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Defying Gravity

This post was originally written for and published by Crow Athletics in Maine—you can read the original, along with a series of other pieces about running, here. I am re-publishing this essay in Creative Wayfinding because of its topical relevance: it is about my journey into running, and how running has become inextricably linked to the stories I choose to tell.

A few years ago, I had the chance to interview several women in my community who had lived in various parts of Europe during World War II. My first interviewee, Pauli, now ninety-four years old, had lived in Poland when the war broke out. To truly understand Pauli, you have to meet her like I do: she's in the hospital wing of her retirement community, having broken her knee dancing too exuberantly at a Halloween party. When I tell her how sorry I am about her leg, which is wrapped in swaths of bandages and ice while she waits for the swelling to abate, she responds with— "Nonsense. There's nothing to be sorry about. I will be dancing again. Now, what are you here for, what do you want from me?"

Nothing in Pauli's demeanor gives any hint to her injury, just as nothing about her gives a hint to her harrowing experience during the war. Pauli was sixteen when Soviet soldiers commandeered her family and sent them by packed cattle train to a Siberian labor camp. There, Pauli and her family were forced to work at felling trees. "You want to bring down a tree, you call me. I can teach you everything you need to know," she says, grinning. With the camp located in an extremely remote area of the Ural Mountains, the guards barely even bothered to maintain a perimeter for the prisoners. The temperatures were well below freezing, and the forest vast and merciless—where could they run to?

The three years of brutality, exhaustion, and starvation Pauli experienced in Siberia would leave an indelible impression upon anyone. Yet, when Pauli tells the story to me, she does so only if I promise to tell it as she does. "My story is a story of survival," she says. "How can I say, 'Oh, it is so terrible, oh how awful, poor me.' No. I survived, and I am proud to have survived. It is my story, and I call it a story of survival. I refuse to surrender to despair."

Listening to Pauli's story made me wonder: how does a person transform hardship into strength? How does a story full of challenges, suffering, and fear become a story about overcoming, about resilience and victory? It seemed a weighty question, and unanswerable. Certain people, Pauli among them, seemed simply to have the ability to do so. By circumstance or genetics, some individuals are able to overcome while others seem destined to surrender. But I wasn't satisfied with that answer. I wanted to know how Pauli avoided being weighed down by her experience, the recipe for her refusal to surrender to despair.

I met Pauli around the same time I started running. I wish I could say I have always been a runner, that I ran track in high school and raced marathons and ultras in my twenties, but the opposite is true. In fact, for thirty years I lived with the unyielding belief that I was decidedly not a runner. Running simply wasn't for me. For most of my life, I'd treated my body like little more than the thing that carried my head around. At my best, I ignored it; at my worst, I abused it outright. When I paid attention to it, it was because my body was a source of discomfort or consternation. I noticed it when it hurt, or when I was sick, or when I was anxious. I also noticed, though I tried not to, its vulnerabilities and limitations. The body can be wounded, can hurt, can fail. The body is mortal. This was, perhaps, more at the root of my reluctance to inhabit my body than any other factor.

My impetus for running wasn't born of a noble desire to break through an old story or push my limitations or improve my fitness—what got me out there onto the trails was a new puppy. Tuukka, a border collie, isn't your ordinary, rambunctious dog—she's fixated on both perpetual movement and always having something to do. Lacking sheep to herd and farmland to roam, running became the closest thing to a job I could give her, and it provided an outlet for her boundless energy.

It's embarrassing to admit now, but it wasn't uncommon for my early runs to end in tears. Not so much due to the physical pain and discomfort I felt, although that certainly didn't help. Instead, my reaction came from a bitter frustration with myself. I hated that I wasn't faster, hated that I could barely make it three miles without wanting to quit, hated that I surrendered so easily in the face of a challenge. Every time I ran, I got the blues, and they seemed insurmountable. I had gleaned the truth about the boundaries of my own capabilities and found them far narrower than I'd imagined them to be. In short, gravity had ahold of me, and it wasn't about to let go.

By gravity, I mean something more than physics. Newton, the story goes, discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head as he rested against a tree, but he might well have been pondering the existential and moral ills of his species when gravity struck. As I write this piece, the collective human species find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic which has, in its course, only served to further illuminate the numerous social and environmental issues we face. And I fear we are heading straight toward another crisis on top of those that already threaten us—the temptation to succumb to what the Germans call Weltschmerz, or a melancholy world-weariness. The world, as the poet Maggie Smith writes in Good Bones, "is at least fifty percent terrible (and that's a conservative estimate.)" There is, particularly now but even in the strangely remembered before-this, an inescapable current of gravity tugging us down.

World-weary gravity aside, there's also the gravity in everyday life—the weight of hopeful expectations colliding with an indifferent reality. Running is hard. Work is hard. Life is hard. The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that's a conservative estimate. The facts are as inescapable as gravity itself.

