Sunday, December 12, 2010

Running Uphill

It's been some time since I posted anything on this blog. Life's been a whirlwind over the past six months and I simply haven't had much time for reflection. However, my morning run yesterday finally provided some inspiration, so here goes.

I headed out on my run from our new home on the shores of the Lahave River intending to follow my usual 5km loop into town and back. Running by a side street, however, I looked up and and happened to notice a street sign: "Pine St". It had been years since I'd been up that street but memories came flooding back. Pine Street. Nearly thirty years ago. I was dating a handsome young man at the time and a pull-off at the top of Pine Street hill was a favourite parking spot.

Without pausing to think, I veered quickly to the left and trotted up the street intent on revisiting the spot to see whether it was as pleasant as I remembered. Unfortunately, in the intervening years I had completely forgotten that the climb from the river's edge to the top of that hill is nearly 4 kilometres so it was a much more ambitious venture than I expected.

Slogging up the hill, I had plenty of time to think about all that's happened in the years since I last sat in my boyfriend's car under star-lit skies listening to "our song" on the radio. The details of those evenings are mostly forgotten, but I remember clearly how joyful and full of optimism I was - about life, my future, the fate of the planet - everything really. As I approach 50, it saddens me to realize how seldom I feel that kind of joy and optimism now.

On the other hand, at 20 years old I couldn't have run up Pine St. hill. I wasn't athletic in my youth and only took up running when I turned 40. Eight and a half years later, my hair is mostly grey, the wrinkles around my eyes more pronounced by the day, but my heart and legs (not to mention my willpower) are stronger than ever - so the trek reminded me that some things really can get better with age - when you work at them at least.

Pausing to catch my breath at the top of the hill, I took a moment to enjoy the beauty of the river valley below and to be grateful - for happy memories, strong legs, and the great good fortune to live in such a beautiful place - then turned slowly and began the long, sweet run downhill towards home.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Springtime Reflections on a New Year's Resolution

I love running in the spring when it seems as if the whole world is waking up again. Gardens in my neighbourhood are already decorated in the brilliant colours of tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, and other spring flowers, and it will only be a matter of days now until the azaleas, dogwood and cherry trees are in full bloom.

As well as lifting my spirits, springtime inspires me to revisit my new year's resolutions to see how I'm doing. This year, I kept my list of resolutions short and have managed to stick to most of them so far. More regular exercise? Check. More patience with unending home renovations? Check. More time with friends? Check.

The one resolution I've struggled with is the one I wrote about here a few months ago -- that is, my resolution to "love fearlessly". What I meant by that was that I wanted to try to care for others without worrying about whether they deserved it, what it might cost me, or whether my love would be returned in the ways I wanted.

The yogis I know make that kind of love look easy. Their open-hearted acceptance of others shines through their eyes and faces. Their expressions say they know who and what you are but they love you anyway. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as they make it look -- at least for me.

And that's a shame because loving is a glorious thing in and of itself. All the individual acts of love -- giving, sharing, accepting, listening, understanding, supporting -- feel really good when I do them. Things only go wrong when I start to focus, not on the love, but on what I want or expect in return.

In another post, I wrote about "wanting" and concluded it wasn't always such a bad thing. I still believe that. But wanting too much or wanting things I can't have can be painful and uncomfortable for all concerned -- which of course begs the question, why do it? Rationally, doesn't it make more sense to just love without wanting or expecting anything in return, trusting that in the fullness of time what goes around comes around, sometimes in unexpected ways?

As a general rule, I think so -- which is why I used my run this beautiful, uplifting spring morning to recommit to that new year's resolution: to love fearlessly, with optimism and hope and without expectation, and to be genuinely grateful for whatever love comes back to me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Running Meditation

Meditation is something I've long aspired to make a habit, but never seem to find the time or quiet for in my day-to-day life. This week, I read an excellent article in Runner's World about running meditation so decided to give it a try it on my long slow run this morning. It sounded simple enough. All I had to do was focus on my breathing.

Simple. Right. In reality, not so much. I did focus on my breathing -- for all of about 30 seconds before my "monkey brain" started fidgeting and talking to me. "This will be a cool topic for your blog." "What do you want to say?" "Hey, that guy must be cold in shorts this morning." Etcetera.

In fact, despite repeated efforts over the course of my two hour run, I suspect I managed to focus on my breathing for no more than a few minutes in total. The temptation to daydream or carry on (silent) conversations with myself was simply too great.

That said, the effort wasn't a complete waste. Even those few minutes were enough to get me to pay more attention to my surroundings and what my body was doing.

