Every Second

“Travel is medicine.  It resensitizes.  It opens you up … It forces your childlike self back into action.”

… the opening lines of ‘To Shake the Sleeping Self’ by Jedidiah Jenkins   One paragraph in I knew I’d love the book.   I didn’t just read those lines.  I absorbed them. They shook me.  Reminded me of far away places and long-ago adventures.  Sunshine and excitement.  Relaxation and restoration.  One paragraph in, Jedidiah shook this sleeping reader.

Words that resonated, in part, because, for a year now, we have been unable to travel.  Robbed of the pleasure of planning that next trip.  Of exploring a part of the world we’ve never seen before.  Or returning somewhere meaningful and magical.  Somewhere guaranteed to restore the soul.

Yesterday we searched closer to home – driving four kilometers, instead of flying four thousand.  Low budget travel – a couple cookies, a thermos of coffee, and a bag of stale breads for the seagulls. 

We needed to be away from home, together.  Away from to-do lists that never ended.  Away from the television.  Away from minor tensions and an epic tantrum. 

We needed air and water and trees. 

We found them.  Along a shoreline so close to home we had taken it for granted for years.  Never stopped.  Never explored. 

Here’s something else Jedidiah Jenkins wrote: “When you are a kid, everything is new.  You don’t know what’s under each rock … So, you look.  You notice … Every second has value.”

The essence of mindfulness.  Finding value in every second.  That does not mean every moment is pleasant or welcome.  Every moment just is. 

Every day I struggle with being present in the moment. 

It’s worse than that.  Every moment I struggle with being present in the moment.  My mind races.  Five minutes ahead, five hours ahead, five years ago.

Five.  Our daughter is five.  Yesterday, at the beach, she found value in every second.  She didn’t just feed the seagulls.  She made seashell sandwiches, fan-shaped shells, filled with water and layers and layers of bread.  The seagulls swooped in – fighting, clamoring, the winner soaring away with every morsel in its beak.  The losers squawking for more.

We discovered secret passages – pathways through dense trees.  We scampered up rocks and across logs.  We saw a sad face carved in stone, and memorial plaques mounted on boulders.  Plaques that showed that this had been a special place to others.  They too had come here and valued every second.

I’m still reading Jedidiah’s book.  He’s in South America now, nearing the end of a bike trip that began in Oregon.  A pre-Covid trip.  I envy him – envy his travels, his insights and his talent.

Soon after I met my wife, she travelled to South America.  She flew in rickety planes, ate great food, and experienced people and places that I – that all of us – can only dream of now.

Places and trips that happened years ago.  Places and trips that might happen again, depending on vaccines and variants.

In the meantime, I’m thankful that Jedidiah and my daughter remind me that every second has value. 

Getting Back

I travelled for work this week. 

Long hours.  Little sleep. 

No reading.  No running.  No family. 

Mentally drained.  Physically weary.

I work with good people.  Dedicated.  Smart.  Engaged.  Kind.  If I must be away from home, those are the people I want to be with.

Still, it felt great getting back.

Hugging my wife and daughter.  Sleeping in my own bed.  Waking up, drinking coffee, and reading.

Returning to normal, after a few days of not normal. 

Not normal meant five days without running.  Instead, I traded running for sleep.

That doesn’t happen often.

So, it felt wonderful to lace up my trail shoes this morning.  A clear sky.  A cold day.  Well below zero with a biting wind.

To run with no other purpose than to run.  To move my legs, inflate my lungs, and clear my head.  To appreciate the beauty of the forest along the path I’ve run a hundred times before.  An isolated path with traces of snow, alongside a stream of icy water.  The crunch of frozen dirt underfoot.  No people, no phone calls, no stress.  Blue Rodeo in my earbuds.  More than a band.  Poets and philosophers of life and death, joy and pain.  Songs about navigating back to normal when your world strays.

A one hour run.  Never fast.  Or slow.  Just a run.  A little bit of uphill, a little bit of downhill. 

Like most of our days, most of the time.  Normal.  A bit good, a bit bad.  Usually somewhere in between. 

We are all desperate for normal now, almost a year into Covid.  Lockdowns and masks.  No travel.  Distant family.  Those damn arrows on the floors in grocery stores.  I hate those arrows.

