“Destruction, creation, catastrophe, renewal, sorrow, and joy are merely human ways of seeing, human projections onto the landscape, the ecologists say. What is real, they say, is change." - from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore
Here on the north side of Los Angeles, we're all ashes to dust to smoke to flame. In at least four locations across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, brush fires, which first ignited Monday night, are reportedly 0% contained. Funny, now, to think that while I was out running earlier that day, I didn't think, as I usually do when the winds kick up fiercely in the afternoon, It's fire weather. In the newly-chilly winter temperatures, I must have forgotten the danger. After all, this week I began wearing a winter jacket to the office.
As of this writing - Tuesday - communities have been evacuated across our two counties over the past twelve hours due to the 50k-acre Thomas Fire consuming Ventura and Ojai; the 5k-acre Rye Fire burning in Santa Clarita; the closer 2.5k-acre Creek Fire in Sunland and Sylmar; and the fresh 2k Runner Fire in Thousand Oaks. Though many fires have burned this year, these are places where friends, including some of you, live. Where the artisan who designed and hammered our wedding rings has his business. Where my kids jumped horses over fences and then fed them peppermints and carrots. The burned acres will certainly grow as I draft this letter, along with other tallies: structures and irreplaceables burned, costs for what can be repaired, businesses destroyed, large and small animals lost, deaths. The Santa Ana winds blow strongest in December. It's going to be a long week with a lot of math.
[Wednesday morning edit: Thomas Fire is 65k acres, 0% containment; 7k acre Rye Fire, 5% containment; Creek Fire is 12k acres, 0% containment; Runner Fire is contained; a new overnight Skirball Fire by the Getty Center has shut down I-405 in both directions right through Los Angeles and has burned 50k acres.]
Fires need only spark, fuel, and air. In the coming weeks, investigators may determine it was a stray cigarette butt thrown out the window of a speeding car, or a bit of ash that floated up a chimney and caught on a palm frond. Maybe, like a nearby fire in October, an emergency flare too close to the shoulder rolled onto a spit of grass. Possibly, a bit of burning debris from one fire was carried on a gust of wind, and sparked another fire elsewhere. Last winter's glorious rains pulled our region out of severe into moderate drought, and spurred excellent new growth on the thirsty hills, which the dry summer desiccated to tinder. Even in recent weeks' chill, the humidity index hovered in the single digits. Then, Monday, the Santa Ana winds blew 60 mph gusts over a tiny spark, from some yet-known source, and now southern California is on fire. CNN reports that on the first night, the Thomas Fire was burning at nearly an acre per second. In New York terms, that would be Central Park ravaged in fifteen minutes.
In spots, like the one where I sit now in North Hollywood, for the very young, or the very old, or the very weak, these few days of ashy air may prove challenging. Nearby, my friends' 20-day-old baby, who I love, and his newborn lungs, is on my mind, because dust from smoky air creeps inexplicably through doorjambs and windowsills.There's a young man named Miles who's stood half asleep for a year or more on a busy corner near our house, his father in a wheelchair just behind him. Their clothes, skin, and hair are only variations of the same unwashed brown. Darby frequently gives them money, food, and clothes. What do they do in weather like this, cold and horribly gritty with soot? The patients in the mental hospital that burned in Ventura this morning -- what toll does a trauma of relocation take on a fragile mind? It brings to my mind the undergraduate student in a course I have been teaching this fall at Antioch University, who moved in November to Thousand Oaks, where the Runner Fire cropped up. She emailed a few days ago, just a week before the final class of the term, to say she's suffering from the mental illness that she's written about in her papers, and she won't be able to complete the course. She is on my mind.
Though I am ashamed to admit it amid these and other very real fire-related concerns, I'm also thinking of my week's running schedule, now disrupted. With my face hiding behind my hands, I confess that last night I sought out a local gym with a treadmill. Self-care seems indulgent, but also necessary, in the face of local disaster. I've grappled with questions related to this issue for years: How, when there is real suffering, can I justify my own passions and comparatively petty needs? When horses are being evacuated from stables where my kids used to ride, can I justify an hour on a treadmill? While standing outside Berklee College of Music in 2002 just before I enrolled, I wondered how I could devote my life to music and literature, singing about love and lovers' disagreements - for fucks sake, SINGING - while only a few sidewalk squares separated me from a man who stumbled through the streets suffering demons and dire poverty in the winter cold?
I attempted to reroute myself eight or nine years ago. It was a moment of reckoning, during which I was accepted to a Masters in Social Work program and awarded a competitive and generous fellowship. I might have done real good for some people. The program would have put me in the center of Los Angeles family and children's services, working with kids in the foster system and couples caught in domestic abuse.
I turned it down, and even now know that was the right decision. In the end, I released the award to someone more whole-heartedly suited for the work. My domestic and existential drama interests are more introspective: what it means to love and be a flawed human; the forked path of growing older, and what paths are necessarily precluded in the wake of the others we choose; the difficult link between womanhood and motherhood, and motherhood and daughterhood; how to live fully while fully aware of mortality's shadow. My mind untangles narratives with as much success as an old rabbi and a gaggle of Talmudic scholars worrying over the meaning and order of words. In other words, the untangling is probably its own kind of tangling, but working that web fascinates me.
