Category: Girl Runner

Why give yourself away?

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I’ve been thinking about a book of linked stories that I wrote around 2014-2015, immediately before and after publishing Girl Runner, the novel that at this point in my career seems likely to be my biggest hit, as it were. Girl Runner sold internationally, was translated into a number of languages, and people still invite me to come to their book clubs to discuss it (which means it’s being read, which is quite remarkable, honestly, for a book that celebrates its tenth birthday this year). In short, that book changed my life; but not in ways that I could have predicted, and I’m curious to re-read stories written in the aftermath of success, because what I remember from that time is that I did not feel successful. I felt estranged from myself. I was stressed and under pressure. I fully expected to build on the success of Girl Runner to publish more and bigger; but nothing came. It wasn’t that I was blocked—I wrote a lot—novel drafts, short stories. It’s that what I wrote wasn’t … well, it’s hard to say this out loud, but it wasn’t what was wanted.

I don’t know if I have a gift for writing, but I have a love for it, and a desire to do it—and so I write. For a little blip of time, a decade ago, I could imagine that the foundation was set, and I could spend the rest of my life writing and publishing books, and, crucially, making a living from that work. This hasn’t been the story, though; this hasn’t been the arc of the plot. I’m no longer grieving this as a loss; but I did, and I think a version of that grief is contained in that short story collection (which I titled Why Give Yourself Away?). Why Give Yourself Away was so unwanted, perhaps so unlikeable, that an editor made the assumption I’d submitted the manuscript in order to break a two-book contract. Yikes. When I heard that, a few years after the fact, it was real blow. Because I’d been serious—that book of stories was exactly what I wanted to write and to publish at that moment in my career. I’m not commenting one way or the other from this perspective—was it better for my career that those stories remain in my attic, or would they have been a worthy contribution to my overall published work? I have no idea. Francie’s Got A Gun probably wouldn’t have existed had that project been published, for the plain and simple reason that I wouldn’t have needed to write Francie—I walked through fire for Francie, and that’s something you only do when the need is obsessive and otherwise insurmountable. Writing Francie was a feat of endurance and single-minded optimism. Not hope—hope is softer and more organic, elegant. Francie exists because I was irrational in my need for her to exist.

(And perhaps I love Francie all the more for it.)

Nevertheless, those old stories intrigue me. I wonder what’s captured there—a mortifying self-pity? A Karen-like whine that the world isn’t bending to my will? Something’s in that collection that made an editor cringe. Yet I recall the stories in my mind as almost magical; maybe writing them was medicinal. It got me through. As writing always seems to. It gets me through.

What fascinates me about structuring a narrative is how crucial the unravelling is—the when and the shape of the viewpoint. Am I more ruthless when following a linear structure? I suspect so. Those stories were linear. The project began as an attempt to record in immense detail a single day, on the day that it was happening. The narrator (a version of myself) was unsparing to the point of cruelty to herself. But if I were to return to that narrator now, wouldn’t I see her actions differently? In returning—in recasting the structure as circular—forgiveness, gentleness, curiosity can’t help but creep into the perspective. I have kind feelings toward my younger self. Sometimes, I pause to thank my younger self for her courage, her wild leaps of imagination, her insistence on becoming, and for her mistakes. 

If I am fortunate, I will grow old, I will become elderly, and I will thank all my younger versions of self for their persistence and doggedness and belief that everything they did mattered. No matter how small. No matter the visible result.

Think of everything you’ll do in your day that is unseen or unnoticed or unrecognized. Hold a few of these in your mind for a moment, cup your hands around the small actions, gifts and gestures. I did not know the answer to the question Why give yourself away? when I was writing those stories, but the question itself landed differently in my ear at that time. I thought I was giving away pieces of my life to fiction or poetry, or flaying myself open as a means of creating art, and you know, maybe I was, and maybe that’s exactly what it meant at that moment to give myself away.

I won’t rewrite those stories. They stand, as they were, of that time. But I might write a new book with that title. Maybe. Honestly, who knows? I circle, I alight, I take flight.

