Sunday, November 13, 2011


"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."
- Bruce Lee

Sometimes, in the course of life, we arrive at a comfortable plane. It happens without fanfare, without a trumpeting of celebration. It happens once we’ve climbed a difficult set of circumstances and then stand in both awe and admiration of what we have accomplished. For some, this plateau moment is so rewarding, so unexpected, it serves as some sort of deliverance.

Plateaus, in this sense, are deceptive. There is so much relief in reaching a goal, and so much self-congratulatory joy, that one often lingers longer than one should in this moment. Stay too long, and you risk staying forever. Get too comfortable, and you risk slipping into self-limitation.

But it won’t feel like limitation. It will feel like arriving, competence, it will even feel like skill. Therein lies the deception, the trickery. I’ve been thinking about this concept of plateaus mostly because mine were so unexpected, they felt like relief. So I grew comfortable in my own competence, thus limiting future opportunities for growth, challenge, and a higher resting place with a better view.

Since the Lucky Bucket Run in May, I mastered my 5k monkey mind. I learned the first kilometer is really a negotiation with myself as I ask helpful things like, “Why am I doing this?” and “Why did I eat that pizza yesterday?” The first kilometer is an exercise in mental mastery of the body because the body, by its own intuitive, cellular life force, resists that which is difficult, arduous.

(Photo: A disturbing find on the trail - a skeleton and tail)

The second kilometer is about surrender, when the body begins to understand that the mind is resolute. Body breathes. Body moves. Muscles once lamenting their plight begin to hum with opportunity. Feet adjust to the confines of their shoes, to the pounding against the ground beneath. And the heart finds the beat, the rhythm that anchors the orchestration of physical harmony.

It’s in the third and fourth kilometers that I find beauty. Mind clears, and I begin to look at the world around me with generous eyes. Sceneries seem to embolden their colors. The sound of my breathing, however labored, encourages me to continue. I find great peace in this place upon this plateau of will. That fifth length, the last of my run, is when all comes full circle and my beginning questions return. It feels like closure. It feels normal and complete.

So when my feet come to a stop, and my chest expands with a great breath of satisfaction, I celebrate. I marvel my body as a miracle, as a machine. Then I shamble to my car and drive home, self-satisfied and sure that I have done a good thing.

(Photo: Not everyone gets to compete with bicycles and horses for running and walking space)

But that’s it. The 5k is the same each time – only the weather changes. Sure, I become more efficient in my timing. I even feel a sense that, yes, I really am a runner. And this is where I’ve been stuck for four months, on a plateau of accomplishment and confidence. I’ve been comfortable, so much so, I felt as if I could skip a day or even week without suffering a setback.

(Photo: Light is a lively thing, with personality and motive)

Then one day I woke up and realized that it had been two months since I had set my feet to the path. This revelation startled me, mostly because time passes so quickly and I had not counted the sunsets and sunrises. I had not noticed the rewarding soreness in my muscles – that feeling I was going beyond myself – had faded within a brownie’s bite of flaccidity.

So Saturday, I met up with a Bucketeer and we decided to walk the MoPac trail. We wanted one last long walk before winter, before we’re forced to treadmills and tracks indoors by the unrelenting Nebraska chills and winds slice through our clothes and bite at our faces. It was a beautiful day. We started out in the late afternoon, and I took my camera with me because the light of ending day is my favorite. Everything is beautiful in the golden cast of the sun’s breath.

(Photo: Lone glove of a serial killer? Who was Dana? Who took the tail? What evil lurks in the hearts of man on the gravel path?)

Writers both, we look at the world in similar ways. So we noticed things along the trail and commented on them. A fox’s tail without it’s fox, a pair of sunglasses, graffiti painted on the tree in iconic anguish, a glove without its partner – these all pointed to a dark, central theme. Then the sun painted its best hues, and the bare trees became beautiful all over again.

We kept to the trail for an hour until reaching another town. Taking a short break, we contemplated how much daylight we had left.

(Photo: The elevator was humming with industry in Walton)

“What is it,” Aimee asked, “a fist for every hour or half-hour?” as she pointed her fists to the horizon, noting the gap between the land and the sun.

“I dunno,” I said. “I really need a watch. I’m thinking we’ve got about an hour, hour and a half.”

(Photo: Sometimes light is just a joy, a peeking)

We jogged for a bit, racing against time, before returning to our purposeful stride. The light was turning amber, and it was beautiful. The wind had a kiss of chill, a foreshadowing of the evening’s overnight low. As the breeze tossed my hair about my shoulders, I realized I have been growing out my hair for exactly that feeling when I can feel nature rushing through me and stirring about my head.

Other path people, runners who had left for parts further, were returning. They breathed past us, fluid. It was then Aimee and I noted that some people are just built for running, their hips seem to gracefully swing back and forth like pendulums, keeping their time and grace. I am not built for running. There is nothing graceful about my jackhammer hips. I am built for challenge – we all are. But sometimes I think we forget that the goal in life isn’t to be suspended in some matrix of comfort and competence, but to move, reject static, pre-fab existences, and to make the most of our days.

(Photo: The bare, emboldened by the light, fingers for the sky)

There’s an African proverb I read somewhere (but can’t remember where):

When death finds you, may it find you really living.

And as maudlin as that may seem at first read, it’s an encouragement. It’s a way of wishing someone well; of reminding one to push past the comfortable plateaus and toward the lively angles of challenge. I think this is why I admire Bruce Lee’s mind so much (and his abs – oh my word). He admonished us, “Be happy, but never satisfied.” There’s a call in that to maintain your hunger, to always know there’s something beyond the plane of satisfaction.

(Photo: Aimee on her path, notes the last golden tree)

There are no limits spare the ones we accept as deliverance. So I’ll be on the path again tomorrow, working my way toward a 10k frame of mind, hammering away with graceless determination. Yet, in the last hour of the day when light bursts to red, even that will be beautiful. I can live with that.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


It was Robert Orben, an American magician and comedy writer who once quipped, "Don't worry about your health. It will go away." When I was younger, back in the days when people still used pay phones and nerds still argued about VHS and Beta, I found jokes like this annoying. It was a difficult time in America, when we were burdened with prosperity, the jackwagons at Coca-Cola thought we needed a "New Coke," and Ronald Reagan was about to demand, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." With all that money, with the political landscape flattening our fears of nuclear annihilation, and with our eyes cast toward a golden economic horizon, most people my age had no patience with anything older than yesterday. So when I'd hear a sarcastic quip about aging, I would roll my eyes as if to say, "Whatever, like, that's not going to happen to me."

Flash forward twenty years and jokes about what my mother calls, "the de-crapitation of aging" are real knee-slappers, just like my boobs.