Meanwhile, Miles and his father seek shelter from the ash, my ex-student fights for her sanity, and the fires rage on. Last night the Santa Anas whipped stronger. The Skirball Fire ignited, and the city is under more duress. People are calling for everyone to stay off the roads, to keep them clear for first responders. I, though, have an obligation to my students on this last night of class, and unless the university closes for the evening, I will cross town to hear their final presentations. They've been researching creativity, interviewing artists, and exploring their own creative impulses, desires, blocks, fears.
I can't say what is, in light of disaster, the worth of art. I can say that my students appear grateful for our discussions in class. They report new insights into their own helpful or unhelpful patterns, and curiosity to further excavate their artistic inspiration. After an in-class writing prompt that centered them in an early memory about water, we talked about 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who advocated for, among other things, women's rights and labor unions. He'd fallen into a deep existential depression and lost all drive for his passions. What eventually drew Mill back to happiness was the poetry of William Wordsworth, with what philosopher Adam Etinson recently called its "quiet contemplation of delicate thoughts, sights, sounds, and feelings, not just titanic struggles."
Poetry was a soul-medicine that reinvigorated Mill's passions, inspiring his return to the good fight. Wordsworth, and his literary descendants like Mary Oliver, David Whyte, and Kathleen Dean Moore (quoted at the top of this letter), have been my own soul-medicine. The story of the solace Mill found in Wordsworth assuages my concerns about the relevance of art amid disaster, or the connection between art and self-care.
Right now, Darby, the girls, and I are lucky. The air is bad, but the flames are far from our home. In the coming days, if you are local and need support from the fires - a meal, a bed, a shower, reprieve - reach out. We have all the fixin's for a pot of chili, a cabinet of of mugs and tea, and a fridge of beer.
This post appeared in the online journal Lunch Ticket on June 27, 2014:
They say cardio is the first to go, which I suppose explains last evening's huffing and puffing through my first run since the day before residency began. Normally I'm a runner - around 25 miles a week - but last night it was hard to tell. Each step on the asphalt was foreign. My lungs were weak. Despite what the passing cars may have seen, I was the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.
The first time I heard "M.F.A.; My Fat Ass" was at a closing event at the end of last term where the graduating students spoke a few words reflecting on their journey through the program and, particularly, how they fared in the final semester. A fiction writer with a lighthearted countenance and an admittedly soft middle offered the above definition of the degree he would be awarded the following day. His cohorts chuckled in agreement.
That's all I remember about him, but it struck a chord, and I made a silent note-to-self. We writers do, after all, sit a lot.
But just like writing, exercise has been a savior for me. We could get into self-image and how women are depicted in the mass media, we could even get into childhood issues--blah blah blah--but the fact is, what's done is done. I am a woman in this culture, with this upbringing, with this mind chatter. The antidote has been physical activity. Running, yoga, cycling, hiking -- whatever it is, the mind chatter changes from This body is not good enough to Damn, I am grateful for this body. Physical movement quiets my mind chatter. Every time I hear "M.F.A. = My Fat Ass", I cringe.
Admittedly, during the 10-day residency our schedules are tight. A single day at residency looks like this: hour commute, followed by an hour blogging, two in seminar, a (seated) lunch, another seminar, a workshop, perhaps dinner, and a two hour evening reading with four graduating student writers and one featured guest writer. Then the commute back home. Nine days of it. Thirty miles driving. My body moved barely an inch.
I’m not whining though – the residency rocks – but what about the other five months of Project Period? For me at least, at times of my life when I’ve been particularly sedentary, it’s more of outlook than schedule. There are a ton of myths about being an artist. And just like the media's image of women, I have at times bought into those wonky narratives. Hook, line, sinker.
* * *
Myth #1: Poor artists.
Ten years ago I was in another graduate program. (Some people buy cars; I collect almae matres.) Berklee College of Music gave me some scholarship money; I packed my bags. Instead of finding $75 for a soft-shell guitar bag, I bolted industrial-strength straps made to move pianos onto my hard-shell case and carried the weight on my back like a tortoise. Instead of picking up a long, warm coat for the Boston winter, I shivered in my leather motorcycle jacket, which was just long enough to assist the freezing rain in sliding down my back and soaking my jeans from belt to boots. I was broke. Adamantly broke.
Myth #2: Starving artists.
At Berklee, dinner was usually rice and beans; breakfast was rice pudding from the leftovers. My roommate and I split $200 for food each month. The mono-nutrient diet upset my belly and my energy was low but when I caught my roommate spending $2 for a slice of pizza between classes -- 1% of our food budget for the month on one meal -- I nearly slid into a rage. I stomped home and sulked over another Tabasco-doused rice bowl.
Myth #3: You need to suffer for your art.
I walked two miles to Berklee each day, through the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot. Okay, it’s a bit hyperbolic, but you get the gist. Each day my shoulders were burdened with instruments like my body was a pack mule. Every day that damn guitar case tried to kill me.
Myth #4: Talent is innate and "making it" is a concept only available to a privileged few.
All my classmates were rockstars or the offspring of rockstars. Talented. Beautiful. On their way to successful careers doing exactly what they were born to do. I, on the other hand, was a folk-singing daughter from a very normal family. I wasn't a prodigy, nor were my parents. My pedigree, I believed, would be my ultimate handicap.
