A race is a very special undertaking. For some reason that can’t possibly relate to logic or reason, I’ve chosen to run two in the past three weeks.
It might not be good for my body to run a race every day.
But maybe it would be better for my mind and my spirit to run a race every day.
I did not feel like running this race. I wasn’t even sure my training was sufficient, despite some hard work over the summer. As predicted, my ability to train on the weekends dropped off as soon as September arrived, and with it the book. I ran that half-marathon three weeks ago as a training run. Because otherwise, I’d dropped down to three runs a week, none of them over 12.5 kilometres. Yesterday’s race was double that at 25 kilometres, and on steep winding trails, very hilly, while the half-marathon route had been a gently rolling road with no real hill challenges.
But I went. I set my alarm for early, slept poorly, woke and forced myself to eat and to drink and to prepare, and drove to Pinehurst Conservation area, and picked up my race kit, and stood in line at the bathrooms, and sat in the truck trying to stay warm and eating almonds and reading toward the ending of A Tale for the Time Being and then it was time to lace up my shoes, pin on my number, and go to the start line. And then it was time to run.
So I ran.
I didn’t know whether or not I was up for this particular challenge. In fact, I feared that I was not up for it; certainly knew that I would not be choosing to do it, had I not signed up months ago. But that’s a good enough reason to do something, I believe: sign up, show up, offer what you have in you to offer on the day it is required of you.
It might not be as much as you could offer under ideal circumstances, or at a different time in your life. That is okay.
A race is more about marking the moment with the offering of your effort than it is about finishing or competing or putting up race times. In fact, that last one is just a number and is worth something to you alone, and you get decide, therefore, its value.
I decided yesterday that the numbers didn’t matter.
I ran without a watch. I ran on gut instinct, following my body’s ebbs and flows of energy, without judging or critiquing my body’s efforts, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but then stronger again, always with a mind to the effort needed and the desire and pleasure of speed and forward-motion. On some of the downhills, it felt like I was flying. On some of the uphills, I was bent double and slowed to a walking pace. I tuned a lot out. In fact, the experience had an otherworldly quality, or the quality of a dream I did not control, but only moved through.
For long stretches, I thought of nothing, saw little, only was aware of motion itself, the path immediately ahead, the tree roots, the leaves, the colours, the sticks and stones under my feet. I remember the sun shone for awhile, its brightness on the fallen, wet poplar leaves so strong that it hurt my eyes to focus on the ground and yet I knew that I needed to focus lest I lose my footing or trip. So much of my mind’s work went into the path immediately ahead.
When my energy flagged, I practiced staying in the moment. I thought of old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being practicing zazen (though this was moving meditation). I used a few mantras, chosen at random from the flotsam and jetsam of information that had passed through my mind either right before race time or during the race itself.
A phrase on the back of a t-shirt that I saw while waiting in line in the women’s bathroom: “The mind leads the body.” For a while, I was saying it backward: “The body follows the mind,” which worked too, but then I ran behind the woman with the t-shirt for a stretch and saw the words as they were, so I switched to that. I tried to thank her when I passed her, but instead said, “I like your shirt.” Which wasn’t quite the right message, but there was very little oxygen available for communication.
Communication was rudimentary. I felt myself pulled deep inside my body, my eyes tools only, unable or unwilling to connect, almost a blank of observable emotion.
The flying mantra came from a comment posted on Facebook by a friend in Ottawa, encouraging my race effort: she said the damp would keep me cool and I would feel like I was flying. And I did, sometimes.
There was one more mantra, from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, who I follow on Facebook, who said that your fear is the most boring thing about you. So, whenever I felt the trickle of fear approaching, or questioned whether I was running too well, too easily, too strong, and would therefore shortly most definitely crash, I told myself: your fear is the most boring thing about you!
I knew the second lap would be difficult, and was not prepared for it to be as manageable as it became. I’d lost all fear by that point, and the kilometres seemed to melt rather than be counted, as I wasn’t paying much attention, and would miss kilometre markers altogether, so it seemed like before I knew it there were only 5 kilometres left.
I drank coke and water. I sucked on an energy gel pack that my friend Heather, who I run with on Thursday mornings, had given me along with a new pair of socks as a surprise gift for race day. I wore the socks, too. I thought of Heather during that last 10 kilometres because we run that distance together and we run it far faster than I’m used to covering 10 kilometres, so I told myself that if I could keep up with Heather, I could easily complete these last 10 kilometres. In fact, when I realized I had only five kilometres left, it seemed as if the race had happened too quickly.