Friday, as I sat in the campus health center holding a plastic bag full of "Feel Your Boobies" bling, my mouth twisted into a sardonic smirk. Looking at the contemporary breast cancer campaign through my aged eyes, I thought of Virginia Slims and the product slogan, "You've come a long way, Baby." I remember when we called breasts, "Breasts." I also remember when daytime television icon Phil Donahue (the talk show king Oprah dethroned before taking over the universe) used his show to promote the "new" laser mammography reliant on "Optical Medical Imaging" (OMI) that would substantially improve the possibility of catching breast cancer (in both women and men) far sooner than previous technologies could. That was 1995.

OMI technology would inspire experiments lasers and thermal heating, and these images would be in vivid color. By 2005, this new technology would be casting "A New Light on Breast Cancer" across the medical community. However, the new technology is very expensive. That's why, twenty-five years after that Donahue show, most women are still slappin' down the mammary mommas onto x-ray slabs, feeling the rush of having one's tits in a wringer, and then shambling home with their mud flaps to wait to hear from their physician. Though machine devices themselves have evolved, the essential radiation-based technology still requires what seems like an archaic fit between a rock and a hard - very hard - place, as this image from demonstrates:

Though the radiation mammography method doesn't seem to have changed much, the public dialogue certainly has. When I was young, breast cancer awareness was for grown-ups. It was one of those concerns that came after menopause, something our mothers had to worry about (eew!). There was an order to the feminine life that didn't even begin, you know, until you were fertile (and therefore a threat to mankind). The order went something like this (though I got most of it wrong myself):

And it was this nuclear, heterocentric, linear progression that occupied a many o' Good Girls' thoughts. People, even women, whispered the word, "breast" and the word, "cancer" back then. So if you were at a baby or bridal shower and all the mothers started whispering, you assumed one of three conversations were happening:

1. The someone's got -lean in close - breast cancer chat

2. The "He's having an affair with a woman half his age"
(a/k/a "The I'm Taking That Bastard to the Cleaners") chat

3. The "I can't believe she gained so much/lost so much" chat (depending on baby or bride, respectively)

No matter what, as a nubile, fertile, doe-eyed icon of feminine youth and possibility, you left the old dogs to chew those bones. Cancer, especially breast cancer, wasn't something anyone under the age of 40 was expected to know anything about. So we didn't. We (mostly) stuck to the order of things. This is why, I suppose, that I found the Feel Your Boobies stuff so damn amusing. For one thing, I had to accept the fact that empowered women were now referring to the Thunder Twins as "boobies." For another, self breast exam was packaged as cool for the younger set. Not only did I get a card explaining how to inspect the livestock, I found lip balm, lotion, and a sticker in the bag.

I wondered if I was supposed to use the lotion while I petted the sweater puppies. Then I wondered what in the hell I was supposed to do with the lip balm. Did it go on before or after? Was I supposed to make myself feel pretty and then tickle the ivories? And why just a sticker when pasties would have made more sense (and fun, really)?

When I got home, I did what most sensible people would do: I put the sticker on my refrigerator and then sat down in front of my computer. Not only did I want to know more about the campaign itself, I wanted to know how this miraculous change in public perception had happened without my noticing it. That's when I discovered two things:

1. I was woefully unprepared for the imagery.

2. You have to be careful when using Google to find the phrase, "Feel your boobies."

There's an official video for the Feel Your Boobies campaign, and I watched it. I watched it five or six times with my mouth hanging open.

Here's the droopy scoop: Medical experts and researchers have determined that the more familiar a woman is with her breasts, the more likely she will be to notice irregularities. You can't just be on a first-name basis with the girls. You have to have a more intimate rapport. For an old codger like me, that meant having to go from calling my ladies Miss Shapen and Miss Droupe to Babs and Betty, taking them out on occasion, perhaps after a glass of Chardonnay and a good movie. They were shy, often hiding in my armpits to reproach my unwanted advances. Sometimes they'd cry the overwhelmed tears of the naive. Sometimes, having once been chaste ladies-in-waiting, they'd blush. But we got through the awkwardness of self-care and respect, and now the kitties purr.

There was once a time when lovers and husbands were the first to notice irregularities in a woman's breasts. Once researchers, doctors, and advocates discovered this trend, campaigns emerged to try to help an American society with hefty Puritanical emotional baggage, accept the concept of really feeling and knowing one's body. That could be why early campaigns used men as examples, and humor, to win over the sort of support Victoria and her secrets can't. Check out this one:

Though breast cancer isn't something to laugh about, the campaigns certainly give one ample opportunity to guffaw, snort, and scratch one's head. Laugh if you must, point, snicker, but know this: Even Ronald Reagan would want you to jiggle your jelly bean bags. Be sure to feel your boobies.

And just so you know, my own story of panic and cancer prevention is developing like a bad tan. To read more about that click here.

For more information, check out the National Breast Cancer foundation's website by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


My next run is in less than a week. I'm doing the Run4theHomeless 5k sponsored by The People's City Mission. Though I don't always agree with the spiritual mission of the program, I do support the free/reduced-price medical clinic the mission supports by courting medical professionals to volunteer their time. The mission calls this "social entrepreneurship" and provides medical care to uninsured or underinsured people in Lincoln without using federal money of any kind. The rhetoric of the mission itself is fascinating in a time when the politicos opposed to a federal healthcare intervention call such care "socialism." I also find the mission's use of visual rhetoric interesting (but perhaps a bit overdone). But these are small critiques of what is, essentially, the only focused program seeking to serve thousands of people in the City of Lincoln.

Finding a cause helps me to determine the sort of effect I'd like to make on my community. This run is just one small part of my own mission: to get up and on with life. By raising money with the Lucky Bucketeer Team (click here to support my run on June 11) that will support People's City Mission, I'm also helping myself. The exercise and training, the focus on giving, and the sense that through a collective effort change is possible, make the sweating on sweltering June days worth it. Perhaps the secret to living well is finding a cause and effect.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Lucky Day

“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” – John Bingham

When I arrived at the Lucky Bucket Run, it was a cool fifty degrees. Runners of all ages and ability milled about the staging area. Some were in costumes. Most were not. A very tall bloke dressed as Batman slipped through the throng. A gorilla in a shell bikini sauntered past. A woman in a body leotard stood nearby, taking position next to her friend. I took their photograph.

Standing with my friends among the runners, I was thinking through my strategy, repeating my motivational mantra: Finish, but don’t finish last. A man tapped my shoulder.

I turned. He smiled. I ovulated.

“Can you tell me where to get a time chip?”

“Uh, yes,” I said, and pointed to the nearby tables. We locked eyes for a moment. He smiled again. Another egg neared my right fallopian tube, ready to jump like an ovarian paratrooper.

“Thanks,” he said, “have a great race!”

“I just did,” I mumbled as he turned and walked away.

When I turned around to rejoin my friends’ in conversation, Kate laughed. “You should have seen your face!”