Why give yourself away? The question lands differently in my ear now—I hear giving as ongoing life-affirming generosity that returns to you a thousand fold, because now I believe that my self is formed of a deep well, a source that is infinite, and that source is love. Unconditional ocean-like, star-like love. “Not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.” I can’t always access this love, nor am I always in tune with it, but that’s okay. I’m moving in that direction; I’m circling it, in fact. The tree in Francie represents that circling motion—accumulation of experiences, young/ancient core protected and held by rings of capacity.

Why give yourself away? What choice do you have? What you keep, what you hold tightly and cling to, will wither and harden, or pain you for being unspent. The hours are brief, and what you give will be returned to you in another form that you likely won’t be able to see, but you’ll feel and know because those around you will respond to it. If what you give is harmful, you’ll know that. (And by the way, I believe that even if what you’ve given is harmful, by giving it, you’ve opened yourself to the possibility of change—to give is to transform.) If what you give is greater than yourself, you’ll know that too.

This is not about giving everything to everyone, spilling your guts or breaking boundaries: Love the self you are giving away, meet yourself in unconditional love, begin there and expand ever-outward.

Why give yourself away? Because it’s how you find your way back to your source. But that answer is a bit too long. 

Because, love.

xo, Carrie

Book launch preparations, a little slant

20220716_173716Book launch is less than a week away. Pub date too. It’s a time of intense vulnerability woven together with this great desire to celebrate, and let go of. The ego is dancing for attention, wants to run the show, and I reflect on how to …

embrace gratitude

accept what’s happening, no matter what may come

gently, kindly, lovingly release expectations (internal / external)

Truth is, I’ve been attempting to prepare for this day for quite some time. I knew it would be hard, because it pushes a lot of my buttons. Fear of rejection; feelings of unworthiness; imposter syndrome; fear of things spiralling out of my control. I’m guessing this is a common experience for many (most?!) who present their work publicly. Something about being in the spotlight, even the idea of it, kind of messes with the head. I wanted to shift that experience, if possible, so I’ve been working toward the goals (above) through therapy, reflection, and by seeking role models and support.

Confession: at times, I didn’t love who I was when I was promoting Girl Runner. I felt as if all my weaknesses, my negative tendencies and patterns, some bottomless un-fillable attention-seeking void in my soul were being exposed; and that was probably true! In retrospect, I appreciate this as a necessary, if painful, growing experience. UGH. Why are there no shortcuts to growing and learning? (Parenting is a constant reminder that no matter how dearly we wish to spare those we love most from the pain of “learning the hard way” … that’s not how it goes.)

So what did I learn the hard way? I saw some things: those weaknesses, those tendencies and patterns, some ways I’m most likely to cause suffering in myself and in others. Seeing, knowing, is a door or a window. It’s an opening, an invitation to shift habits and behaviours, to live inside my body more fully. How can I change what I can’t see, or don’t want to acknowledge?

An opening, no matter how painful, is an opportunity to shift experiences in ways that may be small, yet profoundly affecting.

20220630_162416Last October, I wrote: What would happen if I gave up trying to control outcomes, trying to control how people feel about me, trying to reassure myself that I could figure out the perfect approach that would persuade everyone of my greatness?

I cringe to read that word “greatness.” ACK! It’s so embarrassing! But what I wrote was true and honest. The grinding self that has accomplished much is also a fearful, grasping self that doesn’t want to be good, but great; that sets standards that are impossible to meet; that engages in external comparisons, and feels envy, jealousy. If I pay attention to the ugliness — the shadow side of my self — what can I learn?

Here’s what I wrote next, last October: Now that I’ve recognized my need to control others, control outcomes, and seek external praise and acknowledgement, in the form of respect and admiration from others (and to be known as a helper! Altruistic! Giving! A good person! That’s been especially key to my sense of identity), can I change how I see myself, and operate from a different place of inspiration? Can I find meaning in something other external praise? Can I fill that hole that needs reassurance — you are good, you are worthy?

Can I become someone who knows more and more deeply that I am worthy, because everyone is?

