Monday, February 27, 2012

Suffering is Optional

I remember the day that I got my first pair of running shoes.  They were a pair of blue and white Nike Air Max; my father bought them for me because I had announced that I wanted to try running.  My dad had been a runner for years, entering local 5k's every summer, but I had never shown much proclivity for it.  In gym class, when we had to run the mile, I whined the whole time (which was a long time because I also pretty much refused to run after the first lap--to this day, I cannot stand the idea of just running in circles).  So, I am sure that my parents were both surprised and dubious when I came home from school and asked for running shoes.

It makes sense that, when I was sitting in the mall athletic store (it must have been Footlocker, since that was all we had in the mall at the time),my father's only comment to the guy helping me was "Just make sure they fit her right, because if it hurts, she won't do it."

My dad was not wrong, of course.  I had never run before, but he had, so he knew exactly what was in store for me.  He knew about cramps and blisters and the horrible sucking feeling in your lungs when you try to run for the first (several) time.  He was trying to minimize the number of reasons that I might have to quit.  And at 14 years old, it was pretty easy to trick me with a new pair of shoes.  (Okay, that part is actually still true... I freaking love shoes.) 

That first year, I wanted to quit a lot of times.  Even the one mile around the block was torture some days.  I had been a dancer since I was four years old, but it had not helped me to build up much in the way of endurance (although to this day I believe that it did instill in me a dedication to perfect form and a belief that even things that are physically demanding should feel light and beautiful--which has been essential in running).  Those first horrible miles eventually got easier, and as they got easier they became three miles.  In high school, I had to run for soccer, but I chose to run for fun the rest of the year.  I would dutifully put in my three miles around the lake each afternoon.  In the beginning, it was awful.  I remember very clearly a day when I realized that I was walking, but had no conscious recollection of transitioning from running down to walking, that was how tired and out of it I was.  It would take everything in me to force myself back into the shuffle that passed for a run in those days.  Those early runs were plagued with pain. 

But like with almost any pain, over time it became less and less noticeable, until eventually it faded behind the joy of running. 

And one day, I realized that I loved it.  Even when it was terrible, I loved it.  I ran year round, in any weather.  During the winter, I ran stairs at the hockey rink while the boys' team practiced, and in the summer I would drag myself out at the crack of dawn to avoid oppressive humidity (yeah, it probably wasn't that bad, but I hate summer).  In college, early morning runs through the freezing, windy winters in Geneva became the norm, and much preferred to mornings spent on the ergometers with my butt going numb.  I was much happier when I got to be outside, running.

Fewer and farther between were the runs that ended in blisters, cramps, and misery.  But they were there sometimes.  A morning where my sock got wedged in my shoes in a weird way, or when I hadn't dressed for the weather; there were days when I was tired or sore or just didn't want to put in the work.  And then I got sick.  I lost everything, all the endurance, all the muscles and strength just went away.  I swam, lifted weights, tried to stay in shape, but over the nearly two years between when I got sick and when I was able to start running again, I lost the running and was left only with the pain.

But somewhere along the way I had made friends with the pain.

No, that is not true.  We aren't friends, but we know each other really well; we are companions that occasionally have amazing fights.  But we also are stuck with each other, because pain is unavoidable.  It is an inexorable part of life, and definitely a part of running.  What I do have a choice in is how I deal with that pain: do I embrace it as a part of my life or do I suffer under the weight of it? 

For the first few years after I started running again, the running and I had a lot of fights and spent a lot of time apart.  It was more than just pain for those few years, it was also suffering.  I felt weighted down by the hurt and the work that went into something that had once been so effortless and enjoyable.  I hated the feeling of starting from the beginning, of being that 14 year old girl who didn't do things that hurt, all over again.  I very nearly chose to hate running. 

Over time, however (and with the help of some constant running companions) my relationship with the pain got less... painful.  I started to love running again, to go out early in the morning just for fun.  Because every morning I chose not to suffer, I chose to accept the pain.  Why?  Because of what the pain means.  The pain means work; it means effort; it means something that I go out each morning and create for myself; it means something that no one else has to give me, and that no one else can take away; but it doesn't mean suffering. 