“Oh my god,” I said, struck with an incredulous smirk. “It’s been years since that’s happened.”

(PHOTO: My friend and his besties)

Blushing pink on a grey Saturday afternoon, I shambled toward the start and packed in with hundreds of others. Before the herd would be released, a man with a trumpet and standing atop the Lucky Beer delivery truck would play a soulful, funeral-dirge version of our national anthem. His silver horn pointed to the darkening sky with an American flag flapping in the breeze beside him, he nailed it. I smiled. To be atop a beer truck while playing The Star-Spangled Banner seemed to me to be a highlight of any American musician’s career.

Freshly fertile, wearing my racing tag and time chip, and oozing contemplative patriotic pride, I plodded onto the course at a listing, spasmatic pace. I passed three ladies with substantial curves dressed as princesses with billowy tutus. I slipped through a group of women walking together, already regretting the trail race.

Unlike the tidy training trails the Lucky Bucketeers have used for the last couple of months, the race terrain was formidable. Just after the first mile, the first of three water challenges provided an opportunity to schlep through some muck and a creek. The second water challenge, however, was a deeper and steeper ravine. Course workers provided ropes to help runners scale the slick wall of mud on the other side of the creek. Instead of taking that obstacle head-on, I opted to take another route. It was steep but less traveled, and though it cost me some time it was worth the safer ascent.

By this time, runners were spread thin along the route. I often had large stretches of the run to myself. As I ran I could see the sprawling, rolling hills outside of Ashland green with spring rain, an emerald foundation holding up a clouded sky. Prairie birds chatted and chirped. The deep scent of ground, of damp earth and trampled grasses, filled my lungs. I could taste the earth as the sky, mischievously mottled with patches of deep grey, threatened rain and urged me onward.

Between the second and third mile markers, the route became a lesson in pain mastery. A steep upgrade stretched before me as far as I could see. I slowed my pace, listening to the sound of my Keens hitting the packed ground, my breathing, and my heartbeat. My hamstrings played a symphony of burning notes as I scaled the route. I knew I was, by all definitions, a straggler. Though I could hear the moans and exclamations of runners behind me, I could also hear those runners who had already finished partying down at the finish line.

I pushed onward, slowing to an aggressive walking pace, repeating my mantra. Just finish, but don’t finish last. As I reached the apex of the curved earth, I felt a surge of pride. Picking up my pace, I focused on making the halfway mark of the route: a beer-stop.

Alone on a stretch of wooded pathway, I could hear the quick pace of an approaching runner. As he passed me, he slowed to my pace briefly.

“Hey,” he said, “You’re doing a great job! Keep it up!” before leaving me. I smiled as I watched him disappear into a curve.

When I arrived at the beer-stop, workers were packing up the tables and putting them onto golf carts. There were pitchers, some full, some half-full, on a service table. As I approached, a woman worker called out, “We’re out of cups!”

I spied a pitcher, half-full. It beckoned me with its amber charm.

“I don’t need your cups!” I said as I scooped up the pitcher and drank deeply from its brim.

“Atta girl!” a man called out.

I put the pitcher on the last table and pounded toward the last water challenge. As I reached its edge, I understood the difficulty and felt a twinge of panic seize me. I turned, jogged twenty feet back to that pitcher and picked it up again.

“I need courage,” I said as I slugged down several gulps of ale. After an epic belch and a high-five from a race worker, I ran toward the obstacle. The descent was nearly forty degrees – not quite a straight-down drop, but close. Trampled down, slick, nothing but mud and stubborn grass clumps, all one could do is surf. Using my right hand as a rudder, I slid my way down in a big, muddy swoosh until I reached the water’s edge. Momentum pushed me upright as I crossed the water, splashing and determined. The ascent could be ranked, I swear, as a modest 5.5 slab. There was a rope dangling down the slimy route.

Instead of taking the rope, I quickly looked to the left and right of it to see which way offered the best hand and foot holds. “Screw the rope,” I said, and let my climbing skills take over. I ascended fast and was feeling pretty awesome. Workers on the other side yelled, “Woot! Way to go!” and clapped as I grabbed a tree trunk and then leapt toward another. It was a minor free-solo mud victory.

As I left that challenge behind me, I could hear other runners yelling and squealing. Energized and bolstered, I followed the route into the woods. Alone again, feeling my side ache, missing my running shoes, I carried on. I was beginning to lose faith that the race would ever end. As I rounded a curve, I realized I was in the final stretch. I could see the parking area. I could hear the music and smell the burgers grilling at the finish line staging area.

A man approached from the opposite direction. “Are there others behind you?”

“Yep,” I said, “there are folks back there.”

“Good, I can’t find my wife.”

As I reached the paved section a fifty yards or so from the finish line, Kate and Derek were there, cheering. I got a high-five as I pushed past. The final yards were uphill, asphalt-hard, and I noticed some runners were already on their way to the parking lot. As I passed a group of young runners, clearly underage and without their free drink tickets, a dolled up girl holding onto her boyfriend said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe there are people still running.”

I vexed her immediately. “May your thighs become thunderous, and your cellulite profound,” I muttered, “and your syntax sucks.”

Just a few yards from the finish line, my friend Travis was there to take a photo. A woman I didn’t know ran up to me to congratulate me on my finish. “Great job! Keep it up!”

As I crossed beneath the finish banner and stepped over the line, I came to an abrupt stop. Overjoyed, exhausted, I did a jig and a few pelvic thrusts. My friends were right there, awaiting high-fives and grinning.

It wasn’t a flat course like a typical run. It was a 7k trail run with challenges. I did it in an hour and twenty-two minutes, hardly a prideful pace for Spandex-clad seasoned runners. But I didn’t care. As I sipped my beer with my friends, as I felt the dead ache spreading up my legs like a rising tide, even as the temperature dipped below fifty degrees, I radiated a warm sense of accomplishment and self-gratitude.

When the trail got tough, I had thanked it for its lesson. When the trail emptied and I was alone, I was grateful for the solace. When the wind blew chill, I thanked it for the relief it brought. It was a cool kind of beautiful out there. My mind was empty of its doubts, and this was beautiful, too.

I finished, but I didn’t finish last. I ran. I conquered. I smiled. I ovulated. And the beer was damn good.

I guess it was just my lucky day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

(Un)Lucky (Puss)Bucket Run

A couple of months ago, when I discovered the Lucky Bucket Inaugural Run, I thought it was a normal sort of course near Ashland, Nebraska. I rallied some friends. We formed the Lucky Bucketeers and started meeting on Lincoln trails to train. Working hard, encouraging each other, and convinced the run would be on the many trails at the Quarry Oaks Golf Course, we figured we had this one in the bucket.

And then this video came out:

It's a good thing the Lucky Bucketeers are such a dandy band of good-natured ladies, else I'd be tied to the hood of someone's car by now and driven into the country. And while I'm laughing about this change of course, this new set of challenges, I'm also certain that if I bail on this now, I will kick the bucket at others' hands.