Not surprisingly, despite graduating with honors, then signing, recording, and touring, the way I burned out was less like a Bacchanalian feast of cocaine and backstage groupies, and more like a balloon flying through the air, coming untied, and simply dropping to the ground, useless, spent.
It took me years to realize I had done it to myself: I had bought the myths.
* * *
Things are winding down here in low-residencyland. Those of us not graduating have already disappeared into an online world called Project Period. During the next five months we will strain to stay connected through Sunday check-ins, monthly reading conferences, Facebook groups, occasional coffee dates for the locals, and, most celebrated, through online magazines and literary journals where, hopefully, we'll see our colleagues' bylines. Writing is a solitary activity, but the residency stokes a warm campfire. The re-entry back to day jobs and family life is welcomed, but strange. Mostly, it is a welcome return to normalcy.
I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my family, catching up on sleep, eating a simple meal at home. Basically, finding balance between mind, body, and spirit.
And at the top of my to-do list is exercise. Over the past eight days, my thighs have become a wee bit bigger. My belly is somewhat more rotund. And oh, my hips, my hips, my hips. Thankfully, the mind chatter hasn’t started, but I’m not going to wait for it. I don’t buy into the artists myths anymore. It’s possible to live the creative life as an artist and the balanced life of a healthy human. Even as we make time to write, eat, sleep, we must make time to care for our physical bodies. They carry us through this creative life. They are the only true vehicle we’ll ever have.
Family, home, paychecks.
Heartbeat, breath, sweat.
Body, mind, spirit.
I had a moment on Saturday evening, sitting at the dining room table while the kidlets watched season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had suddenly emerged from some noodling on my guitar that morning, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in time for Sunday's MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf's incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into "Bennie and the Jets". The muppets echoed him every time he said "Bennie". "Bennie" he sang in perfect falsetto. "Bennie" "Bennie" "Bennie" they sang in muppetly ragtag fashion. My attention shifted from the book to the show - how could it not? - and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculous and joyous unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star's next act, "The greatest talent in the history of the universe - Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!". The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on his ballad "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road". Animal on drums, Dr. Teeth on keys, Janis on guitar, Zoot on sax, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses for this song, but more noticeably he was just so young. He was thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wonder sometimes, and again wondered just then in the glow of the television. The muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that seemed at once divinely inspired and now, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Infantile, even.
And meanwhile Woolf was laid open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty's forward is the second copy I've bought in the past month. The pages are yellowed and underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I can distinguish my scribbles from hers, I prefer this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. Yes, I am getting picky about my publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout the month of January with the book in my hands, unsure if it was the writing or the printing that brought on my irresistible sleepiness.
Since twelfth grade I've half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter novel several times, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn't get it, didn't get her. I simply couldn't get through a Woolf book, despite my deep love for the writer Jeanette Winterson who claims Woolf as one of her biggest influences. If not for this particular piece of required reading, I would not be wading through To the Lighthouse now. And for this reason, thank goodness for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, I admit I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf, but now it is for different reasons. Her genius has finally revealed itself to me. Her fluidity is incredible - like water undulating through cavernous rock at high tide, Woolf moves between external events and characters' internal experience with amazing deft. How does any writer step up to that? She captures the constant mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves, each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that catches so well subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Granted, there is not much of a plot. However, the grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate.
It is intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question again -- What is the point? -- , this time from my reading. And that is when Woolf entirely endeared herself to me. A few pages after my pity party, Woolf shifted from being my tormentor to my savior. Her dexterity, her insight blow me away, but when she used her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist, I melted. Here, it is as if she says, just for you I will put in Lily, the painter, the artist. And so that you know that I know what it is like to be an artist, I will let Lily have doubt, because don't we all? And I will show you how she overcomes it.
For this I must show you with her own words:
...before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn't this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can't paint, can't write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, (Ah! this "Then" is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her... by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf, despite the doubt, I've continued.
On Sunday morning I went running - my first 11 miles since last May's marathon - and spent the nearly two hours of asphalt and trails working out Saturday's new song. I fell "in with some rhythm which was dictated to her...". The rhythm of the subconscious. The rhythm of the artist doing what she loves without ego-doubts intercepting every creative turn.
Sometimes people joke with me after a run. What are you running away from? they ask, and we laugh together. But really, if they wanted to actually hear an answer, I would say this: Doubt. Stories I've been told. Words I repeat "without being aware any longer who originally spoke them."
As it turns out, I don't run faster than doubt, but I do have more stamina. Eventually, every time, the mind chatter loses interest in me. I keep running, singing, writing... and doubt sits down on the side of the road and waits for some other artist who is willing to give it some attention. I feel a little badly about it - leaving the doubt out there for someone else - so perhaps that's why I write this blog. I can't do away with the "can't write, can't paint" words that float around maliciously, but I can keep doing my art despite the doubt, and write about the interplay between art and doubt here. After all, not everyone has the time to get to Woolf.
(But if you do, don't worry - there's nothing to be afraid of.)
I haven't mentioned the List in some time not because I abandoned it, but because the List shifted my focus away from itself and onto the new paths it has forged in my life. I am now standing on one of those new paths at the far edge of 2013, marking the last days of my second List year.