The latter was especially important because I'm nursing a knee injury at the moment. When I headed out the door, I was determined to avoid aggravating it by pushing too hard, but for the first 5 kms every time I checked my pace I found I was running too fast.

All that changed at the 5km mark when I began to focus on my breathing. Immediately, I noticed it was laboured -- which it wouldn't have been if I'd been running the right pace for a long slow run -- so I consciously slowed down until I could breathe in a more relaxed way. By refocussing on my breath every few minutes for the rest of the run, I was able to maintain a more comfortable pace without constantly checking my GPS, and -- as a result -- finished 18km with my knee in remarkably good shape.

Attempting to run meditatively also helped me pay closer attention to the world around me -- the soft furry growth on the branches of a shrub growing along the river, yellow green weeping willow leaves and fuschia cherry blossoms emerging from their buds, and a bench strewn with flowers in memory of Nadia (1989-2008) -- details that allowed me to experience the run in a way I wouldn't have if I'd been distracted by my own thoughts.

All in all, then, I'd have to say my first attempt at running mediation was a success and certainly something I'll try again the next time I head out for a long slow run on my own.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thinking about some spring decluttering

While a colleague and I were chatting this past week, I happened to mention I'd been feeling out of sorts lately. Remembering how focussed and upbeat I'd been when I was training to run a marathon last summer as part of Team in Training, she suggested that perhaps what I needed was a new project. At the time, I thought that suggestion was a good one but, upon further reflection, I'm not so sure. Maybe what I really need is to deal with the many unfinished projects -- not to mention clutter -- taking up space in my house and in my head.

On that assumption, I set aside today to begin the process of decluttering my life by tackling my office. Rationally, I know it's full of stuff I don't need -- back issues of running and home decorating magazines, books I'll never again read or lend to friends, half-finished knitting and quilting projects, university textbooks, letters and photographs I never look at, etc. And yet -- here I sit writing about getting rid of the clutter rather than actually doing anything about it.

Apparently, I'm not alone in my aversion to disposing of clutter. Whole books have been written on the subject. An excellent one (though I confess I've so far only read excerpts) is Does this Clutter Make my Butt Look Fat? by Peter Walsh. (For an excerpt, click here.) In a nutshell, Walsh's theory is that people hang on to stuff not because they're too disorganized and lazy to get rid of it but because it represents something important to them. In some cases, it defines who they are. In others, it's a placeholder for the people and experiences they don't want to leave behind. In still others, it fills gaps left by unfulfilled aspirations or unsatisfying personal relationships.

While I honestly think the main reason I've never fully overcome my tendency to clutter is that I'm fundamentally lazy and disorganized, I have to admit that Walsh's theory resonates. It would, for instance, explain why I hang on to some of the books and texts I studied at university nearly three decades ago. Maybe they represent all the youthful hope, optimism, and intellectual curiousity I felt back then, not to mention my dreams of being a writer or editor one day.

So far, so good. But why on earth hang on to 8 pairs of old running shoes, and dozens of old tee-shirts? In the case of the runners, I'm pretty sure it's just laziness since my plan is to (eventually) wash them and donate them to Soles4Souls. The tee-shirts, or some of them at least, are another story.

Tucked away in my drawers are four or five tee-shirts, now more than 20 years old, that I acquired during my days as an international development worker and community activist. There's no reason to keep them. It's not like I ever wear them. They'd likely disintegrate if I tried. And yet I suspect I'll still be refusing to throw them away when I'm packing up to move to a retirement home because those tee-shirts remind me of the time in my life when I believed -- really truly fervently believed -- that positive change in the world was possible. I don't ever want to forget what that felt like.

Other clutter has less positive associations -- the unfinished knitting projects for instance. For many years, I knit a lot -- sweaters, hats, mittens, socks, afghans, you name it. However, the truth is I've hardly picked up my needles in the past five years. If I could figure out how to knit and surf the internet at the same time, I might eventually get around to using up all the left over wool kicking around in my closets, but, given how unlikely that is, the better choice is to pass it along so that I can stop feeling irritated and frustrated every time I look at it.

So -- here I go at last. While procrastinating, I stumbled across this article by Katherine Gibson which I'm hoping will provide just enough practical advice to get me started. Fingers crossed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Running with crows

When I finally started out on my long run late yesterday afternoon, my head and heart were so busy, I found it almost impossible to focus on the world around me. Fortunately, as is so often the case, by the time I'd run four or five kilometres, I was beginning to establish a steady rhythm and slowly but surely regaining some connection with the present moment.

My route took me across the Experimental Farm. Usually, I meet dozens of people and dogs on the farm, but yesterday I had the place to myself. It felt strange to be so alone as dusk approached but I enjoyed the solitude. The air, heavy with moisture, created a blue-grey filter that emphasized the deep winteriness of the day.