Not that I wanted it to go on longer.
Just that I was shocked to realize how quickly the time had passed, how deeply inside of it my focus was and would remain, with little ticks and breaks here and there, until I crossed the finish line.
In fact, I sped up significantly when I realized I was completing the last kilometre, and sprinted the last 600 metres, passing many runners, none of them choosing to challenge me, although I kept listening for the sound of footfalls chasing behind me. None came. I knew I could carry myself over the last stretch, and the sprint felt easy at the end, strong.
I don’t know what time I got. I was too totally inside the focus to look at the clock as I crossed the line. I do know it was faster than I’d hoped for, but slower than previous races.
As I drove home, it came to me that a race is an opportunity to prove to yourself that you’re stronger than you think. That’s what it felt like. During the race, I felt so much stronger than I’d thought I was, only hours earlier, so much braver, so much calmer. I’m doing this, I told myself; you’re doing this. It was exhilarating and fun and joyful. I will do it again. I will approach it with the same spirit, with optimism, with training to underpin the approaching effort, and without giving in to fear. It isn’t that the fears won’t rise, but I don’t have to bend to them.
This is life, too.
For example, I can’t not write another book for fear that it won’t match my previous books. I can’t let fear guide my choices or shape my decisions. I need to show up for the challenge, whatever that challenge may be, with the best effort I can offer, right now. I’m stronger than I think; you’re stronger than you think.
Busy. I don’t have a more entertaining descriptive for my weekend. Saturday, noon, I read at Word on the Street in Kitchener, and Sunday at Word on the Street in Toronto, but Saturday afternoon the whole family found time to get outside and enjoy the heat.
I needed a long training run, and had accidentally, blissfully, slept in on Saturday morning. Slept in, read newspaper, drank coffee, ergo did not run. Serious bliss, followed by speeding off to my reading, tromping through downtown Kitchener in my high-heeled clogs, staying to hear my friend Tas’s presentation, all lovely, but somewhat dehydrating, in retrospect, and lunch became a forgotten meal.
Tasneem Jamal, reading at Word on the Street, Kitchener, from Where The Air Is Sweet
Home again, sunny and warm, we set off for Rim park, where I ran along the Grand river and the kids and Kevin practiced soccer drills, ’cause that’s what we do for fun.
Here’s where the dehydration comes into play. It was going to be an easy 15km run. Should’ve been easy, anyway. I started off feeling fab, a little too fab. Well-caffeinated, perhaps. Perhaps shamed by the marathon champion I’d interviewed on Thursday who, now in her early 50s, still runs at a 7-minute/mile pace. I should be doing that! I told myself (not actually managing to do that, quite, because people, do you know how fast that is?!). But there I was, nonetheless striving for greatness, passing all the teens on roller-blades, feeling swift and mighty and mighty fab. I knocked back the first 5km as if I were running a 5km race.
And then I died. You should not die at 5km when pacing yourself for 15. The rest of the run was a slog, which gradually became a torturous slog, and finally a suffering-from-weird-physical-symptoms-slog: terrible chills, in the heat. Not a good sign. Dragged myself back to the soccer field, a mere 12.5km accomplished.
But you’d never know from these photos I took, back at the soccer field.
We had so much fun. It took hours to recover my equilibrium (I stayed chilled for ages), but we mowed down hamburgers and poutine, and went to bed early, and all was well for Word on the Street in Toronto the next day.
Travelled by train. With my friend Tas, whose new book is out this year too — it’s called Where The Air Is Sweet, and you must read it or make it your book club’s pick.
Toronto, viewed from a window at Hart House
I was reminded that it’s always better to travel with a friend. With a friend along, and friends to meet up with, you travel in a frame of mind that welcomes all kinship, and is open to new connection. You travel more securely, perhaps. All things said and done, Sunday was another fun day, sunny and windy and fine. I deliberately aimed to eat and drink at regular intervals, though I do slightly regret the choice of a cup o’ soup on the train ride home.
Hey, am I ever glad to get to do what I do.
Before, above, with my magnificent party planning crew.
And after, below, as the evening begins to swing.
I did not take photos during the party. These are by AppleApple. It was such an evening, a moment out of time, and all I can say is thank you to everyone who made it happen. Kevin told me I was laughing in my sleep last night.