And, because I can't stop myself from laughing, this challenge is just another drop in the ... bucket.

Bring it!

Monday, May 2, 2011


(Scooter demands I ride right meow).

It's been a busy week for me here in Lincoln, Nebraska. The end of the term has finally arrived. Campus smells of undergraduate fear, pending finals, and last-minute scholarship. Today marks the onset of final exams, evident in sights I saw as I approached my office:

Two students outside the chemistry building, giving each other high-fives

A lone student huddled in the shadow of the computer science building, smoking, staring off into the distance, muttering to himself

A female student sitting on a bench, crying into her cell phone, "My math class is such bullshit, Mom."

This reminded me of a song by Of Montreal, "Gronlandic Edit," and the line, physics makes us all its bitches. It does, so I smiled.

Though I'm tempted to write at length about the latest developments in the "War on Terror," I won't. All I can tell you is that the celebration of anyone's death makes me uneasy, as if I'm toeing a fine line between the soulfulness of faith and the soul-less nature of human hungers for vengeance. Instead, I prefer to think of the families missing their fathers, and mothers, sons and daughters, lost to war, lost to unspeakable violence, and try to hold their hearts in view, in mindful meditation. Words can never do justice to such loss - only love and respect can hold up the heartbroken. And the last decade has broken many hearts all over the globe.

On my mind today is how easy it is to treat love as a noun, as a thing to acquire or lose, instead of an imperative. "Love!" as a direction, an order ... can you imagine the chaos following such an order would create? Can you imagine the disruption you could unfold in your own life? What if we all followed the same imperative at the same time? What if love as a verb, as something we do, was unbound and released into the universe at the same time?

Whenever the world doesn't make sense to me, whenever I sense a current event is playing at the fringe of present and history at the same time, I think about love, about people as people ... regardless of origin, country, or creed. When it comes to love, just as when it comes to food, there's never enough to go around the world so that everyone feels full, sustained. People need both food for their bodies, minds and nurishment for their spirits. I believe love and respect will be what brings both to everyone. But that's just my sentimental waxing ...

While the world turned yesterday, I headed out to run without the Bucketeers. During our run last week, when a sudden downpour helped me to realize I could run a mile in one shot, I had a breakthrough. For weeks now, I've been holding back. I couldn't quite regulate my breathing, wouldn't let my body do what it wanted to do to support running: breathe on its own terms, its own rhythm.

This was, I concede, a matter of pride. I didn't want to sound like a wheezing accordian. I didn't want my labored breath to be the baseline for the tenor slapping of my thighs. I didn't want to sound like a "Huff, huff, slap, slap" sort of one-woman band. Worse, I wasted a lot of time wishing, to myself, that I could run like the ladies in my group. I denied myself encouragement in my inner-monologue, instead allowing my thoughts to be negative, judgmental.

That is, until the rainy afternoon. Head down, rain seeping into my clothes, blurring my vision, the crisp chill of spring raising goosebumps on my skin, I realized my body knows itself better than I, the mind atop it, do. I let go. I ran, focusing on the path, the rain, on getting to my car. I didn't try to breathe quietly, either. I flapped, slapped, puffed, and huffed all the way to my car where I stood in the rain, hands above my head like a champion boxer, and celebrated my arrival.

Fellow Bucketeer Kim jumped out of her car to join me. "Yay!" she yelled, "Nothing can motivate you like bad weather!" We then jumped in our cars to head our separate ways.

It could have been endorphins, but for at least fifteen minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, I loved myself deeply, respectful of my Self, its body, its possibilities. Chilled to the bone, shivering, I picked up some Indian spiced soup and naan, then headed home where I sat by candlelight, listening to music, marveling still at what I had done. I went to sleep Wednesday night grinning like a big dope.

Love. Such an interesting thing to apply inward, to hold to oneself warmly as if holding hands up to a fire. The warmth radiates, comforts. Yet, suspicious of its depth, by Sunday I wasn't so sure I could repeat my Wednesday success. My mind grew restless with doubt. What if it was just a fluke? What if it was the rain that pushed me? What if I can't do it again?

I suited up and headed for the trail, uncertain, doubting. Love. So hard to stoke, to protect. Love. Beginning anew even when doubt and self-loathing invite inertia, in settling down in the comfort of one's mediocrity - it turns out love as an imperative is a lot like other verbs: Run! Go! Try! Breathe!

As I hit the trail, I realized all I had to do was let my body drive. My mind would follow, catch up, and even fight, the trajectory of forward momentum. I put my head down, focusing on just making my feet move in a reliable, steady pace. For the first time since beginning training, I ran 3 of the 4 miles on our route. As I approached the turn-around spot, I felt my legs burning. I slowed. I realized I had run well beyond my imagination. I had outrun my head for the first time in my entire life.

Grateful, I hugged the stop sign at the trail's edge and ignored the curious stares I received by passersby. I headed back down the path, running taller, hands up in the air, joyful, strong. Love. It makes the impossible, possible.

When I woke today, morning sun held my room in a warm glow. With legs stiff from yesterday's work, I plodded to the kitchen to brew coffee and make breakfast. I made a point to thank my body for working hard by feeding it well with a bowl of oatmeal and dried fruit. As I sipped coffee and read a book, I felt Scooter's stare. I turned to see him sitting on my bicycle seat as if to remind me that I had made a committment to bike commute to work. I took his picture before packing up, donning my helmet, and heading out the door.

Love. In the bigness of internatinal terrorism, and compared to the losses others have endured and continue to bear, my discoveries and progress could seem small, unimportant. Yet, if I turn the lens just a bit, and one can see that in a world full of hate, madness, war, famine, and suffering, one can find love moving through a community, on a trail, on the labored breath, in the wind, and beating in the heart of someone who just passed by.

Looking through that lens, well, love seems like a pretty big deal.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


(PHOTO: Climbing godfather Jon Cannon celebrates his 40th birthday face-down)

In America when experts discuss the "obesity epidemic" and its possible solutions, the emphasis on change is most often a focus on the systematic, the "efficient" models for weight loss. There's tremendous focus on food and calories, and diets are recommended. There's a punitive, punishing attitude abundant in the diet industry's rhetoric because diets are structured against time. Results are pandered as quick, discipline-driven evidence of one's dedication, even as the national companies claim under their spokesmodel pictures, "Results not typical."

Diets are marketed as time-dependent solutions to what is, essentially, a life-long problem. And true to America's love of Frederick Taylor's "scientific management efficiency model," to its Henry Ford fantasy of mechanized production of reliable, predictable results, the diet industry replicates formulaic systems designed to work for every body. Dieting is sold as an individualized struggle, which again reaffirms the American tenets of "rugged individualism." If you're fat, there's something wrong with you, and it's up to you alone to fix it.