I think knowing this would allow me to see others with greater compassion and clarity, to be less reactive, less judgemental, and less controlling.

Yes, Carrie of last October. YES! What a terrific goal. And what a bloody hard test it is and has been to love the self that is ugly and fearful and defensive. How incredibly hard to be kind to myself when I am disappointed in my responses to situations, when I’ve done wrong, especially painful and difficult when I’ve hurt someone else. It’s a stretch to say that in these moments I’m quick to give myself grace, kindness, compassion. But if I notice what’s happening, I try — that’s how I try to respond. It’s a practice that I’ll be practicing for the rest of my life.

20220702_165623Here’s how I’m practicing it right now.

The book launch is Tuesday. In the past few weeks, I’ve felt all of the following and more: vulnerable, exposed, silly, craven, mixed-up, excitable, restless, bubbling over, unable to write anything new or to focus beyond cleaning the house and cooking meals. In response, I say: Hey, you, human being, it’s okay to feel all of these things! And I also say: Look at all the ways you’re caring for yourself.

Maybe even further: Look at your delight in being human! In being vulnerable and ridiculous and comical and expressive, and giddy, and hopeful and needy! You are capable of seeing and appreciating all this imperfection as a potential gift! Look at you asking for help when you need it. Look at this kindness you’re offering yourself — imagine it spilling outward into every interaction you have, now and into the future.

Imagine that this kindness, this grace, this delight is what you are capable of offering to everyone around you.

Now that would be the gift. There’s the true goal I’m seeking, the goal of my chosen vocation.

2022-07-20_12-45-50Here’s what I’m learning. When I started on this path, wanting to be a writer, I thought the goal was to be the best writer I could possibly be — grind away, publish books. But maybe that’s itself a practice, a way of walking a path toward a different dream, one that I could not imagine or conceive of when I first knew that I wanted to be a writer. Something I’ve begun to glimpse is how much lightness there is on this path. Lightness and laughter, and love, which is mixed up with grief sometimes too. Look at us, being alive here together.

Where is this path leading? I don’t know. But it’s been a mind-bending, heart-opening adventure so far. Why not trust where it’s going? Reading that word “trust” invites breath deep into my lungs. AHHHHH.

Ahhh, amazing — I find myself, right now, looking forward to this launch party no matter what happens. I’ve given myself a real break all this week, to do the things that feed my spirit and body, that feel good. No expectations. How is that possible? It feels miraculous, and I’ll swim in it gratefully, for however long it lasts.

xo, Carrie

Mini-meditation for today: Inhale, exhale

2019-05-29_08-38-36Mini-meditation for today: Every experience is an opportunity to express and deepen your connection to your own values. Every experience has meaning.

As I drove the back roads, early this morning, following gravel trucks and farm machinery and backlogs of commuting traffic toward Orangeville, and beyond, to the 404 north to Barrie, where I was meeting a book club at a care home, I noticed my breathing. Sometimes I noticed that I was holding my breath. Sometimes I noticed that my breathing was shallow. Other times, I would draw air deeply into my lungs and exhale — and that felt good.

I was afraid of being late.

But what if I were late, would that constitute a crisis? No. Deep breath. Ah.

2019-05-29_08-38-24At the care home, I spoke for an hour to a group of older people, all women, who were interested in the life of a writer, and who indulged my passion for a feminist history of running and sports in Canada.

Driving home, my breath came more easily. I turned off the radio and let my mind wander. I thought about how my general life goal (if I were to put such a thing into words) is to express myself truly, to embody my values, to articulate in any setting my belief that experiences are what carry meaning in our lives, not things, not brands, not objects, but connections, being in the same place at the same time with the world that surrounds us, and being present there. In believing this, I open any experience to its potential to be meaningful, by which I mean: any experience has the potential to be purposeful, joyful, and deepening — to bring me closer to others, and closer to my hopes for who I might be becoming.

2019-05-29_08-38-47So this is my thought for today: Inhale, exhale. Be as present as possible under the circumstances. Inhale, exhale.

xo, Carrie

This belongs to you

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Girl Runner is the gift that keeps on giving — miraculously and when I least expect it. Yesterday, my agent called with the news that Girl Runner had earned more royalties, enough to help me shore up the flood walls once again.