I feel like I should mark the moment somehow. Today, my third book and first novel, GIRL RUNNER, is officially published here in Canada. Dreaming of this day as a teenager in high school, plotting and hoping to become a real writer, what did I imagine it would be like? Feel like? I no longer know. There is excitement, but it is muted with a weight I probably wouldn’t have guessed, as a teenager. There is satisfaction, joy, even, but tempered by perspective, by years of struggle, by a kind of wondering at my own persistence and determination, and I don’t mean that in a self-flattering way — I mean, I wonder at my ridiculous, stubborn refusal to give up this singular dream, even when it made absolutely no sense, financially or practically or even artistically. I had to write a lot of very bad prose on my way to learning how to write like I wanted to be able to write.
I’m thinking this morning of writers I have admired. How I loved L.M. Montgomery’s stories of orphaned girls, soaked though they may have been in sentimental romance. I didn’t want to grow up to discover that Montgomery’s own life had been unhappy. I wanted her as happy as her heroines, as plucky, as daring, as beloved. There can be such a distance between what a writer puts onto the page and her own life. We may write what we wish to have been or done, we may write to seek forgiveness for a wrong or to seek peace, we may write to escape, because the imagination is powerful enough to carry us somewhere else, somewhere better, for awhile.
I’m not sure where I fit into this, exactly, as a writer and a human being.
I was thinking today that my ever-present theme is the connection between past and present, and how the past leaves its imprints on the present. I have an interest in history (thanks, Dad!). But it isn’t the interest of an historian, who tries to piece together from available evidence the most factually accurate narrative. It’s the interest of a story-teller, who needs facts only as stones tossed into a wide lake, so she can see the ripples spreading out across the disturbed surface of what only seems to be.
I’m going hifalutin’ this morning, I see.
I wonder how L.M. Montgomery felt when her first book was published? And her next, and her third? How did she feel when Anne of Green Gables became so beloved that the author herself was subsumed by her invented character? Isn’t it strange how these characters we create can come to seem more real than us? That is a possibility I’m considering this morning, as I think about Aganetha Smart, the girl runner in my book, and Juliet, of my JULIET STORIES, and the man with the hair hat, from my first collection HAIR HAT. I don’t know quite how to express this idea, but it seems those characters are more real, more knowable, more plausible than I myself could possibly be. I’m human, after all. I’ve done all kinds of things that make little sense, or don’t fit neatly into a plot or storyline. I’m contradictory. Sometimes I’m selfish, sometimes generous, sometimes oblivious, sometimes keenly attuned to the needs of others, sometimes a good friend, and no doubt, sometimes not. I’m trying, like we are all.
But my characters, they’re there, fully formed, on the page, comprehensible. Complete in a way I’ll never be.
Tonight, I’m going to the launch party for GIRL RUNNER here in Waterloo. It’s a party for the book, for the character of Aggie and all that she is, all of her accomplishments, and the richness of her life. I’m going to celebrate her existence. How she came to me, and came through me, is a mystery I’ll never know or be able to explain. This is not something I could have imagined, as an aspiring writer in high school — how separate from my creation I would feel. How grateful. How small. How glad.
I should be posting about back-to-school. But we only just arrived home last night from our brief family holiday, and my mind hasn’t caught up with end-of-summer quite yet. So this will be my holiday post. Yes, we had a holiday. We had a holiday! From everything! (Except each other.)
Somehow the summer had slipped by without all of us spending some downtime together. Sure, we got lots of projects done, including, while the big kids were away, painting the back porch, and varnishing the wood floors downstairs, which were starting to splinter.
There was the trip to the beach with the kids (but not Kevin), and the trip to Toronto with Fooey (just us), and Kevin and I dashed over to Stratford not once but twice to see plays. There were soccer tournaments and swim lessons, my sister got married, we hosted cousins, invited friends for a few meals, and the kids attended various day camps and overnight camps that fed their various interests. You know, we did a lot of stuff, and we’re fortunate that we could and can. None of this would I change.
But we also worked, Kevin and me. We worked pretty much straight through summer, both of us being self-employed and therefore loathe step away from any opportunity. Suddenly August was nearly gone, and we were nearly out of time.