This business approach to body ignores rich histories steeped in anthropological tradition. The communal aspect of living, of humans as hunters and gathers, as social creatures who establish cultural traditions - music, art, providing, family, community, and even culinary histories - are often ignored, set aside as academic. The very social nature of people, the way we are born into a familial tribe and socialized to see all things, including the dinner table, in the ways our fathers and mothers do is ignored. Most Americans don't see the intersections where individual and community meet. In the most basic of ways, even our food supply is stripped of its communal connections. Giant, discount super stores display products that are no doubt, manufactured by real people somewhere, somehow - but the connection between what we buy and the state of our larger, national or even global communities is missing from the labels and displays.

Unless one goes to a farmer's market, one won't meet the person who tended the vegetables one buys. One won't get a chance to shake the hand of the rancher who brought his beef and pork to market, won't chat with the woman who brought eggs and honey to the market square, won't share a recipe with the vendor selling the rich, vibrant greens beneath a tent. The independent dairy farmer selling cheese, the small family making money to buy a home by selling tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, the elderly couple selling breads, cakes, and pies - all of these are missed with a single trip to a supermarket, erased. The "buy local" movement in America isn't simply a matter of commerce. It's a matter of responsibility, of connection to one's community in ways that foster growth, happiness, and sustainability.

How we buy, more than what we buy, affects our communities, ourselves, including the solutions to our alleged problems. How we live, who we are, how we spend our time, is also a matter of community. As Dr. Nicholas Christakis asserts in his book, Connected, humans live their lives connected through social networks - and these networks shape what we think, feel, and do. Christakis posits that our communities are like superorganisms, a collective entity that shapes individual perceptions, behaviors, and outcomes. As Christakis writes:

Seeing ourselves as part of a superorganism allows us to understand our actions, choices, and experiences in a new light. If we are affected by our embeddedness in social networks and influenced by others who are closely or distantly tied to us, we necessarily lose some power over our own decisions. Such a loss of control can provoke especially strong reactions when people discover that their neighbors or even strangers can influence behaviors and outcomes that have moral overtones and social repercussions. But the flip side of this realization is that people can transcend themselves and their own limitations (xii).

(PHOTO: Beth cheeses while lamenting the lilac color of her tassel, pleased to be nearly finished with architecture studies)

A typical dieting scenario within American households and supported/marketed by women's magazines: The mother/homemaker wants to shed a few pounds. The magazines offer a diet for one instead of a family option. Individual women will then try to exert intense self-discipline for their own eating choices while still cooking what the rest of the family prefers. The woman's struggle is considered separate from the family and she is alone in her desire to make lasting changes. Magazines offer advice such as: "Phone a friend when you're tempted to cheat," and "Make your own plan-friendly snacks for those family nights in front of the TV when the popcorn and chips tempt you."

What's missing from the national conversations about health and well-being is the notion of community. Who you spend time with shapes how you treat yourself. An individual's health within a family is dependent on the entire family - it's traditions, habits, and lifestyle choices. And friends, the social networks you select outside of familial bonds, affect your choices, habits, and outcomes - even those you take on alone, like a diet. What's also missing is a conversation about the way communities treat individuals, the ways in which the hardness of life creates insatiable hungers in our young people that go unsatisfied. Childhood obesity isn't a matter of calories and a lack of self-discipline. Something else, something much more complicated than the Self is influencing our children to make such unhealthy choices, to eat needing more than nutrition. I'm not sure our country is prepared to have those conversations, to look at our nation's children and consider that millions are obese while millions more children go to school uncertain there will be food for their family at the end of the day. It seems America prefers to maintain an individualism at all costs - even those our children pay.

Community is essential to one's well-being and potential. I didn't need to read the research to experience this idea first-hand. At the UNL Climbing Wall, there is an established yet evolving community of climbers. As a collective, the superorganism provides support, enthusiasm, and care. One can't climb alone at the wall - one must rely on another to offer belay. As one climbs, one forges relationships with others. One learns to trust and count on those belays. One begins to look forward to the conversations on the bench while waiting for a rope. Recipes are exchanged. Restaurants are reviewed. Weekly group dinners and movie nights take shape. Others will note and compliment a climber on his or her own progress. Victories are shared. Disappointments soothed by good-natured jokes or sincere kind words. This environment is quite different from a dieting center whose members show up, get weighed, suffer the gains alone, but celebrate the losses collaboratively with stickers, small trinkets, and applause - the typical Weight Watchers meeting would be a good example of this.

Instead, one develops relationships that lead to other opportunities, such as climbing at Shelf Road or biking on a Saturday. And when you're with other people who care for their bodies and their minds, you tend to follow suit as the "price" of membership in that community. Your personal changes become part of a larger evolution, almost imperceptible without deliberate reflection, as you yourself become part of the superorganism that is the community itself. You are affecting and being affected by the group - permeable in your changes and influences.

Unlike a diet program, a community doesn't pressure one's growth and personal results to fit into a specified time frame. Change is gradual, part of the superorganism's inherent life cycle. It's kinder to the psyche as one attempts to entertain new possibilities for health and well-being. The voices of failure that so often accompany diets simply fade, even as one radically changes eating habits. The key is to forget the typical goal-setting, such as, "I want to lose 20 pounds before that wedding," and to embrace, "I want to make myself as healthy as I can and have fun while doing it."

It's a radical notion and quite contrary to the American ideology to decide to invest over a lifetime without an end goal, a result, a product, to show for it. In my own experiences during the last three years, I can only testify to the gradual and imperceptible changes that I hadn't considered until sitting down to write this post. For example, five years ago, one could have opened my cupboards and found "staples" such as Nutella, Oreos, chips, microwave popcorn with extra butter, and sodas. My refrigerator was full of processed meat products, easy to fix frozen dinners, and a plethora of unhealthy, over-processed fodder that passed as "food."

Today, if one were to open my cupboard in search of a guilty pleasure, one would be sorely disappointed. Staples are now indeed staples, such as brown rice, oatmeal, tea, honey, beans, whole wheat pastas, and spices. My refrigerator stores vegetables and fruits, dairy, and healthier proteins such as tofu, chicken, and very lean beef. My daughter often complains, "Geez, there's nothing good to eat here." I smile when she does. There's plenty to fuel a body with proper care and concern - and that's revolutionary for me, a person who grew up in a family convinced gravy and melted butter were beverages.

(PHOTO: Ryann, Caitlin, and Stephanie hold baby Easton and discuss Stephanie's upcoming nuptials)

More importantly than my individual changes, I've become part of a larger community. Going to the wall to climb is also going to see friends, to hear news, to share stories. It's a witnessing of life unfolding, like graduation, when Beth, Ryann, and Caitlin will scatter like seeds to the wind to start lives anew. Being there reminds me of the role of generations, as an experienced climber shows a newbie the ropes, as I did last night when a colleague from work took me up on the offer to climb. As I tied Wendy in and explained the process, as she learned to trust herself while climbing up and doing what she never thought she could, there was a collective joy, a palpable happiness, when she reached the top. Those of us who climb know that feeling of a first climb well, that first day when we saw ourselves anew and potential beckoned. Seeing another's personal goal bloom helps us to carry on.