About a million years ago when I got my first pair of running shoes, my father thought that he was doing me a favor by trying to protect me from pain.  Or maybe he wasn't.   Maybe he knew, even then (as someone who had run for years himself) that no pair of running shoes protects you from hurt. Maybe he knew that he was putting me in a position to experience pain.  But he was also setting me up to learn about the choices we make about the pain in our lives; I learned that there is always pain, but  suffering is optional. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tiny Joy

Each year when I run Reach the Beach, there is one lucky person who gets to start their run just before sunrise and to be the runner who gets to run into and through the dawn.  Those of us who are not running always comment on the beauty of that run, and how we are jealous of the timing enjoyed by the runner who gets to run "into the light."  There is just something magical about seeing a new day dawn (particularly when you have been up all night, stuck in a van with no real food, freezing and realizing that there are enormous number of body parts that can be sore if you run enough). 

Renee and I were talking about this a few weeks ago as we ran around Fresh Pond in Cambridge, because while we were running the sun was coming up.  And it was directly in our eyes.  We were, to be honest, complaining about how bright it was that morning.  It is also annoying because there are a lot of trees, so we are constantly running through a series of light and shadow that mimics a strobe light; I am pretty sure that one of these mornings I am going to have a seizure halfway around that pond because of the sun. 

But as we were complaining, it occurred to me (and I said aloud) that it was funny how the dawn is so amazing at RTB, like we never get to see it, but in reality, we see it almost every day.  We just never notice  it.  So that morning, we noticed it.  It was beautiful.  From Fresh Pond, you can see across the water and into Cambridge, and there was the sun just peeking above the tallest buildings (probably apartment complexes and Harvard buildings), turning the underside of the clouds all pink, orange, and breathtaking.  There were even a couple of surly swans floating in the middle of the reservoir (that is what the pond really is--it is the drinking water for the city of Cambridge), looking all majestic as the morning light warmed them up for a day full of being all evil (look, I had a rather negative encounter with a swan as a child; I get that they are pretty but I still don't trust them). 

At that moment, I came to the realization that I need to pay more attention to the world around me, and all the tiny joys that it offers to me every day.  Each morning for months I have been up at or before sunrise.  Yet, I had never taken the time to look up and appreciate the fact that I was getting to see the sunrise on an almost daily basis!  I am always so wrapped in my run, or my conversation, or just simply putting one foot in front of the other in a pattern that does not result in me laying face down on the pavement.  I never noticed what was around me.

Most of you who read this probably already know that I visited a Buddhist monastery more than once last year.  One of the major tenets of Buddhist is mindfulness, an active engagement with the world around you in that moment where you find yourself.  Too often, we are worried about what happened yesterday, or how we are going to do something in the future, and we forget to pay attention to what is around us right now.  That is what was happening to me while I was out running.  I was focusing on then instead of now. 

Since then, I have tried to be much more mindful when I am running.  I look around, and try to notice the tiny miracles all around me.  I have paid attention to the sunrises.  They are amazing in their variety, and in how they seem to set a tone for the entire day.  Yesterday I didn't make it out before work, so I went in the evening when I came home.  As I was huffing my way up a hill, I looked up.  And saw that it was a full moon--a beautiful, huge white moon; it was a sort of perfect antithesis to the sunrise with which I have become so familiar. 

I notice non-celestial beings as well.  This morning there was a dog running around Fresh Pond, in the opposite direction as I was heading.  When he passed me, at a full gallop, tongue out, fur blowing around him, he was ECSTATIC.  Not just happy, but truly full of joy and life.  And you can't see that in another being without it bleeding into your own soul; I smiled the rest of my miles (especially when I saw the same dog about 15 minutes later, going significantly slower but still just as happy). 

Of course, being aware has its downsides.  When you take the time to notice the joys, you also notice the pains.  Just as I saw the happiest dog on the planet running full of life, I also saw squished squirrels, litter, and unhappy commuters slogging their way to work.  As much as I wish these things didn't exist, they play an important role.  Without the bad, there can be no good.  If every thing I saw was beautiful and happy, then it would lose its meaning; I wouldn't know that it was special because it would just be normal.  Instead, as painful as they are, I appreciate the unpleasant things.  And I am glad that I am aware of them, because the alternative is to be oblivious to everything--the good and the bad--and that is no way to go through this world. 

