nights ago as I read about Pope Francis giving final approval to name Popes John Paul II and John XXIII as saints, taking the rare step of waiving the requirement for a second confirmed miracle for John XXIII. The news brought to mind that 1970s Saturday Night Live character, Father Guido Sarducci, played by Don Novello, and his skit about Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton being declared a saint even though she only had three miracles to her name. The actual dialogue is just too funny, so I simply must reprint it here (thanks to IMDb.com for providing the quote):

”To be made a saint in-a the catholic church, you have to have-a four miracles. That’s-a the rules, you know. It’s-a always been that-a. Four miracles, and-a to prove it. Well, this-a Mother Seton-now they could only prove-a three miracles. But the Pope-he just waved the fourth one. He just waved it! And do you know why? It’s-a because she was American. It’s all-a politics. We got-a some Italian-a people, they got-a forty, fifty, sixty miracles to their name. They can’t-a get in just cause they say there’s already too many Italian saints, and this woman comes along with-a three lousy miracles. I understand that-a two of them was-a card tricks.”

My dad loved Father Guido Sarducci, thought he was hysterical. My dad could be a pretty rigid guy: he had a dry sense of humor, the type of man whose jokes were particularly appreciated because they were rare. When my dad thought something was funny, it always seemed particularly funny. And my dad though Father Guido Sarducci was funny. He would repeat his jokes whenever Sarducci was featured on SNL, and I’d double over laughing every time. My dad also loved a later SNL character, Church Lady, played by Dana Carvey. He’d repeat Church Lady’s famous phrase, “Isn’t that special?” for a few days after seeing one of her skits and again, I’d burst out laughing immediately.

I think of my dad every day, to be honest, because he was one of the most important people in my life and most days, something brings him to mind. It could be a person or a joke or, increasingly, ways I notice myself performing certain tasks and approaching the world. Like I said, my dad was fairly rigid and, I have to admit, I can be pretty rigid, too. Funny that his rigidity was the thing that most irritated me about him, yet here I am, a 44-year-old woman, and I notice myself quite frequently being just as damn rigid and—OK, I’ll admit it—obsessive-compulsive as he was. Go figure. The sins of the fathers are revisited upon the daughters or something like that. My dad died June 2, 2008, at age 74 from aggressive prostate cancer. He was too young to die, really, as he’d been in terrific health his whole life, a former military man who’d graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and spent his early years in the Air Force stationed outside Paris. He and my mother came back to the States in their late-twenties to be near family as they raised their own. My dad retired from the military and took a job as an insurance salesman working for his father-in-law. Insurance sales became his career but never his passion: he was always musing about getting out of the business and doing something else, but it never happened. No—tennis, West Point, and his kids were his true passions in life. He and my mother divorced after twenty-plus years of marriage; other than their early years of marriage when my father was stationed in France, they never were all that happy together. So my dad always struck me as a man who never quite fulfilled his dreams: never renewed his pilot’s license, never returned to Europe after those three years in the Air Force, never pursued another career, even though all those things were goals he discussed with greater and lesser degrees of enthusiasm over the years. I suppose my dad was like so many of us in that respect, dreaming but never doing, feeling somehow thwarted by life and circumstances beyond our control. I used to criticize him for it, think to myself that I would never be like that, never fail to pursue my dreams, never live a life of seeming mediocrity, yet here I am at age 44, and I can see how it happened. He did lots of wonderful things for sure, but he never accomplished those dreams. Maybe that’s good enough, not just some acquiescence to mediocrity. Maybe some dreams are never fated to become reality anyway. Maybe the secret to a contented life is accepting that it’s O.K. for some dreams never to come to fruition.

There is hope to be gleaned from my father’s final hours on this earth, hope that good enough really is good enough. You see, my father—again, like many people—was afraid of his own mortality. Yet in his final moments, my father achieved a sense of peace I witnessed with my own eyes. I like to imagine it was because he had two of his four children by his side and had a sense his life, however it had turned out and regardless of what he’d “accomplished” or not accomplished, was enough. That final night was difficult for me but an experience I will cherish for the rest of my days, because it allowed me to see a man formerly plagued by fear achieve a sense of acceptance. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. Below is a recollection of that final night I wrote as part of a writing retreat in Whitefish, Montana, led by a fabulous instructor and shared with ten wonderful women for whom I will forever have loving memories, wherever our life paths may take us:

I stared down at my father in his hospital bed, watching him breathe slowly and with difficulty, with the assistance of an oxygen mask delivering very little of the stuff. I was in the room with my older brother Craig, his wife, Erin, and my husband, Lanse. We were waiting for him to die, and the process was being narrated by my brother, a surgeon who was explaining what was happening inside my dad’s body in real time. It was a little disconcerting, trying to separate the emotions I was experiencing as my dad lay dying while my brother gave the medical play-by-play in a somewhat clinical tone. “See, now his oxygen count is down to fifty percent, but his heart is incredibly strong, so even though he’s breathing so shallowly, his body is still very much alive.” I suppose it was easier, for all of us, to focus on the clinical aspects of the process. That way, I wouldn’t think about the fact that only five hours earlier, my father was cognizant enough to tell me not to look when an angelic nurse gave him a sponge bath and changed his gown to make him more comfortable, even though she knew he had only hours to live. My dad always was modest, and the thought of his only daughter seeing his naked body, even though he too knew he was dying, was too much for him to bear. I guess that’s one of the last things to go; at least it was for him. I knew he was aware of his fate, because I had told him earlier that evening the doctors were going to reduce his oxygen slowly. While they had informed me and my brother there was nothing they could do for him, we hadn’t used those exact words with my father. I simply said, “Dad, they’re going to reduce your oxygen, do you know what that means?” Since my father had pneumonia and had been on one hundred percent oxygen all day—this after aggressive prostate cancer had ravaged the rest of his body—he knew what that meant. “Yes,” he replied. “Are you O.K. with that?” “Yes.” So there it was: my dad, terrified of his own mortality for as long as I’d known him, so much so that he’d had a nervous breakdown five years prior at the prospect of radical surgery for his then newly-diagnosed prostate cancer, had achieved a measure of peace with death.

You were more than good enough, Dad; of that much, I am sure. And truly, no one can fill your shoes.

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