Ugh. I wrote this post a few days ago, but I can’t bring myself to finish it. See, a friend of ours is dying, and these piddling little reflections just don’t seem important.
This friend is a survival expert, but you’d never know it from his humble, self-deprecating nature. He tells this story of his first date with the woman who is now his wife: a pretty demanding hike — several hours long, significant elevation gain. He forgot all the snacks, and had to make pine needle tea to sustain them for the descent.
He has been a huge support and mentor to both of us, and to everyone he meets, really, encouraging them when the going gets tough and then refusing to take any credit for progress or even morale. He is a huge person with a huge laugh. His mere presence delights everyone in a room. We have a huge chalk cartoon on the brick wall of our porch; he drew it one time when he stopped by, and it never wore off.
He’s the kind of person you think holds a really special place in your life, and then as you talk to people who know him, you realize — he holds that place in all these lives.
One time the girls asked me, who do you think you would marry if you didn’t have Daddy. I said, “Well, he’s pretty popular, but I think [him], if he were available,” and our kids said, “Oh yeah,” as if they’d just been reminded of something totally obvious.
In his large circle of admirers, we’ve noticed: his illness has made us softer. We are less willing to hold on to resentments, more willing to make time to gather around a fire on an odd weeknight; less ready to criticize our bodies, more ready to use them. More attuned to the good, the joyful, the loving.
He continues to teach and mentor us.
Below is the post I wrote a few days ago, the one I sat down to finish today. On the one hand, it no longer seems important. On the other hand, now I wonder if the two posts are not so far afield from one another. In the end, the complaint I detail also calls for untethering from external measures and filling with gratitude for simple euphorias: the wind on your skin, the twinge in the belly after a really good laugh, a soft touch to repair an argument, the salt that stiffens the skin after a cry. To feel fully and notice it all.
And actually, I think the authors would agree.
Post: Slow Fat Triathlete
I want to lodge a complaint about a book I just finished, Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen (2009). It’s the same complaint I have about The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s take on creativity that has garnered a near-cultlike following.
Both books attempt to encourage would-be practitioners to embrace their natural gifts, and in doing so, vastly improve the quality of their lives.
McDougall argues that we can attribute our culture’s general distaste for running to the fact that we’re doing it all wrong. The endurance athletes that often strike us as unbalanced or “crazy” are in fact living most closely to what humans were designed to do: run. A lot. Mostly barefoot.
It’s a great story (I read it in three days and cried at the end). Maybe it’s not too late to reshape my life as a ultradistance runner, I thought, inspired. Learn to really run the right way, stop struggling through the miles, and just sail around. Maybe I’d even start running for transportation, the way I used to use my bike.
I want to believe it, just as I want to believe Cameron that my connection to creative genius is just a well waiting to be tapped, a flow that, once freed, will burst forth from me. I can feel how much they want me to believe that we all have access to these gifts.
The problem is, in both cases, the authors continually showcase examples of outsize success. Here’s an example of typical anecdote from McDougall, about legendary runner Ann Trason’s first ultramarathon. Ann had never run a marathon before, but the idea of a regular one bored her. Instead, she chose a fifty-mile trail run on terrain generally used for horses. She did not bring a water bottle. She knew nothing about trail pacing or race strategy.
“But once the jitters wore off, she relaxed into her cradle-rocking stride …. By the thirty-mile mark, dozens of runners were wobbling in the damp heat … but Ann only seemed to get stronger …. She beat every other woman in the race and broke the female course record, finishing two back-to-back trail marathons in seven hours and nine minutes.”
Cameron dots her book with similar anecdotes: the guy who secretly wanted to write and then, once he freed his creative spirit, lo and behold sold several screenplays in Hollywood. The woman who had buried her childhood urge to paint and then, once she started, got major calls from major galleries. The person who had always wanted to sing and then, as soon as she set her mind to it — surprise! — turned out to be really talented!
I found myself wanting more stories about the regular schlumps, the ones who didn’t really achieve anything, yet enhanced their lives in unexpected ways. The people who learned how to run and never won any races and enjoyed it anyway. People like my friend Christopher, who tells this story:
“Three years ago my cholesterol was — I think the medical term is ‘ticking time bomb.’ So I started running. The first year I ran 1000 miles. The second year I ran a little more than that. When I had my cholesterol checked again, it had gone way down — all the way down to ‘borderline acceptable.'”
I can’t understand why these writers, the whole point of whose books is to convince ordinary people that these pursuits are both accessible and rewarding in their own right, choose to focus on examples that culminate in and celebrate external measures of success. I guess that’s what sells: greatness.
I want the story of the person in rural Colorado who used to paint occasionally, but never established a habit, frequently left things unfinished, and never showed her work to anyone, who started painting regularly and now has a body of work. She’s never sold a painting, never had anyone famous comment on her work, never gotten a bite from a gallery. But now, when she has friends over, they gather in her tiny studio, and her work decorates the walls, and she feels festive and free. Or the writer who jotted down observations every morning and noticed himself becoming more mindful of, more attuned to, the world around him.
I told this to Christopher — that I wanted more stories of just regular people whose lives improved when they embraced the influences these authors argue are “natural.” I found a book called Slow Fat Triathlete, Jayne Williams’s story of “living your athletic dreams in the body you have now.”
“I think this is what I’m looking for,” I told him.
“Totally!” he said. “It could be a whole series! ‘Mildly Interesting Writer,’ ‘Reasonable Cook,’ ‘Somewhat Engaging Teacher’!”
“Yeah!” I responded. “We’ll be bestsellers!”
Or maybe just, hey, yeah, funny idea.