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.

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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

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