Anger at those who break the rules.  The temptation to break them ourselves – to ignore the arrows, visit a friend, travel.

A virus jolted us out of normal.  We took too much for granted for too long. And now we wait for vaccines, and double-mask our faces, and challenge ourselves to be more patient than we’ve ever been in our lives.

If only it was as easy as a run, along a trail, on a cold winter’s day. 

What You Have Endured

I ran 12k hard this morning.  I finished gasping for breath, tasting blood in my lungs, with legs that felt like they were encased in cement.

It hurt. 

Which was entirely the point because I was racing.  A virtual race.  The only kind of race our Covid world allows.  No other runners, no spectators, no finish line.  Just me and my GPS watch.

If I had not signed up, this morning’s run would not have hurt.  I would not have pushed myself to run maximum effort for nearly an hour.  I would not have subjected myself to voluntary pain. 

I would not have relaxed.

Hurt and relaxation.  Essential elements of running hard.  Essential elements of living.

Running brought a good friend into my life years ago.  An accomplished runner and even better person.  I was Luke, and he was my Yoda.  He was smooth, I was ungainly.  He ran fast effortlessly – I did not.  I equated speed with pain – my body clenching, tightening, straining.  My friend helped me understand that less was more, that letting go, breathing, unclenching, loosening, relaxing, allowed me to run smoother, stronger and ultimately, faster.  It was both counterintuitive and made perfect sense.  And it worked.  My best runs, my fastest times were under his tutelage.   

I thought of him today when I ran, struggling for speed, fighting to hold the pace.  Hurting and relaxing.  Relaxing and hurting. 

Running is a wonderful metaphor for life, but not a perfect one.  When running hurts too much, I can choose to slow down – even stop – I can make the pain go away.

We can’t do that in life.

There is pain.  For all of us.  Pain that comes and goes, pain that ebbs and flows.  Chronic pain.  Pain in our bodies.  Pain in our souls.  Fleeting pain.  Pain that heals.

Pain that reveals. 

Pain reveals our weaknesses, in our bodies, in our psyches. 

Pain hurts.

So relax. 

Breathe.  Walk.  Meditate.  Read.  Listen.  Sing.  Hug.  Pray.  Love.  Share.  Give.

And then – stop relaxing.  Do things that hurt.  Run hard.  Lift weights.  Cycle until your legs are on fire.  Take a cold shower.  Hold your breath until your lungs explode.  Do something that makes you want to scream – do it because you can – do it because you control the pain.

Do it because when you choose to suffer – you can relax.  It is within you.  It is in your breath.  It is in every fiber of your body.  Pain and peace are not opposites.  They are not mutually exclusive.  They are in all of us, always.  Co-existing.  Waxing.  Waning.  Teaching.

Pain teaches us to relish its absence.  This afternoon my daughter and I played in a park, walked in our neighbourhood, and saw some of her friends.  All those moments were just a little more precious because hours before I ran hard and made myself hurt. 

And then the hurting stopped.  Not long after my run, my body felt better.  My lungs didn’t taste like blood anymore.  Instead, it was as if my airway had tripled in size and oxygen was being pumped into my chest.  The air I was breathing was cleaner, fresher, more potent.  My legs stopped hurting.  Instead, they ached – good aching – the aching that only comes from pushing past comfort.  Aching that satisfies.

Relaxing in the midst of pain teaches us … teaches us that we can relax in the midst of pain.  We don’t have to enjoy pain.  We can hate the pain.  But we can co-exist with it.  We can conquer it.  The next time it happens to you, you will emerge on the other side.  Maybe scarred, maybe scared, maybe aching everywhere.  But you will be stronger, better, and more equipped to deal with the next time.  And all the good moments – joy, fun, normalcy, Netflix, will be that much sweeter, for what you have endured.

A Walk in the Cemetery

I had a few hours of free time this morning.  It’s rare for me to be alone, and away from home.

So I went to a cemetery.

A cemetery, near a forest by a church.  A beautiful church.  An old church. 

Smoke from the forest fires raging south of us obscured the sky. 

No one else was around.