These tiny joys--a sunrise, a loping dog, a full moon--are small things, things that I could have missed if I wasn't being intentional about seeing them.  They are not life changing on their own, I will never look back on yesterday's full moon as the happiest day of their life.  But taken together, I am using them to build a joyful life.  Maybe I could compare them to Legos (which also make me smile), a bunch of brightly colored blocks that are boring alone but can be used to create just about anything imaginable.  But they aren't building something tangible like Legos would, they are building something intangible but essential.  When I figure out how to explain it, I will.  For now, I am just going to go out and keep collecting all the tiny joys that are waiting out there for me. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Going Off Script

As a general rule I use this blog to create my own words, but today I want to make an exception.  I came across this quote about two months ago, in a book about teaching.  It made me cry.  I am not sharing here to make you cry, but because I think that it is the single best quote that I have come across in ages, and I want to talk about it (also, any of you who read this probably already know that I love Merlyn--well,wizards in general--because they always seem to know what to say):  

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn..."is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, ... you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then--to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the thing for you."  The Once and Future King

When we are very small, all we do all is learn new things.  If you have ever watched a small child, you know that children spend most of their days figuring out new things; most of it is incidental learning, unprompted by teachers or parents.  And it is absolutely amazing to see.  They work with diligence (some of them even with patience) to master the world around them.  They figure out how to put toys in a basket, to walk, to hold a spoon, and to talk.  Of course, they also learn how to hide things, to say no, to hide themselves (I was always drawn to the circular clothes racks in department stores), and to lie.  But everyday, no matter what it is, they are learning.  
Then, somewhere along the way, the learning stops being incidental and starts being scripted.  When we get to school, we stop discovering things and start being told things.  Facts and rules take the place of experience, and we often have very little choice in what we are being taught.  I am not saying this is true for every learning experience; in fact, I had several teachers who were wonderful at creating opportunities for discovery and application of knowledge.  But, the traditional vision of "education" persists: the teacher is responsible for giving information to the student who then tucks it away in her mind, only to later regurgitate it on a test.  And somehow, that doesn't really feel like important work to most students.  

A few days ago I asked my students what it meant to know something; the first thing they told me was "if you have it memorized."  God damn it, no!  Eventually, though, I talked them around to the idea that you also have to be able to use it in some way, although they are still pretty unclear about how they are supposed to use it, other than to answer text questions.  They still don't see the value of learning, of knowledge.

Part of it, to be sure, is that they are teenagers.  They are at that terrible point in their life where being "smart" and being "cool" are polar opposites.  Some of them are starting to come out of it, but it is hard work.  I know, because when I was 15, no one could have convinced me that learning and knowing stuff was better than being accepted socially.  Part of that is definitely developmental, but a big part of it is also because of the context of school.  The difference is in choice.  When I made the choice to learn, it suddenly became an integral part of who I became.  And I can't imagine my life without it; I can imagine not being able to run anymore, but I can't imagine a life where I am not learning new things all the time. 

Real learning, the kind that Merlyn is talking about, the kind that saves you from the evils of the world, comes when you have made the choice to learn.  When I said that learning doesn't feel like important work to most students, it was because I don't believe they see themselves as active agents who have made the choice to learn.  Instead, they see themselves as captives in a system that is telling them what to know.  But it does not have to be like that.  I don't want to spiral off into a monologue about best practice here, because I think that anyone who reads this already knows what it is and how to do it, so I will just say that as teachers we have the power to offer our students choice, and if we do it well, they will choose to learn the content that we have planned for them.  They will be active agents who find the value and joy in learning, and they will carry that with them for the rest of their lives. 

But this isn't about teaching, this is about learning.  It is about finding a way to pull ourselves out of the rut that we may have fallen into in our lives by learning something new, something we choose and feel is important.  And it might even be something that you chose not to learn in school, because it felt forced.  For example, I hated physics in high school; I refused to let any of it sink into my brain.  But now I find it fascinating, and I watch hours of TV specials about it.  I have seriously been considering auditing a class at the community college where I work, because now I want to learn about it.  I want to learn about everything!

There is no clever or profound way for me to wrap this up.  Just go back to the top and reread the quote.  Reread it as many times as you need to, until you are ready to make the choice to go learn something new.  And then, once you have learned that, learn something else.  Then a third, fourth, fifth thing.  Learn as many things as you can, while you can because learning is the thing for you. 


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