Saturday, April 16, 2011
LEGENDS, OMENS, AND DAYDREAMS
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.