And then, my dad and stepmother offered their cottage for a family getaway. Just us. (Plus dogs.) At 5AM on Thursday morning, Kevin discovered that our new vehicle (new last fall) doesn’t have a roof rack. “Um, we have a problem,” were his exact words. How to fit six people, two dogs, all our stuff, plus food for five days inside one relatively small SUV? It was 5AM and the kids were soooo excited (which is why we it was 5AM; no one could wait to go). So we just did it. Ditched the non-essentials, squashed bags under children’s feet, bought perishables close to our destination.
We really did nothing when we got to the cottage. Nothing but swim, play, eat, drink, sleep, read. I didn’t even swim, in truth, because the lake was really cold, and, besides, forget excuses, all I wanted to do was nothing. By day four of doing nothing, I felt like I’d forgotten how to do anything, which was a bit unnerving. But not so unnerving that I turned down the offer of a grapefruit beer in the afternoon. I needed the nothing. I needed to be somewhere that wasn’t our house, with its innumerable potential projects calling. I needed a few days of not pushing myself onward, nor being pulled onward. I needed to sink in. Stop. Watch my kids play.
The best part was watching the kids play. They had so much fun together.
Sometimes I think even if I’m able to give them nothing else, they have riches, because they have each other. That’s what I hope, anyway. Or maybe it’s the other way round. Maybe even if they give me nothing else, if they love each other and look out for each other, I have riches.
And I do.
Be warned: this is a photo-heavy post, and a little behind the times in terms of news items. Apparently summer has decided to kick into fast-forward and honestly, I can’t keep up. I don’t even want to. This morning, driving with a friend to our spin & kettle bell class, we saw that it was dark. It was also early, and for most of the year, darkness is to be expected at this hour, but we’ve been spoiled by summer’s long light, and it didn’t seem like it should already be contracting. August is a melancholy month. Always is. I fight against the melancholy because after all, it’s still summer. But even the youngest of our crew is noticing: “Is it fall?” CJ asked yesterday, as we sat out in the back yard watching Kevin dismantle our rotting picnic table. “No! It’s still summer!” I said. “Why did you think it might be fall already?” “The leaves are falling,” he said. And so they were, some of them, enough to dot the grass, into which a path has been worn by the soccer ball being played back and forth, back and forth, obsessively this summer.
We haven’t gotten to all of the tasks we’d meant to. Our to-do list seems as long as ever. But we’ve also had afternoons like yesterday, mild, breezy, sunny, when I sat reading out loud to the kids from a book of old English folk tales. And weekends like the one before, when cousins came to stay. And two visits to the Stratford Festival in just over a week: first, with Kevin to see King Lear (and celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary), and then on Saturday with the girls to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As we walked uptown to the carshare, we realized how unusual this grouping was: me and my girls, just the three of us. We really had fun. We got dressed up. We had a picnic by the river and named the swan and seagull who tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend us (Swanda and Seagram). We chose a feathery mask in the gift shop that we all could share. And we got a treat at DQ afterward, tapping into a gift card Fooey had gotten for her birthday. “This day feels like an adventure,” one of them observed as we drove home past fields of corn and turning wheat.
Party cake, number one.
And Fooey has had her birthday, celebrated now many times over. I’m weak, speaking parentally. We allowed her, as her birthday gift, to purchase her own iPod Touch. Our three eldest now have this electronic device, and I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either. Here she is on birthday eve.
Selfie, with brother.
And here she is on her actual birthday.
Party cake, number two.
She planned her friend party months ago, with an ever-shifting menu and lists of crafts and games and activities. We ended up serving Kraft Dinner and potato chips for the main course, which I supplemented with bowls of raw veggies and fruit, met with a chorus of, “Mom! It’s not a veggie party!” Moms know how to have fun! (In my defence, the veggies and fruit were devoured.) The whole party was easy, and I was glad to see that Fooey’s friends didn’t mind her stern organizational tone, as she herded them out to go “bowling” with a basketball and a bunch of plastic honey containers, or instructed them to “design your own book cover,” as the opening craft. Be still my beating heart. I was smitten all over again with this kid of mine, now nine.
And I think that catches us up on the news front, minus a soccer tournament on the weekend, to which I brought my camera but then forgot to pull it out of my purse to take photos. Guess I was engrossed in the match. Sorry, Albus. (He doesn’t want his photo posted on the blog these days anyway; or at the very least, wants to curate the photos of himself that do appear. We’re all growing up. More evidence of the time, and its passing.)