It’s been a few years since Girl Runner was published, and she owes me nothing. Early on, when the manuscript first sold, I was overwhelmed by the expectation that I would need to write a follow-up that would tick all of the same boxes — sales, attention, literary recognition; a successful book, in other words, that most ephemeral of books. Any attempt was doomed from the outset by my expectations. For awhile, I’ll confess to my great shame that Girl Runner felt like a weight that I had to get out from under, not proof of success, but proof that I was an idiot who had lucked into a fortune much beyond my capacity to repeat. And that may be true enough. But the funny thing is that I don’t mind, now, not at all. I love that Girl Runner exists. She’s been a gift in my life. In a strange way, Aganetha is as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m glad I got to know her.

The truth about gifts is that we don’t ask for them. We don’t choose them. We receive them. We can accept what we receive or we can reject what we receive. I don’t know why I spent so much time struggling against the gift that was Girl Runner. My overwhelming emotion now is gratitude.

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Whoever I write and publish next, she doesn’t need to be Aganetha. She just needs to be herself.

I can do that.

To do it, I may need a writing week (or four or ten), but I know that I can. It’s strange and foolish and fortunate to feel such hope and optimism in the midst of a personally difficult time in my own life. But this is what writing does for me — gives me hope. There is hope in telling a story, hope in finding a voice. Hope and power, too.

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Writing is a gift. It’s the gift I stumblingly try to give when I lead workshops and teach. Story, voice, hope, power: this belongs to you, too. Here.

xo, Carrie

Every runner has a story: Canadian women’s marathon history, from Silvia to Lanni & Krista

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Silvia Ruegger running the homestretch of the women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. She competed for Canada in the first women’s marathon contested at the Olympics.

“I’m right there. Struggling. Fighting.”

Silvia Ruegger points to the young woman on her laptop’s open screen. She is running in film footage shot more than thirty years ago, in the heat of a historic race unfolding: the first women’s Olympic marathon, contested in Los Angeles, August 5, 1984. The light in the footage is blunt and bright, harsh against the pavement. The young woman from Canada has a muscular determined stride, her face streaming with sweat as she fights to stay even with the leaders.

It is a September evening in 2014, and I am in a Starbucks in Burlington, Ontario, with Silvia Ruegger, her laptop open on the table between us. We are watching Silvia’s childhood dream unfold.

A group of patrons nearby pretends not to be eavesdropping.

“The race was intense,” Silvia says. “Fifty women representing 33 nations. We all got bussed down to Santa Monica, ’cause it was a one-way course. And we were all in a gym. Everybody stretching, warming up, in one place. It was an interesting environment because it was almost like a celebration, because, I think, people knew that this was going to change everything. ’Cause sometimes people have to see something to believe it. They cannot believe it unless they see it. Right?”

On-screen, Silvia is hanging with the lead pack, her right shoulder dipping, a rugged rhythm to her pace.

“You don’t look …” I hesitate. I don’t want to sound critical.

“I don’t have finesse!” Silvia laughs. “And, actually, I never do! I’m blue-collar. That’s my style all the time. I just never had the finesse. Just blue-collar. Fighting it out.”

We watch the runners come into a water station and grab sponges to wet their already soaked heads. It’s chaos. At an earlier station, about 10 miles in, Silvia hit another runner who had stopped suddenly: “I ran”—she claps her hands together—“right into her. I went down. It was a wake-up call.” Silvia knew that she needed to pick it up, get out in the clear. And so she is running with the leaders, a handful of women and Silvia the least experienced, the youngest, twenty-three years old.

The footage skips ahead, and the women ascend a slight incline on an emptied stretch of Los Angeles highway, an eerie scene that looks apocalyptic: concrete girders, smooth grey pavement, an empty hot sky overhead, and gripping human effort. A male commentator’s voice breaks in to tell viewers that the race’s leader, American Joan Benoit, has an almost insurmountable lead. As if they hear him, the women leading the small pack—Rosa Mota of Portugal, Grete Waitz of Norway, Ingrid Kristiansen also of Norway—take off as one in a desperate attempt to reel Benoit back in. The young woman representing Canada, running the second marathon of her life, is dropped from the pack.