(PHOTO: Steph holds son Easton to the wall)

When I started this project a few years ago, I thought it was a weight loss journey. I thought that I'd be testifying to the benefits of exercise and healthy eating, showing photos that heralded my success, and then end it. What I've discovered along the way is that the journey itself is everything. All I have accomplished, the changes in me that are more evident with each passing day, are a matter of community. I couldn't have done any of it without the support of those near and far. Even more amazing to me is that time is no longer something I'm working against, trying to shape it to meet my demands. Instead, I'm becoming more and more present in the present, taking stock of my day as a day in itself. Tomorrow will come soon enough. Yesterday is behind me.

That isn't to say I always succeed, or that my patience prevails. My vanity gets the best of me sometimes, when I sit writing in a journal lamenting the fact I'm not one of those women men cross rooms to court; or when I'm feeling sorry for myself because all I've learned about love I've learned the hard way, by its absence. What I've learned that's mattered most is that I'm not ruggedly individual. I need others. I want others in my life. I want to inspire people not with my accomplishments, but with my connections to them by caring about what they want to do and become. It's an ethos of collectivity in a world demanding individuality, so I should expect to feel outnumbered, invisible. But when I need to feel a part of something good, when I want to rejoice in others' joys, when I want to laugh and feel as though anything were possible, all I have to do is go to the wall, put on my harness, and ask a friend for a belay.

(PHOTO: Easton, lovely, lovely boy)

And that, like the smile of a child so dear, is all I need to keep believing in myself and the community that makes me possible.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Fridays never come soon enough, especially now that I spend a couple of hours every Friday afternoon with baby Liesl. We do grand things like coo, rattle monkey toys, and contemplate poetry. So far, she prefers the flowing poetry of Ted Kooser and Billy Collins. Anne Sexton made her cry. Sylvia Plath made us both big-eyed and cranky. We're still trying to figure out what we think of Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation - but I can tell you that though we're still contemplating, we're not sharing the same dark critical forecast shared in a New Yorker review of the book by Dan Chiassan.

We don't subscribe to the claim that, "Donnelly's style must be withstood before it is enjoyed." The great thing about reading poetry to a baby is that because all language is a new, experimental thing to her, everything that flies out of my mouth is a whirling juxtaposition, a wind of words. This takes some of the pressure off of poets and authors, really. In a world that gives words to babies one image at a time, socializes them through lore and story, poets that screw up form and social caste in their poems without implying they're a few years away from baking their brain in a gas oven are a lot of fun. I'm hoping to inspire her independent, artistic thinking. When she's in a good mood, we read Donnelly. When she's not, we turn to Collins and Kooser - their rhythms are softer, metronomic. Because she's the daughter of aspiring musicians, I try to focus on the sounds the poems make more than their meanings or forms. I hope her first virtuoso instrument is language, then I hope she takes up guitar.

Liesl and I had a big day on Friday. She didn't want to take the bottle from me. She wailed. She wiggled. And then she discovered I knew how to make rice cereal. We made an unholy mess of her pink pajamas before she was sated and happy. That's when we read some of Rachel Manija Brown's All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Brown's memoir shares her years growing up in an ashram in India as her parents followed Baba, the same dude that inspired Pete Townsend. It's a great memoir in the vein of Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs about a childhood lost to parental stupidity. This is why, at the end of chapter two, I put the book down in favor of Kooser's Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps.

It's important to protect innocence after all.

Anyway: After a particularly long afternoon with a baby that didn't want a bottle because she'd rather wait for the breasts to get home from the university, I arrived home to discover the Bolder-Boulder folks had mailed my official participant package. My t-shirt, calendar, time chip, back and front tags, even the little plastic orange ties and safety pins needed to affix my runner's bling - all of it cascaded out of the vinyl package and onto the table. I stared at it for a while, thinking I'd made a horrible mistake. The run is six weeks away, and I'm still struggling to get my lead-like behind through the 7k course for the Lucky Bucket Inaugural Run on May 12. I'm making progress, but I'm nowhere close to the goals had I set for myself.

I crammed everything back into its package, set it on my table, and mentally ran away. Meaning, because it was raining and snowing, I put on my sweatpants and Super Friends t-shirt, grabbed Brown's book, and headed for bed. I finished that sometime before midnight, then grabbed Paulo Coehlho's The Alchemist. It seems as readers go, I'm a marathon kind of gal.

Right before falling asleep, book in hand, I realized that Fate had been delivering interesting genre questions to me. Just last month, I finished a three-month inquiry into legend writing, beginning with Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. I turned that collection of papers in to a professor who now wants to co-author a paper. While in Boulder last week, I picked up a copy of Regina Weinreich's Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics, a book that begins with an overview of the construction of his structure of legend- his Dulouz Legend - and its relationship to his spontaneous prose.

So in a sense, I was primed for Coelho's fable about following one's dream, one's "Personal Legend." Perhaps my inquiry into legend and the book from Boulder were my own version of Urim and Thummim, the black and white stones handed to the boy by Melchizedek, the king of Salem. Or, as I've been thinking today, perhaps pen and paper are my stones and those books simply omens. Whatever the case may be, it seems I'm sitting in the middle of a big questioning of my purpose and personal dream.

I don't remember why I thought running would be a good idea. My dad thinks I'm nuts, mostly because, "Running is serious stuff, Kiddo. Be careful." He has weak ankles, so weak, they give out on him without warning. After biffing on his face in business suits, after falling down stairs from his attic in his workshop, he started wearing calf-high boots all the time. He puts them on first thing in the morning, even before heading to the bathroom. It's not uncommon to find him sitting in his bathrobe and boots, yelling at the morning Fox News financial reports. His mixture of spa robe cozy and militant protection as a fashion statement is an awesome rhetorical situation. Yet I'm the one who's always nuts for trying new things. But who am I to critique his loungewear? I plod about wearing Captain America and The Hulk on my chest.

We all have our uniforms. We all have our armor.

Years ago, in P.E. class with Mr. Oates at Elmira Elementary School, I learned to hate running. Our field was a field by definition, but instead of clipped green Kentucky turf, it was a mown cornucopia of noxious weeds - most of which made me wheeze wildly. We ran as the dry heat of the Vaca Valley beat down on our heads until we all smelled of wet dogs (as children often do). Well, they ran. I hobbled along, wheezing and feeling as if my sides were about to explode. Every other kid, even the one nobody liked, sprinted and darted about. I had the viscous fortitude of sludge. It was then, at the jaded age of ten, that I decided some people were born to run and others, well, others were born to sit around and hate them.