The first List of 100 Things began on my yoga mat, on December 31, 2011. It was inspired by a friend's own list (you can read about it here), and although I had no premeditated plan to embark on my own, there I was at 8 p.m. in the front row of a packed New Years Eve intentional yoga class, thinking about the upcoming 2012 and some things I hoped to do. Though it took me several months to come up with all 100, that night was the beginning.
The List of 100 Things To Do in 2012
So, how did that first year feel? A little practical. Those socks I'd meant to darn? Done. Ditto old clothes donated. Ditto the back-up hard drive.
But more than practical, the List was magical. Even now, at the end of my second List year, I am still in awe of how my life has changed. The List opened up inner desires of how I wanted to live. It encouraged me to break beyond patterns I had fallen into, let go of final outcome, push past anxiety that was holding me from taking the first steps in things I had been secretly yearning to do. The short story I had been wanting to revise for six years? The List got me to dig it out, and sit down and write. The List got me to run longer, further. And running and writing became intertwined, as every morning I worked on the short story, and every afternoon I reviewed the story in my mind as I ran. I got stronger in body and spirit, and the inner chatter about all the ways I don't measure up to media's perfection finally quieted.
The List of Things To Do in 2013 is three typed pages long. Just like last year, the writing of it was several months of fits and starts, paperclips keeping track of my sloppy almost-cursive hand over the pages of my journal, items scribbled out in black and blue ink as the pages of the moleskin were spent and that volume finally tucked with the others in my closet. As most of my journaling tends to be, the list got unruly. Sometime in the late spring I typed it up neatly, numbered each item with little square boxes for checkmarks, and folded the three printed pages into the back pocket of my current moleskin. I didn't look at it much recently, caught up as I have been with school and other things, but the year is ending, and so is the list.
In the end, my work with running in 2012 led me to 2013's running Door to the Shore and M2B running goals. My work on the story led me take a few online classes at UCLA and then to apply to (and get accepted) (and begin) the MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch. I have become a runner. I have become a writer. I have become a swimmer. And most importantly, I found my way to a place where I can work steadily towards goals while enjoying the process along the way. The List has been teaching me how to step up and do my part, and when my part is done, how to surrender the result to the universe.
This week I tallied up the items that I have completed on my List of 2013. A few days ago it was 59, with a probable final tally of 61, exactly what last year's final list tally was (59 by the end of the year, but 61 in the end). Yesterday Darby and I took the girls ice skating , so now I'm up to 60.
#83 Do a winter sport of any kind
So here it is. THE LIST OF 100 THINGS TO DO IN 2013.
Perhaps next year's should say "Practice math skills". As it turns out, I've already done 63 this year. And still with four days left of the year...
Six months in, it is mid-July.
Six months to go, and I am already defeated.
Scroll back to 2008. Yearning for personal transformation and a healthier body, I embarked on a 40-day yoga challenge. I had been practicing yoga on and off for years, mostly at gyms and to DVDs in my living room, but I felt the need to change my practice, to find teachers, and to find myself. I was a little lost.
I hunted around on google for a yoga studio either near my house or my office. I was still fairly new to Los Angeles and didn't know anyone who practiced yoga, so it was just up to me and google to find a good place. I didn't know anything about style or teachers in the area. My requirements were location, class time, and price.
I found a sweet little independent studio called Rising Lotus Yoga in Sherman Oaks, and they had classes I could take right after work on my way home. Best of all, they had a "new student special" (still do) that allowed me to take unlimited classes for two weeks and not a lot of money. Since I didn't know if I would like it, that seemed perfect.
Once I had my studio, I settled in for 40 days and 40 nights. Well, 40 days. It was a number of change. It was a number of spiritual awakening. It was a number of transformation. It was the number for Noah, Moses, and Jesus. I figured if it worked for them, it could work for me. I also decided to take one day off a week. On the 7th day I rested.
I should state here that I am not particularly religious. I was raised steeped in an area of Judaism that my brother calls Conservadox. Technically it was Conservative, but on the very conservative side. Things have lightened up in my family since then, but by that time that happened I had pretty much left the religion entirely (except for Passover Seders with friends and Hanukkah candles with the kids). However, this yoga challenge was a body/mind/spirit thing. I needed it on more levels than I consciously knew.
Forty days. Rest on every seventh.
Every day I laid out my mat in the back of the Rising Lotus studio room. I sweated through the poses. I felt like a fool in my shorts and tank tops. I wasn't toned like the others. I didn't know what I was doing. My mind chatter was loud. Who am I? Why did I think I could do this? This is too hard. And then, towards the end of class the teacher would instruct us to lay down on our backs, arms at our sides, palms face up. Close your eyes. Release management of your breath. Release management of your thoughts.
After class, every single time, I floated out of the studio, peaceful, calm, beautiful, happy. I couldn't wait till the next day when I would lay out my mat again.
When the forty days ended, I continued. Six days a week. On the seventh day I rested. Each rest day I yearned to be back on my mat. And then on the day I came back, the mind chatter would start again. And then I would float home and return to the studio the next day.
This is what I was thinking when I decided to Run Everyday For A Month. I wanted to see what would happen. How I would change. How I would deal with the mind chatter. How my body would adjust to the daily demands.