She isn’t wearing a watch. “I was not running for time,” Silvia tells me. “What would time be? I was running for place.” Her race strategy, planned with her coach, Hugh Cameron, could not be simpler: to stay with the leaders. To run with the best of the best. She knows it is her only chance at a medal.

“And all of a sudden, I was in no-man’s land. I couldn’t—I couldn’t even respond. I was running at my max.

“The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘You’re slowing down! You started too fast. You’re in over your head!’

“So I entered the most difficult part of the race for me… The sun was oppressive. Emotional battle, physical battle, mental battle… My body was screaming, ‘Quit! Quit! Quit!’”

It is difficult to imagine the woman who sits across from me ever quitting. With three decades separating her from that race, Silvia Ruegger, now in her early 50s and a national director of a Christian children’s charity, radiates an almost impossible energy, drive, focus. How many times has she told this story? Yet she does not flag. She punctuates her sentences with bursts of physical enthusiasm, clapping her hands. She is very slender, almost fragile-looking, her dark hair cut in angular fashion, with bangs framing her face, her expression animated and intense.

“I call it a ‘Tunnel of Darkness’,” says Silvia. “And I’ll never forget seeing the light.” We’ve gone from metaphorical tunnel to literal tunnel, as the runners enter the stadium on the laptop’s screen and make their way once around the track.

Here is the winner, Joan Benoit, crossing the line, only 400 metres ahead of world-record-holder, Grete Waitz of Norway. We watch Grete Waitz finish second, and Rosa Mota of Portugal third.

And then we watch young Silvia enter the packed-to-the-rafters cheering stadium to complete the final 400 metres of her race, about four minutes behind the winner.

“What are you feeling?”

“Relief!”

The young Canadian crosses the finish line, slows to a walk. She’s placed 8th out of a field of 50 competitors, which remains the best showing by a Canadian in the women’s Olympic marathon, ever, and in a time of 2:29:09, fast enough to have won the men’s event at the Olympics during the first 40 years it was contested (the first men’s marathon of the modern Olympic Games was completed in just under three hours in 1896, in Rome).

On-screen, the footage ends.

I think about what Silvia told me before playing the video: “You don’t spend your life, and sacrifice, and give up those things just to be on the team. All of us go with the hope of being on that podium … to see your flag going up.” As remarkable as her accomplishment is, that young runner had never been going simply to be there. She had been going to win.

We’re quiet for a moment. Silvia shuts the laptop. The eavesdroppers retreat.

Here’s what I know: In a race several months after the Olympics, Silvia would set a Canadian marathon record that would stand until October, 2013. Could she have imagined that it would hold for so long? Silvia laughs with what sounds like astonishment: “I thought that I would reset the record. ’Cause I thought, when I ran 2:28, it was my third marathon, right? I had the Olympics, I had all my career, I was 23 years old, right?” Instead, only weeks after setting the Canadian record, Silvia would survive a near-fatal car-crash on a slippery winter road near Guelph, Ontario. Thrown from the vehicle. Severe concussion. Hematoma. Soft-tissue trauma. Two years of intense rehab. Yet she wouldn’t give up. She would spend the next twelve years trying and failing to make subsequent Olympic teams until her retirement in 1996. That was the last year, twenty years ago, that a Canadian woman ran in an Olympic marathon.

Until today.

Today, in Rio, August 14, 2016, Lanni Marchant, who only two days earlier competed for Canada in the 10,000 metres, finished 24th and Krista DuChene, the oldest competitor on Canada’s athletics team at age 39, finished 35th. It might be easy to dismiss their accomplishment, in the absence of medals, if you don’t know the history. But their presence in today’s race underscores both how difficult it has been to get there, and how tenacious you must be to make it happen.