Turning towards home, the solitude was broken suddenly by the caws of crows overhead. The light had faded to the point that I could make out only black silhouettes against a silver grey sky, but they were still an impressive sight -- hundreds of crows converging to head back to their roost for the night. Hearing their loud, animated calls, I found myself imagining their conversations. Surely they were describing the day's adventures, sharing tips on where to find the best meals, and exchanging updates up on the younger and weaker members of their extended families!

Some people don't care much for crows but I find them endlessly fascinating. They are -- like many of the people I most admire -- strong, smart, creative extroverts who look out for one another. Witnessing their journey, I was grateful that running had offered me the chance to be present in my life long enough to see and appreciate them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Then and now

I took a rather uncomfortable walk down memory lane today when I found myself looking at high school and college yearbooks and reading old letters from friends. It struck me that I have very few accurate memories of who I was all those years ago -- or at least that the person reflected in the letters and photos isn't the one I remember being. How did that happen?

And, if the young woman in those photos and letters ever really existed, how did she become me? It's hard to reconstruct all the forks in the road that lead me here but surely I should at least be able to figure out which were the most important.

Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, I can't change the past and regret is nothing but a waste of time and energy. On the other hand, things that happened along the way sometimes resonate many years later in unexpected ways. Like most people, my perceptions of reality are deeply affected by past experiences.

For example, many of my closest friends are people I met when I was 17 years old -- more than 30 years ago. How would I feel about them if met them today for the first time? I'm sure I'd still admire and respect them, and might even want to get to know them better -- but it is all those years of shared memories and experience that really bind us together.

Whatever the truth of who we all were -- I can't help feeling sad that my memories are so unreliable, and that I so rarely feel the same hope, joy and optimism I felt back then.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Wonder of Creativity

Riding the bus to work yesterday morning, I was listening to the music of one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Rose Cousins, and was reminded of the first time I heard music played through a set of headphones.

It was the autumn of 1981. I was 19 years old and travelling around Europe on my own. On a train trip between Oslo and Bergen, Norway, I met a blond-haired, blue-eyed Californian named Scott Yoder who was listening to a cassette recording of Dan Fogelberg’s “The Innocent Age” on his Sony walkman. We struck up a conversation, and Scott offered to let me listen to the music for awhile. I was awestruck by how beautiful it was.

Of course, technology has come a long way since so I doubt if I'd be as impressed by the quality of the sound today as I was back then – but in 1981 Fogelberg’s music as heard through those headphones seemed almost miraculous, and the wonder of that moment has resonated with me ever since.

The memory was perhaps more poignant because the day before I watched a terrific video entitled “Everyday Creativity” by Dewitt Jones, an accomplished free-lance photographer and motivational speaker. In the video, he defines creativity as the ability to look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary. And he goes on to describe his understanding of the creative process and to suggest that it can be applied in all areas of one’s personal and professional life.

A key aspect of the creative process, Jones says, is simply to pay attention and change perspectives often so that we are more likely to recognize the extraordinary that is all around us. I'd put it another way and say that creativity requires us to remain present in our lives and to be open to the wonder that comes with experiencing things for the first time – the kind of wonder I experienced hearing Fogelberg's music through a set of headphones all those years ago.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A New Year's Wake-up Call

One of the things I like about running – and marathon training in particular – is how strong it makes me feel – both mentally and physically. I draw confidence and comfort from the thought that my running makes me better able to deal with whatever life has in store for me. But I had a bit of a wake-up call this holiday season when a series of minor health issues left me feeling ill and unable to run for more than a week. It was amazing how quickly my confidence evaporated when my body let me down.

I say it was a wake-up call because, of course, I am reaching the point in my life where I must expect to face occasional health issues. To this point, I’ve been remarkably fortunate. The only time I’ve been hospitalized was for a tonsillectomy when I was 6 years old. I’ve never broken a bone – except maybe my baby toe (I didn’t have it x-rayed so I can’t be sure), never had a life-threatening illness, and have no significant chronic health issues. Even travelling in Asia where I ate food prepared by local street vendors for weeks, the worst I suffered was a few belly cramps.

Maybe because I’ve been so healthy, I found it incredibly unsettling to be laid low last week. It made me realize just how fragile my sense of wellbeing is. It also made me realize that I’d better focus on developing coping skills beyond running and working out. Going for a run to clear my head won’t be an option if the stress in my life is the result of some serious injury or illness. I’m going to need other things to fall back on – writing, meditation, close friends, family, and/or faith. Definitely something to think more about as I head into 2010.