Also, I wanted to prepare my body for #82 Hanson Marathon Training Method in which you train your body not to run 26 miles, but to run the last 16 miles of a marathon on tired legs. I enjoyed running my first full marathon in May so much that I have been looking forward to doing another - but this time with better training.
But I am already defeated.
I attempted my 30 days of running. I got to Day 8, when a difficult truth arose: Stop. I had been ignoring the pain in my ankle/foot, trying to "run through it", trying to discern if it was a real injury or just a mental block with physical manifestations. On Day 9 I realized it was a real injury that needs real time to heal.
Like many people, I find rejection and failure challenging to manage. The most difficult failure of all, though, is when I set my own personal goals and cannot meet them. I have doubts about my athletic prowess, and want to push myself past those doubts. I love disciplined practice -- I am a musician, a yogi, a writer, and now a runner. I love the meditation and focus that comes when I immerse myself in these activities. I find peace and self-worth in them. I love the challenge, and the accomplishment. Having to let go of my goal, give up, is one of the hardest things of all to do.
I suppose this is one of the lessons of The List. I can't do everything. Or, I can't do everything this year. Last year I had the same defeat. There were things I couldn't do last year. The item that was the hardest of all to let go was #100 Run From Our House To The Beach.
So perhaps this is where the silver lining comes in. I wasn't able to do #100 in 2012,but I did do it on April 27 this year. Perhaps because it took more time, more healing, more training, it was even more significant. There are other things, too, that I didn't get to last year that I have been able to do this year. Like #54 Take a Pottery Class. That one became this year's #45 Take a Pottery Class with Em, which we did on March 23.
So, letting go. Another lesson of the list. It feels like a bitter one right now, but perhaps it will be even sweeter later on?
We shall see.
On April 27, 2013, after running three half-marathon races in six months and countless training runs, before my first full marathon, I ran the run of my heart. The one that had been in my mind's eye for almost a year. The one that I had been working for.
From my front door to the Pacific Ocean.
I called it "The Door To The Shore". My sweetheart was endlessly supportive of my vision. It seemed impossible when I first thought of it. Even though at that point the most I had ever run was eight miles (once), I didn't care how long of a run it was, I just wanted to get to the ocean. As it turns out, the route was 18 miles. I ran it solo in three hours. My friend Susan caught some photos of me along the way, and then my sweetheart caught some more. When I got to the pier, I ran the last bit with my boyfriend and his youngest daughter. Together we ran straight down the pier, their flipflops falling off as my running shoes padded along the weathered boardwalk. We ran down the steps (stairs!! after18 miles!!), and onto the hot sand. At the edge of the water were smiling friends holding out their hands to take my fuel belt and shoes as I ran right in, laughing with immense, authentic childlike joy.
There's a mountain range between the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles proper, and Angelenos always ask my route. It was:
My front door > through NoHo to Universal City > Cahuenga > over the pass into Hollywood > past the Grauman Chinese Theater > Sunset Blvd > Doheny > Carmelita > Santa Monica Blvd > a little zigzag > Idaho > Colorado > right onto the Santa Monica Pier > past Bubba Gump's > down the steps > into the water
Ego V. Truth, and The 2-Day Rule
As a yoga teacher, in my classes I emphasis the idea of letting go of goals, hoping that my students will always be compassionate towards whatever is going on in their body/mind/spirit on any particular day. In my book there is no "no pain, no gain" mantra. There is compassion, truth, kindness, healing. I tell them pain -- meaning actual pain, not simply the a sensation of discomfort or the discomfort of sensation -- is the body's message that you should move out of the position or situation immediately. I believe compassion is as much a part of the yoga practice as breathing. The discomfort of sensation is often just an indicator of newness - discomfort is where change and growth happen. Sensation reminds us to breathe and soften our resistance. I compare discomfort of sensation to the first day of middle school, or to going through a divorce, or any other of life's calls to evolve, step up, change, accept, breathe.
But I do believe there is a place for ego. There's the mental thing. Years ago, in my own yoga practice, I noticed that I conveniently got "thirsty" just when a pose got hard. I would come out of the pose and drink some water. I was using my thirst as an excuse to bail. In other words, half of the challenge of a physical practice like yoga and running is the mental aspect. If we always stop at the moment just before we reach our edge, where's the growth? Ego is what helps to keep us on the straight and narrow. It is the thing that pushes us past where we've been stopped before. It's the ego that wants to go further, faster, stronger, better. As a runner I feel it all the time. Ego keeps me moving at mile ten when there's still so far to go. Ego gets me across the finish line, with arms in the air, smiling at the photographer.
Well, ego has it's place. Here I am at Truth. Runners World Magazine calls it The 2-Day Rule:
The 2-Day Rule
If something hurts for two straight days while running, take two days off.
Two straight days of pain may signal the beginning of an injury. "Even taking five days of complete rest from running will have little impact on your fitness level," says Troy Smurawa, M.D., team physician for USA Triathlon.
The Exception: If something hurts for two weeks, even if you've taken your rest days, see a doctor.
And, yep, I'm at The Exception as well. Doctor's appointment is scheduled for 9:15 tomorrow morning.