It was like walking through a P.D. James novel.

Our world feels very obscured.  There is no clarity.

Cemeteries provide clarity.  Death provides clarity.  The on switch is flicked off.  1 becomes 0.  Light is dark.

The cemetery was quiet.  Peaceful. Tranquil.  Mostly grey with splashes of flowers.  Immense trees loomed overhead.  I saw an infant’s grave.  I saw many birth dates far to close to the birthdays of people I love who are still alive.  Loved ones I treasure beyond description.  The people I do not ever want to lose.

As I write this, our dog is hours away from being euthanized.  I’ve written about her in the past.  Not always glowingly.  But her absence will create a void in my life.  In my wife’s life.  In my daughter’s life. I will always remember the golden beauty who was with me when I was alone, and lonely, and a little bit scared of what the future held in store.  I’ll remember long walks along the beach, stones thrown into the ocean, and hot summer days laying by the water, a book in one hand, and my Maggie beside me.

I’ll remember this day.  Some glorious free time with something awful looming.  And yet I’m still enjoying myself.  A coffee in a café.  My laptop in front of me.  Nowhere I need to be for 90 whole minutes.

The where I need to be is my daughter’s pre-school.  To pick her up.  Earlier this week she was terrified before her first day.  My wife and I felt her fear.  Agonized over it.  Needlessly.  Because she came home and told us, “I love pre-school.”  She asked to go every day.  Kids grow up fast.

Today, when I dropped her off, she greeted her teacher with glee, overjoyed to tell her about the new doll her granny bought her.  Almost forgetting dad was beside her.  Maybe actually forgetting, because I had to ask for a hug and a kiss before she bounded into the classroom.  I was so proud of her.  And so conscious that my little girl is growing up. 

My days often feel very obscured.  The smoke of work, the smoke of stress, the smoke of life.  Who has time for clarity when life moves a million miles an hour, Covid keeps us from one another, and fires blacken the sky? 

Clarity might be unattainable.  Or maybe it is does exist, but it is precious because it is both fleeting and hazy.  Like a walk in a cemetery on a day filled with both life and death.

POSTCRIPT

Dad picked up his daughter and bought her a Happy Meal for lunch.

Maggie died peacefully, in her home, surrounded by love.

Despair Soup

Big things crush small things.

Covid ravages nations.

A horrific death in Minnesota reverberates around the globe.

Really big things. Really bad things.

Overwhelming things.

It feels selfish to miss small things amidst so much death and suffering.

Too much death and suffering.

But I miss them. I miss them desperately. Baseball. My daughter’s dance class. Restaurants. The Tour de France – incredible athletes and stunning scenery. I gorge on the Tour for three weeks every July. But not this year.

It all makes for one giant recipe for despair. Despair Soup. Take one horrific virus – add a divided society – strip away the simple pleasures – simmer for months – await the explosion.

Maybe it will not explode. There might be a vaccine. We may all come together instead of pulling apart. But look south. To America. A country ripping itself apart. A country defined by left vs. right. Republican vs. Democrat. A global superpower coming apart at the seams.

Big things crush small things.

But not always. Sometimes small things win.

Running is a small thing.

Covid can cancel races but it can’t stop runners from running. That’s what we do. It’s our answer for everything. Feeling down? Go for a run. Feeling good? Great day to run. Body sore? Run to recover. Tired? Run to wake up. Can’t sleep? Run for exhaustion.

Overwhelmed by the world?  Run.

That’s what I did on a quiet morning when the sun made a rare appearance defying the dark clouds and rain which have settled over us for months.

I can’t say I was at peace when I began that run. Work stress. Life stress. World stress.

But I laced up a new pair of trail shoes and headed uphill. No music. No watch. Just a trail with roots and rocks and mud and horse manure. Switchbacks and inclines. Towering evergreens. Warning signs about bears in the area – because big bears crush scrawny runners.

But I didn’t see any bears. And not many people. Just me and my thoughts. And my no thoughts. Straining uphill. Testing my legs and my lungs. Then getting to the top and resting my legs and my lungs. Just enjoying the view. A beautiful view. A small moment of peace. A big view.

Big things crush small things. But sometimes small things win.

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