And that was before puberty when the Gods of Womanly Curves cursed me with a spiritual burden that didn't fit into the cups of my Playtex Training Bra. (Incidentally, I never understood why they were called training bras in the first place - training for what?) That's when I learned about the horrific old lady section in our local JC Penny store. My childhood was lost in one shopping trip, standing among the racks of girdles that looked like bleached seal skins. While my compatriots in pubescent warfare trotted about the locker room at Will C. Wood Junior High in their cute, bows on the straps bras that reminded me of butterflies, I rolled through the joint wearing a fabric Sherman tank. I was in the fight of my life, encamped in a Battle of the Bulge far more offensive on my Western Front than anyone could imagine. Running without knocking myself unconscious seemed unlikely. I surrendered. But every now and then, I dreamed of running the way others dream of flying.

Now here I am, years later, wearing better bras that don't destroy my self-esteem, trying to regain forfeited territory. It started with walking - serious walking. Sometimes, on my walks, I was hit with the sudden impulse to run. A burst of energy would bolt through my legs and my instinct was to follow. But, as Coelho writes, "The fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself" (130). I'd wait for the impulse to die by pushing it down with old memories. "You can't run," I'd say. "Thin, agile people run. Maybe later. Maybe after you lose some weight so you don't blow out your knees."

"You'll look ridiculous - all that mammary excess flopping up and down."

"Can't you just focus on the work at hand?"

"You're not a runner."

"Big girls don't run."

"Hold on Iron Priestess of Divine Mercy, gotta walk before you can run."

I told myself a lot of useless, untrue things. I held myself back. I pretended all I wanted to do was walk the Rock Island trail. And then one day, a retired lady with big jugs and a flowing mane of grey hair blew past me on roller blades. She was grinning, wearing a navy sweatsuit, her mass moving gracefully like a Calfornia Blue Whale in the deep. Every part of her was in fluid motion. In her wake, a man I guessed to be in his eighties, though listing to his left, ran after her. His knobby knees were bone white, and he wore black socks. But dammit, he had his running shorts on and a sweatband around his head. He said hello as he bolted past like a man in italics, slanted against the path's black line.

There I was, sans serif and straight, walking in dutiful order. I didn't like this reading of the world in that moment. I didn't like seeing that other people, older people, bigger people, weren't talking themselves out of what they wanted, or needed, to do.

In his fable, Coelho asserts that once one has committed to fulfilling one's personal legend, the universe provides exactly what is needed to complete the journey. Not everything is mystical, of course, but even the most utilitarian can certainly feel that way when laboring to complete a run. Just the other day, as a couple of Bucketeers and I worked the trail, I realized how far I had come as a runner wannabe and a person.

A man passed us who reminded me of my former husband. After a few moments I turned to my friends and said, "You know, a few years ago I would never have been able to do this. My husband would have had none of it."

I explained the nature of his personality, the jealousy, the resentment of my friends and critique of my need for female friendships. Life was hard back then, isolated. He was consuming of those he cared about; he drained those closest to him. I never realized, when we were together, just how exhausted I was. It wasn't until a year after our divorce that I exhaled fully for the first time. I was on my first road trip to Colorado with a friend's brother. I was rolling down the interstate, yelling at cows out the window, making bad jokes, but breathing fully for the first time in eight years.

I thought about this while running and walking with the Bucketeers. I explained to them that I often lived in a state of perpetual wonder as I went about my daily life. It's so different from what I had sought. It's so different from what I expected. I'm doing things I never thought possible then, like climbing, running, and eating vegetables for breakfast. When I had left my old life, I felt a profound terror of the unknown. I knew only that I was dying inside, that I had to follow my dream of getting a Ph.D., of building an erudite life and becoming a teacher. What I didn't know was that someday I'd listen to my legs and let them carry me as fast and as far as they could.

It's the small, ordinary moments of struggle that lead to fulfillment. I'm not fast. I'm not agile. But I'm breathing and running and walking. I'm writing, living, and believing in myself. Perhaps this is why the Bolder-Boulder package seems so intimidating. It's a tangible thing, an omen right there on the table, reminding me that I'm stepping even further away from who I once was, who I thought I could be.

I used to associate running with escape. Now I can see it as a means toward oneself. There are no hounds at my heels. I don't have to defend my right to choose changes, to challenge myself. I just get up, put on my running shoes, and head out the door. I meet up with friends. I laugh. I feel the sun on my face. I let my legend unfold, one mile at a time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SHELF ROAD REVISITED: Lessons from the School of Hard Rocks

I’m a part-time philosopher. When going about my business, this thing we call living, I often search for deeper meanings in the metaphors in which I live. This is why I’m single – nobody is supposed to think so hard about the ordinary. Language isn’t just something I toss around like a Frisbee. It’s all sniper fire or bullet spray to me. “There is always debris after discourse,” I often say to my students. Yet, it’s often in the debris where one can find the best gems, the big meanings.

This week, I headed west to visit my favorite dingledodies and climb at Shelf Road. It’s been a year since my first trip when I learned so much about myself all at once, I almost couldn’t breathe (I thought that was just an issue of altitude, but I digress). My climbing trip was epic for me. I “sended” my first on-the-rock route. My camping gear was put to the test and passed. I even changed my clothes in the dark without worrying about anyone seeing my reptilian underbelly and lily-white ass.

That last one was a really big deal to me.

I bared my butt to the Darkness after achieving that send and learning an important lesson (and a few lesions) about gravity. If you want to test your metal and discover what you’re made of, all you gotta do is fall. Fall hard. Fall without clinging. Fall while counting on someone to catch you. I learned this profound truth by doing the exact opposite, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Failure is where real learning happens.

And thanks to a belay from Adam Scheer of Climbing House fame and a 5.7 route with a nice crack, I learned that my instinct is to hold on even when it hurts like hell. A year ago, this would be where I’d add some sentimental drivel about sticking it out, about overcoming the pain and adversity by holding true to one’s convictions, to one’s heart.

But after scraping the underside of my bodacious ta-tas as I slid down a route like cheese on a grater, I am writing to testify to the merits of falling clean like a cat. There’s no dignity in holding on – just the scraping sound of ineffective smearing and full-frontal failure, followed by the sting of first aid antiseptic and the sense that yes indeed, you are a big boob.

I learned a lot about myself in less than five seconds. Climbing’s lessons are quick and painful, but not every wound scars. Most wounds teach you a lot about what’s holding you back, what’s getting in your way, and what not to do. I appreciate climbing’s directness, its difficulty. It’s not obscure. It’s not even natural. Climbing demands some mastery of both fear and instinct. One can mitigate the risks, but one can never erase them. That’s a big deal in a culture promoting security and stability at all costs.