THE INNER VOICE
At the risk of alienating all two people in this blog's readership (I'm optimistic that perhaps there is one person out there other than my boyfriend who is interested in reading this, but if in fact that is not the case, I am not too proud to count myself as one of my readers), today's post is about The Marathon.
Okay, okay, I know the joke:
Q. : How do you know if someone is running a marathon?
A. : They'll tell you.
There's a part of me that doesn't want to talk about it. That's the shy part of me, the one that is sure you've heard it all before, that in fact you have run a thousand marathons back-to-back and at twice my speed, that my mountain of an accomplishment is a molehill in the grand scheme of things. That's the same part of me that also doesn't want to come across as too self-involved (yes, I am aware that I have three blogs and am at work on a memoir, but still...).
But then I'm reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Your playing small does not serve the world. Man, doesn't that just hit you in the gut? Time to toot the horn then, so to speak, right?
This quote reminds me of a core feeling I've had since I was a little girl. It doesn't matter that I am not a religious person, I have long felt a distinction between the sacred and the profane. To me, there is a type of blasphemy that has nothing to do with taking deities' names in vain or saying bad words. It has to do with not celebrating this finite time we have. It has to do with wasting this precious gift of life.
These 70-, 80-, or 90- years we get will run out one day. Already they may be half gone or more, and what have I got to show for it? That question inspires me more than anything else to rise to challenge, to reach past my personal comfort zone to find the edges of my potential. It reminds me to appreciate people, nature, and moments. It's a brand of spirituality not tied to infinity, omnipresence, and endlessness, but rather to imperfection, brevity, loss. I know that sounds like a downer, but it's not to me. If I will never be perfect, I am more willing to try, stumble, get up, and enjoy the process as I try harder again. If life is brief, I will embrace it with all that I have, to love it so hard that at the end I know I lived every drop I was given. If I will one day lose everything that I have and cherish, I want to appreciate it to the upmost now, the easy and the hard, the happy and the sad, and I want to shower the people I love with love, show them the way that I feel (thank you, JT).
Besides, over the shy voice there's a slightly louder voice in my head that says, "Even so, given all the other things we each hope to achieve in our lifetimes, a marathon is not nothing. This is something."
And there is a beating heart and a joyful place in me that joins the chorus with that slightly louder voice, singing, "YES. You ran a full marathon on Sunday, and it was amazing, and this is Very Meaningful to you, and so you should write about it because, perhaps, even though you have been talking about it for days now, the two people in your readership will still want to know. Will want to remember this. And in any case, if you want to write it, you must."
And so, here it is:
I ran a full marathon on Sunday.
It was my first, and this is the story of my experience.
First, one thing you should know is that for the past month I have been concerned about what I call "The Knee Issue". The pain began during the 18-mile Door to the Shore run on April 27 (which I have been remiss in recounting for my two-person-readership, perhaps because we were both there), and since then has hurt in every run over five miles. In my attempt at healing The Knee Issue, in the four weeks between D2S and M2B, this was my training:
week 1: Two 5-milers, one 2.5-miler. Spin classes and yoga.
week 2: A 16-mile run/walk. Spin and yoga. Two shorter runs.
week 3: An 8-mile run. An easy Sunday afternoon bike ride with my man. Two spins, and yoga.
week 4: The Marathon.
Translation: I ain't been running much, duckie. In fact, my miles this month only come up to around 75, about 25 fewer than last month, and that's with the 26.2 from the marathon.
The week before the race, I didn't run at all. I iced my knee, I took Advil, I popped vitamins, I foam rolled, I did yoga, I walked, I went to spin, I ate, I hydrated. But I did not run. Not even a step.
One more thing: I didn't follow any particular training schedule. In fact, I only signed up for this marathon four weeks ago, just after I completed the Door the the Shore run. Once I did those 18 miles relatively injury-free (besides The Knee Issue, which I hoped would resolve quickly), I realized I was ready to try for 26.2. I looked around, found the sold-out Mountains 2 Beach race, thought it looked nice, and found someone who was happy to sell me her registration.
DAY BEFORE THE RACE
On Saturday the kidlets and my man offered to go hang with a friend so I could nap. Finding myself suddenly in a quiet house all to myself, instead of napping I made a peach pie, kale chips, chocolate and coconut-dipped bananas, and popsicles, and rehearsed for an upcoming gig.
I promised myself that at least I would get to bed early. I laid out my race clothes, packed my bag, got directions, futzed around on Facebook, freaked out, calmed down, and then finally laid down at 10. This is how I spent the next hours:
10:15 pm: "I love you, sweet man."
10:30 pm: wrestled with my pillow
10:45 pm: flipped over
11:00 pm: listened to the mockingbird
11:15 pm: used the bathroom
11:30 pm: got some water
11:45 pm: "breathe, breathe, breathe"
Midnight: "one, two, three, four, five, six..."
1:00 am: checked the clock
1:30 am: checked the clock
2:00 am: the alarm went off
Translation: No sleep.
I poured myself a mug of coffee, dressed, kissed my man good-bye (he couldn't sleep either), and then at 2:20 am headed out the door. In the dark driveway of my house is where I met Strange Man #1.