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Krista Duchene raises her arms in celebration as she crosses the finish line of the women’s marathon in Rio, 2016.

Every runner has a story. In Silvia’s, she is a teenager, running on a dark country concession near Newton, Ontario, before sun-up, in the depths of winter. Behind Silvia, her mom follows in the family’s station wagon, flooding Silvia’s path with light. As the sky shifts dimly to dawn, they approach a side road untouched by tire tracks, filled in from a recent snowfall, and Silvia waves to her mom: “I’m going down here. It hasn’t been ploughed. Meet me on the other side!”

Silvia’s mom, Ruth, rolls down her window. “Why are you putting yourself through this, Silvia? Is this really what you want to be doing?”

“Yeah, Mom,” says Silvia. “It’s gonna make me strong.” And the teenager in sneakers and mittens turns and bounds through the snowbanks.

Both Lanni and Krista have recorded marathon times faster than Silvia’s. They remain the only two Canadian women to do so.

As my interview with Silvia circles its end, I ask her: How has running changed you? And Silvia says, finally, coming around to the core of a thought amidst a gathering torrent of ideas: “I think in athletics, you go to the wall. And once you’ve done that, you can never go back. I’ve been ruined for—for the more. For the impossible. And I can never not live life that way.”

xo, Carrie

Note: I wrote several versions of this story in the months after Girl Runner was first published, pulling together months of research and interviews with Canadian women runners, some who competed before women were allowed to run long-distance events at the Olympics, including the marathon, and some who competed after. It’s a history that could have been bitterly told by those I interviewed, but never was. My only regret is that I failed to write the right story that would find its audience and celebrate these remarkable human beings. I’m choosing to publish this version here on my blog to celebrate the efforts of these women, and of everyone who has experienced the joy of running, no matter how fast. You have your story too.

I think I came to France …

20160417_060719.jpg On my last full day in France, I went for one last walk on the Voie Verte, with Kelly Riviere, my collaborator, who translated and today performed my museum piece. I promised her that, contrary to its reputation, Normandy had been beautifully sunny during my stay, and as we set out, this seemed to hold true. We saw ducklings in a stream, a father fishing with his small son, families on bicycles. It was only when we turned around that we noticed the lowering darkening sky, and no sooner had we said, “Oh dear it’s going to rain,” then it began to rain. The rain came in the form of hail, icy fragments that melted on contact and soaked us by the time we’d reached the village again. But as you can see from the photo above, we appear to have a similar sense of adventure.

20160417_092153.jpgA few hours later, we’d dried off and readied ourselves for the performance at the museum. As planned, at the start of the piece, I positioned a chair and sat in it, laptop open, as if preparing to write about the paintings before me — the first paintings discussed in the piece. I was quite close to the paintings, and I sat looking at them as the room behind me began to fill. And fill. And fill. I realized, without turning around, that the small gathering we had expected was not small at all. Kelly began. And the crowd followed her and stayed with her — with us — for the entire time, as we moved through the museum. This was quite remarkable given the limitations of the space, and the size of the paintings or etchings, many quite small, which meant people were standing and listening to Kelly describe and illuminate a painting they could not see.

20160417_092205.jpgIt was a moving experience, and unlike any I’ve ever had or expect to have again. And that sums up this whole trip, I think. This whole wholly embracing and embraced trip into what seems to be another world. One in which I’ve been opened, again, to the beauty of possibility, and the possibility of beauty.
20160411_075734.jpgIt’s funny, but throughout the trip I kept saying to myself, “I think I came to France to …” and filling in the blank with something different. I think I came to France to write. I think I came to France to be alone and listen to myself. I think I came to France to appreciate art (hello, Paris!). And now, I think I came to France to discover the magic of collaboration. But I think it must be for all of these reasons. I needed to be here for awhile, longer than seemed reasonable when I was chalking out those columns on the board at home. But here we are, in the last day of the last column, all still standing.

I’m excited to be going home. I can’t wait to see those beautiful faces again. But I think — no, I’m certain — that whatever comes next will be better because I’ve been here. And I hope to come back again soon.

xo, Carrie