Taking The Long Way Home

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So often I write about the beauty of running, but truthfully, I don’t always love it.  Upon waking each morning, the negotiations begin and a parade of excuses whirls through my mind as to why I’d be better off staying in bed.  Occasionally, the excuses make such a persuasive argument that I inch the covers over my head and allow myself another half hour’s sleep.  But when my conscience wins the fight, I stagger out into the brisk, morning air and set my feet to pavement, praying they find rhythm.  With those first footfalls I feel every ache and twinge in my overworked body and my breath comes in uneven gasps, my lungs searing in protest.  The whole endeavor feels slow, laborious, and ungainly.  My mind screams, Why didn’t you just stay home?!

The negotiations continue for the first mile as I consider turning back with each step.  I make deals with myself—if you push yourself to keep going, you can allow yourself to walk the trail section—knowing that I’ll feel like a failure if I do.  But eventually, something miraculous happens—I give in.  I let go of all that cacophonous chatter in my head rattling off lists of reasons why I shouldn’t be doing this—why I can’t.  My breath begins to steady until I’m no longer conscious of it.  My stride feels smooth and powerful, my legs working like pistons as I skim across the pavement or flit over a stream, springing nimbly from rock to rock.  My body and mind quiet down, accept this action, and fully commit, working as one synchronous machine.  In this state of grace, I no longer question what I’m doing or where I am any more than one would question a jaguar carving sinuous trails through plains of Serengeti grass.  By the time I arrive home, awash in endorphins and pride, completing my measly two and a half mile run feels like winning a marathon.  It is a far different experience of home than it would have been had I never left.

Even more than the sensation of flying, this is what I love about running—the idea that pushing through all those doubts and concerns and continuing down a path, no matter how effectively you’ve convinced yourself you ought not to, will always have the potential to surprise you with its value and reward.  It’s a lesson I’ve employed over and over as I slog through this first month of school. 

I arrive on campus each morning, reticent to emerge from the safe, solitary world of my headphones, hardly eager to be there and questioning each moment why I am.  There have been so many days that I’ve piled reluctantly into the van for a field trip, feeling like a caged animal, knowing that once those doors close there’s no turning back.  And god do I want to turn back.  But the doors close, the van rattles on down paved streets, then dusty roads, and finally we arrive at some destination that would be breathtaking were it not for the context of witnessing it in the midst of a gaggle of people.  My eyes drink in the views while my mind drifts backwards in time wondering if I could have said no, could have walked off the bus, could have simply not shown up.  At the mercy of our young instructors, I plod along with the group, all the while calculating escape routes no longer viable or counting down the minutes until departure.  My mind is flighty in that way, so loath to stay with me in the present moment and just be.

Then, at some point, my mind begins to settle and I’m able to accept my surroundings and engage in the day’s activity.  In this present state of being I discover gratitude.  It’s not often that an academic course has you traipsing through a riparian corridor tucked between granite bluffs with the directive to find a quiet place and meditate on nature.  I slip away from the group and find a perch among the limbs of a sprawling tree, a spiral-bound notebook resting in my lap with my pen at the ready.  I pause to notice, to soak it in, body and mind still. 

The river is calm, stagnant, its surface skimmed with the emerald green of algae, coalesced like tatters of lace.  In its few bare patches, the water is a mirror reflecting the flat white of an overcast sky.  Water bugs dart across the surface casting ripples that undulate in small bursts like drops of rain.  Traffic hums in the distance, but here it is quiet save for the twitters and sharp trills of birds tucked among the shivering leaves.  A cool breeze carries with it the scent of damp vegetation and petrichor, that earthy perfume invoked after a hard rain.  The banks of the river are lush, the cheerful yellow of black-eyed Susans peeking out from tangled beds of grass.

I have always found nature to be a balm for the weariness of life.  The trappings of our daily routines—all those responsibilities and concerns—are carried off by the winds, bleached pale by sunlight, humbled in the presence of such grandeur.  Some intangible sense of wellbeing, often lost to the modern world, reawakens in us when we connect with nature.  At its core, it is the original act of homecoming. Because I was patient, because I weathered my doubts and allowed myself to continue on this path until I was able to let go of anxiety and judgement, I was rewarded with this moment of beauty and clarity—this small, glittering gem tucked into the bedrock of an ordinary day. 

I try to remember this when I find myself questioning why I moved here.  Whether it’s something as small as leaving the house for a run, showing up to class, or moving half way across the country, that doubtful voice in my head is always the same—Why didn’t you just stay home?  But, my experience of home, of Chicago and Lake Michigan, of family and friends, wouldn’t be the same had I stayed.  It would be an extra half hour’s sleep in the morning—easy and unaware, deprived of mindfulness and gratitude.  I could never truly grasp the value of what I had from the midst of it—a view lacking in perspective—nor would I have discovered the value to be gained in experiencing something new.  It often seems that turning back will bring us closer to safety and comfort, but it is only through endurance, through persisting on our journey, that our minds and our bodies truly find home.

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Sea Change

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Walking in the tracks of the surf rake this morning, the freshly-turned sand crumbles beneath my feet like brown sugar.  Elwood has scavenged a chicken bone from the remnants of a late-night gathering–bits of peanut shell,  watermelon rind, and an empty box of fireworks scattered across the sand.   Discarded beer bottles glow like torches in the light of the rising sun, mirroring the reflections that flicker across the water in the ripple of waves.  The disgust with which I view this ubiquitous trash lends a sense of irony to the delight I find in spotting the glint of frosted glass along the shoreline, relinquished from the steady churn of the lake.  Sometimes the difference between trash and treasure is merely the passage of time.  How often our tales of woe become our most winsome stories.  Through their retelling, they are honed and polished like bits of sea glass, made small and palatable, their rough edges smoothed.

I hope this is the light in which I will come to view this transition from Chicago to Arizona, sea glass to red rock, cynical high school drop out to open-minded denizen of the world of higher education–colorful, shimmering, and imbued with the magic of hind-sight.  Because right now I feel the sting of jagged glass, unweathered by the passing of time.  It feels like performing surgery with a broken bottle–dissecting the tissues that bind me to this place with artless and imprecise strokes until all my tethers have been loosed and I’m ready for transplantation.  I worry about how slowly this connective tissue regrows, how long I’ll spend adrift before I begin to feel some sense of belonging in a new place.  More than that, I worry that the sinews joining heart and home can never truly be slackened enough to allow for this distance.  I fear that I will live with an unbearable tautness in my chest, forever calling me home.

I try to remind myself that it’s better to dive into the unknown with grace and daring than languish in the comfortable monotony of the devil you know.  Better the vast potential of open water than the stagnation of refuse-strewn shores.  (Speaking metaphorically, of course–people need to stop throwing their shit in the lake.)  With any luck, I will one day emerge from this rough and tumble sea of change honed and polished with my rough edges smoothed.  Whether the waves will spit me out on distant sands or those of my local beach, only time will tell.