Okay, scroll back for a moment. There are a ton of compelling reasons to carpool, right? I think we can all agree on that. For me the tops were:
1) Middle-of-the-night road trips are better with company
2) After the race someone else could drive back and I could rest my little legs
3) Gas $
The race was located about 90 minutes north. I didn't want to go alone. In lieu of that, I opted to meet up with two men I'd never before met in the middle of a dark, deserted, desolate Los Angeles night. Given the two choices, wouldn't you?
Rono (Strange Man #1) and I met Strange Man #2 (Ijaz) at the empty Pierce College Metro parking lot at 3 am.
As it turned out, neither of them are psycho killers.
In fact, even better, Rono and Ijaz were a hoot. They were the perfect companions for a short road trip up to Ojai - good natured, upbeat, chilled out. I drove and chatted with Ijaz while Rono dozed in the back seat. We hit no traffic (of course - it was 3am) and got to the finish line area by around 4am. We found parking, I ate a quick breakfast of rice krispies and soy milk, Ijaz took some photos, and then we found green vinyl bench seats in the school bus shuttles and headed for the start line.
It was dark and chilly, around 52 degrees, when we arrived at the waiting area near the start line at the top of the point-to-point course. The almost-full moon was brilliant and high in the sky. Down below it, in the parking lot, we made small talk. Laughter, last minute bananas, gear check, and port-o-potties. Then 2500 runners headed to the start.
There were three corrals which were to be staggered through the start with two minutes between each. My memory is a little dim on how we were broken up, but I think it was "Under 3:30", "Between 3:30 and 4:30", and "Over 4:30". Ijaz took the first or second corral - he was anticipating a sub-4 race. Rono and I settled into the last corral. I knew I wouldn't be the last person through the finish line, but even if I subscribed to magical thinking, I knew it would take me at least 4:30 to run the course. There were some Boston Marathon race shirts scattered about (mostly in the faster corrals) and a jolly couple next to me taking funny-faced photos of themselves.
There was a calmness all around that felt lovely, much different from the three half-marathons that I've run in Los Angeles. The air in Ojai was crisp, the sky was lightening over the mountains and fields, and it was quiet. There were no bands playing, no energy-pumping DJ, no frilly costumes, no first-timer chaos. It was peaceful and beautiful, and when our corral began to run, it was just a quiet pitter patter of feet on the asphalt like a gentle rain.
I was not nervous, I was not concerned, I was not thinking about the finish line or time. I was smiling. I said good morning to the sleepy-eyed coffee drinkers standing in their driveways to wave us on. I felt immensely grateful to be moving my body in such a beautiful location on such a peaceful morning.
At the Mile 1 marker, a friendly paint-splattered sign in the shape of a surf-board, I thought, "That felt good. I just need to do that 25 more times." And I felt sure that I could.
At the Mile 2 marker I thought, "I still feel good. I can do this 24 more times."
At the Mile 3 marker I thought, "I am starting to feel the effort, but that's fine. It's a beautiful day."
As the sun rose, there was the silhouette of distant mountains beyond the ones that encircled our immediate area. Between us were fields, gilded with the brightening light. Birds sang from branches. Every house had a swing hanging from the front yard trees. There were horses stabled amid golden hay, and two runners slowly caught up to me, talking about the horse trails, and then continued their conversation as they passed me, leaving me with the quiet pitter patter of running feet.
Within the first 8 miles there were two small hills - barely hills compared with the one I usually train on. It felt good to climb a little, and then settle into the net-downhill course.
At Mile 5 or 6, The Knee Issue arose. I was already going slower than my usual 9-minute/mile, but I slowed some more and pulled out two Advil that I'd tucked into my fuel belt the night before. I ate a few Sport Beans and, in a first, took out my iPod. Once, a few weeks ago, I tried listening to music while I ran and found that I preferred the environmental sounds to any songs, but in anticipating The Knee Issue I'd decided to bring my iPod along with some NPR podcasts in the hopes of drawing my focus off of my knee. It worked. I listened to This American Life for about half an hour. When I put it away, my knee felt fine.
At Mile 8 the course veered off the loop that we'd been on, and began following the Ventura River. By then most of the runners in my area had spread out. I could see a few ahead of me, but for the most part we each were running our own race, with our own thoughts. Here the course was on a paved bike path mostly surrounded by trees, with occasional peeks into backyards. I listened to the roosters beyond the trail, rustling of leaves overhead, and bird calls. I had the sense of feeling continually blessed, so appreciative of my body that was capable of carrying me through such a beautiful place.
I didn't realize when the half-marathoners joined us around Mile 14, but saw their Mile 1 marker and laughed out loud, thinking, "wow, that was the longest 1 mile ever...".
Around Mile 15 or 16 I heard music for the first time. The Bangles. A white pickup truck was parked along the parallel road with a couple cheering us on as they blasted "Walk Like An Egyptian". The upbeat song infused me with energy - hard to believe now that I'd been running for so many miles by then - and I danced as I ran past them.
Soon we were running in a more industrial-looking area. There were graffitied concrete structures, and oil pumps closer than I'd ever seen. At this point I was filling my water bottle at every-other station and eating Sport Beans whenever I remembered. I also started texting my boyfriend at every mile marker. 16! 17! 18! His texts back kept me buoyed up in joy.