After learning the painful lesson that came with holding on, we shambled off to a beautiful set of climbs the others were working on – projects they’ve faced before. The hike was good, full of interesting little metaphors and grace (even as I plodded along like an epileptic chicken). I sat watching the good climbers, listening, talking. I sat thinking about my grated boobs and counting my bruises.

At the end of the day, we hiked back to Cactus Cliffs to work a few routes before dark. It was on a corner route that I learned yet another set of painful but important lessons that are, miles away from me, still teaching me something, still offering me things to ponder. I’m hardly finished, but here’s what I think I know:

When it comes to reading a route, as with my reading of people, I’m far too generous. I see possibility before I note difficulty, the opposition. I once considered this one of my gifts, a brilliant optimism in the face of dour circumstances. I so wanted to be sunshine in a clouded world, I failed to note that there’s a certain protection afforded from the grey. So I took my happy ass up a route far more difficult than I could see, and then became a whimpering simpleton as I clung to a ledge, waiting for the throbbing pain in my left knee to subside.

A good little Buddhist wannabe, I stood on that ledge and thanked the rock for its lesson. I thought about Thich Nhat Hanh’s sense of “mindfulness,” and positive and negative energies. I cast love upon the stone, holding my heart against its face, forgetting rock is a cold, unfeeling sedimentary and stoic thing unbothered by my gnat-like humanity.

In the silence on that ledge, feeling the beat of my heart, I realized that rock wasn’t listening, didn’t need to, didn’t want to, couldn’t. It was I that was the interloper, the parasite, feeding upon not what the rock had to offer, but my own delusion and fantasy. I looked upon the route, honest and small. I let go. I leaned back like a cat and let my belay catch me and my failure until we were both lowered to the ground.

Standing on both feet, tied in, looking up, I was glad to have bailed. I was tired. I was spent. The hike back to camp seemed harder, longer, than the hike out. Later that night, stemming in my sleeping bag because I couldn’t let my knees touch, I was thankful for so many things. I could hear the dingledodies a few campsites over, gathered around a fire. I could see the stars, beautiful and twinkling, bright and encouraging. My muscles were stiff, generating heat. I was breathing. I was still.

I was alive.

The following morning, I opted out of climbing. I spent the day reading and lounging beneath the shade of an evergreen. The wind whipped clouds into a froth and twisted jet-stream lines into curls. I made a cup of coffee and contemplated silence. I slept, out in the open, unafraid. I thought about Oneness and compared it to Aloneness, deciding the former was proactive and the latter reactive. I committed myself then and there to making more room in my life for proactive, contemplative living.

A line of poetry, perhaps a Buddhist kohn, came to me: Absence is a hue the color of my name. It reminded me of the Zen Buddhist question: What was your original face before your parents were born? And that reminded me of a poem by Dogen:

Cease practice based
on intellectual understanding,
pursuing words and
following after speech.
Learn the backward
step that turns
your light inward
to illuminate within.
Body and mind of themselves
will drop away
and your original face will be manifest.

It’s in the fall, the dropping away of body and mind that one will be made manifest. Perhaps that’s the lesson of this trip. Perhaps that’s why I’m still thinking and no matter what, the ending to this entry will be incomplete. Or maybe, just maybe, a philosopher's work is never done.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Something happened in October 2010, something I'm still trying to understand. Work grew more intense. Deadlines loomed on my morning horizons and evening sunsets - I couldn't escape the demands no matter how far I traveled. The enormity of change, the wall I face everyday just seemed too big, and I a small, small, clod of waning courage. Looking back, I can see that I didn't intend to quit climbing, to walk away. Instead, I just let other things not as important as my own health eclipse my vision.

I hung my harness to take care of other things. Now, I can see that was a huge mistake.

In January, I woke after a dream to realize I had been hang-dogging, just sitting on the line as if time were on my side. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the momentum of professional life, of "making progress," and so difficult to see the consequence while working so diligently simple pleasures simply vanish. Work is a great hiding place. If you work hard enough, you can hide from even yourself.

On that January morning, as snow fell, I looked outside my window to see life blowing by, drifting. I had a sweet pile of new poems, a manuscript, the beginning of my dissertation work all mapped out. But, I wasn't happy. I didn't feel my breathing anymore, or the steady beating of my heart. There is a feeling beyond numbness, I decided. Nothingness is much worse. I glanced up at the wall and saw my harness hanging there, lifeless, cold. I knew then I had to go back. I had to recommit to joy as a process, a happening, something that will fade if you neglect it, if you neglect yourself.

A few days later, when school started anew, I headed back to the wall. It was humbling to learn I had lost what my climbing friends call "muscle memory." I struggled to finish the easiest route. I struggled to square my shoulders and try again. I struggled to admit that I had lost something important to me and had no idea how to get it back. Though I left the climbing wall that night feeling a new beginning, I also felt the weight of my own disappointment. I'd be back, I told myself, but first there was something I had to face.

I met a colleague for a drink that night and we, after a few cocktails, committed to run a 10k six months later. I'm not a runner. Over the course of my life, I always thought some were born to run and others were born for other things. There were gazelles and then there were hippos. One rushes the reeds, skirts about prairie grasses. The other stands in the muck, up to its double-chin in water, and wiggles its ears. For years, I thought my job was to stand around and wait for things to arrive, taking solace in the river of life.

I used to joke that I'd never run unless by gunpoint. But since January, I've been really working on running. I train four days a week. I now meet friends to run a four-mile path in preparation for the Lucky Bucket Brewery's Inaugural 7k Run. We call ourselves the "Lucky Bucketeers." We meet twice a week. We keep each other motivated and accountable. I call us a herd because on that path we look like refugees from the ark - all kinds of animals shambling down the road, away from and to ourselves at the same time.

In February, feeling encouraged by my running progress, I returned to the wall with new vigor. A friend of mine and her sister attended the certification class. We started meeting once a week to climb and encourage each other. My friend Kati is a much better climber than I am - a natural. What I lack in natural talent, I make up for with enthusiasm and joy. Yeah, joy. It's back. And it feels good to have so many friends to join me in what has been, until this year, a solitary effort.

I registered, too, for the Bolder-Boulder run Memorial Weekend. The goal is to finish without dying. I'm not kidding myself here. I'm out of water, so to speak. I'm just going to plod about the reeds and rumble through the grasses. Some people are light on their feet. I'm light in my heart. And there's something to be said about the simplicity of running - just you, some shoes, and land. Climbing is getting easier, I think, because I've decided to respect the journey, to make way for the possibility that hearing my own labored breathing and the pulsing of my heart is more important than whether or not I can top-out a 5.9 and transition past that marker in skill level.

There's a lot more to getting up than climbing. Sometimes you have to work the lateral routes, the traverses across that which you never thought you could or would do. Sometimes up is a level, a bubble of happy stability between the polar imbalances. That's where I find myself today, anyway.