Too quickly, Tuukka grew bigger and more boisterous. Her pace picked up, and mine with it. She needed longer runs to exhaust her energy, and I was towed along behind her. The miles began to add up, and one day, I discovered I was able to focus on something other than my physical discomfort. My labored breathing and my too-fast heartbeat faded to the background as I started looking around me, noticing the landscape I traveled over. I had moved to California from New England three years prior, yet I never had really looked at the shape the oak trees carved out through the sky, never really listened to the keen cry made by a red-tailed hawk wheeling overhead, never really breathed in the scent of wild sage growing in the mountains. Santa Barbara had felt so foreign to me when I arrived—a place without winter, without the towering old-growth forests of the northeast, without rocky shorelines and late-summer rainstorms. But as I explored the mountains, I started to feel a new familiarity with my surroundings, that sense of having arrived home.

I also paid attention to Tuukka. I noticed how she bounded headlong into the toyon and leaped nimbly over the roots of the trees crowding the path. I noticed how even when she was tired, a new bend in the trail would make her perk her ears up and trot a little quicker, eager to see what was ahead. Tuukka didn't worry about her pace, about how many miles we'd gone, about feeling sore or bored or discouraged. For her, then and now, every outing is a good one. Every run is an opportunity for exploration, for discovery, and for play.

I asked myself why the act of running felt weighty. Answering the question, "How was your run?" meant qualifying the act somewhere on the spectrum between terrible and wonderful, and my answer usually landed on the low end. But what were my metrics for excellence to begin with, and why did that assessment of quality even matter? Being amazingly talented at running, or at just about anything creative and playful in life, is not a prerequisite for doing it.

Tuukka taught me how to run the right way: bounding full steam ahead, nose to the wind, full of joy and vigor, present to each moment unfolding. Attuned to the environment, attuned to my body moving through it. Letting wonder overcome pain, letting delight overcome fatigue, letting exhilaration overcome fear. Running with the desire to see what's next, what's ahead, what's around the bend. In this way, ordeals became adventures. A mountain that humbles me feels better, somehow, than any record beat. My metric for excellence is based, now, in how much I try to resist gravity—in finding that lightness of being that awaits on the trail.

Pauli's wartime memories are a patchwork quilt woven in vivid color. She recalls playing games in the woods, drawing pictures in the snow with her sister, and experiencing her first major love while in the Siberian labor camp. She says her family told jokes and stories over scant meals with other prisoners. "It was terrible, yes, but we could always something to laugh about, something to enjoy."

What Pauli exemplifies, to quote Tom Robbins, is "…the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one's gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything." Pauli figured out how to move from Weltschmerz to the "…spirit of approfondement—if I may borrow that marvelous French word that translates roughly as 'playing easily in the deep.'"

My quest, in running and in life, is to seek out this wisdom—not through blind naivety or willful omission of reality, but through finding joy in defiance of that which threatens it. I can think of no greater rebellion than that of the soul against gravity.

Nothing grows without patience. For thirty years, I carried the weight of the adamant belief that I was not a runner, did not enjoy running, and would likely never do it willingly. And then I started running. And my body figured out how to do it, despite my worried, cynical, self-doubting brain. Slowly, mile by mile, my body grows stronger, and my mind too. Slowly, year by year, my wisdom grows deeper. Even as the world's terribleness increases, even as my runs get more challenging, I am getting closer, now, to my own approfondement.

I don't have to go for a run or should go for a run—I get to go for a run. With the sheer luck of good health, with the privilege of worrying about things more mundane than my immediate survival, and with the nearby abundance of beautiful mountains where I live, I get to run. I try to remember that every time I go out there. I try to let it lift me, a little, from the ground. Despite the failure and pain and frustration that awaits the task. Despite the gravity that threatens to pull me down. Again, and again, I remind myself that, as Haruki Murakami writes in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."

It took me a long time to realize that just as I had focused on the wrong metric for measuring my runs, I had latched onto the wrong part of Pauli's story. I zeroed in on the evidence of her resilience—her refusal to surrender to despair—and almost missed the quiet, stubborn words that came before it: "It is my story, and I call it a story of survival." It's your story, and you get to call it. It's your day, it's your run, it's your life—how are you going to tell it? Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Gravity is inescapable, but lightness is possible.

In his book On Trails: An Exploration, Robert Moor writes, "In the end, we are all existential pathfinders: We select among the paths life affords, and then, when those paths no longer work for us, we edit them and innovate as necessary. The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are also editing us." The choices we make, make us. We get to edit our paths, innovate them. We get to choose the story we tell about our lives—and the paths we choose, the story we tell, changes us too. It's my story, and in this one I'd like to have the grace to allow the mountains to edit me into astonishment, into ferocity of spirit, into pure and boundless love for the outdoors, into moments of weightlessness in the midst of struggle.

Here's the thing about defying gravity: step after step, mile after mile, no matter how hard you try, you're going to fail. Gravity wins every damn time. But once in a while—barreling up switchbacks until your lungs burn, crawling through the limbs of fallen trees, scrambling over bus-sized boulders, cresting a ridgeline and catching the view of a town spread out beneath you, tumbling too fast down the steep and winding path home—air fills the bellows of your lungs and swirls beneath the soles of your feet, and you feel, for an instant, like you're flying.

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