Mile 19 marked the furthest distance I had ever run. We had descended from the mountains in Ojai and were now in Ventura, approaching the beach. I felt a sob arise in my throat which immediately choked my breathing into shallow asthmatic gulps. I swallowed my sobs with some water and brought my breathing back to normal. Seeing the Mile 19 and 20 markers made me realize, with no question, that I would finish this race. My knee felt fine, and while I was tired, I was passing other runners.
Mile 21 I felt a surge of energy. Perhaps it was the salty air. The scenery at the point was totally changed - we were parallel to the Pacific Ocean, and there were a hundred or more surfers laying belly-down on their boards awaiting a wave. I wondered if I could pick up my pace, and then I did and felt strong and amazing.
At Mile 22 there were two runners ahead of me. The man was energetically leaping over the orange traffic cones that divided the race route from the actual road that we were following. I laughed out loud as he leapt over another. The woman called back to me, "He's not running, he's my support pacer." We all laughed together, and grabbed some pretzels from a woman cheering us on from the sidelines.
Mile 23. This was where it got hard for me. I wouldn't call it "the wall". I've heard runners talk about that, but this was not quite what I imagined it felt like. My knee started really hurting at this point, and I worried that I was doing some real damage. Then I grabbed some of the electrolyte drink from the next station and felt it hit my stomach. I slowed to a crawl and just told myself I could run as slowly as I wanted, but I had to keep running. I looked at my watch. I didn't know how fast I was going, but I figured somewhere around 10 or 12 minutes per mile. I took it in 10 minute chunks, just willing myself to get through the next small increment of time.
I kept texting my boyfriend: 23 24 25. These miles seemed endless, I couldn't even punch in the exclamation point in my texts. The 10 or 12 minute chunks of time crawled by, and my running was more like a shuffle. The scenery was not as pretty, we were in full sun, running along the bike path with other beach-goers. I started to see the finishers, walking by with their medals. They clapped and cheered, and I leaned into their enthusiasm knowing that if they were here, the finish line couldn't be far away.
I don't know when I passed Mile 26. I don't think there was a marker, but there was a woman. Vanessa was my 2-hour pacer for the Hollywood Half Marathon back in April, and as I passed her she cheered me on, "Just another quarter mile! You've got this, girl! You're doing great!"
And then I saw it, the white banner with the bold word FINISH, hanging in the distance. I kept my eye on that sign. I ran, and when I got close to the magnetic strip that clocked our times, I raised my arms in the air once again and sailed through the 26.2 end.
Out of 2500 runners, I was 1089. Four hours, 51 minutes, 38.9 seconds.
Translation: A Mountains 2 Beach marathon finisher. My first full marathon.
On a yoga riff variation, I keep thinking, "the accomplishments in me recognize the accomplishments in you."
Namaste, my friends.
DOOR TO THE SHORE RUN
THE PLAN: <------------------------
9 A.M. - I'll leave our house alone, run over the Cahuenga pass into Hollywood, take a right somewhere like Sunset or Santa Monica Blvd, run for a while, then take a left somewhere, towards the ocean.
NOON - I'll get to the Santa Monica Pier around noon, kiss Darby and Es, and run right into the water on the north side of the pier to cool my legs and celebrate.
1 P.M. - We will head to Cafe Gratitude for lunch.
DOOR TO THE SHORE RUN
THE BACKGROUND: <-------------------
In August of 2006, after driving across the country playing shows with my band for months on end, I stood at the edge of the Pacific for the first time. It was El Matador State Beach in Malibu. The sun had set, the moon had risen. I'd never seen the Pacific Ocean before, and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. While my ex-husband (the drummer) and the bass player pulled out their phones to text people back home, I just stood in the moonlight, letting the tide fill my ears, and breathed in the salty air. Touring life was hard for me, but in that moment I felt an overwhelming, complete joy.
That night at El Matador I had no idea that a few months later I would move to L.A., quit touring, eventually divorce from my ex, become a yoga teacher, meet and fall crazy in love with my sweet n' sexy Darby, become a parent to two full-grown kids, and all the other stuff that has come to shape my blessed life.
Sometime around last June I got this nugget of a crazy idea that, despite having only ever run 8 miles max, I would like to run to the ocean. Remember that List of 100 Things to Do? I added "Run to the beach" at #100. Living in the valley it can seem so far away, but I felt a yearning to cover that distance and know that all I needed was the power of my body to get me to the western edge of the country.
Around that same time I met a runner who confidently told me that if I had already run 8 miles, I could surely run a half-marathon. 13.1 miles. It sounded impossible, but I realized that if I trained for the L.A. half-marathon in October 2012, I would be on track to run to the beach by the last week of December. I signed up for the half to keep me honest in my training.
During this time, as I have been racking up miles, I have been working on my writing as well. The two -- running and writing -- have been linked, and I believed that if I could accomplish the impossible (running to the beach from my house) then I could accomplish other impossible things (publishing my writing, writing a book). Impossible is a state of mind. Accomplishing both of these things seemed, well, Impossible.
And strangely, quietly, in the back corner of my mind, possibly Possible.
Running has been my meditation on achieving my hopes, for showing up for myself, for not letting hardship derail my dreams, for getting to the finish line even when the going gets really tough.
Planning to run from my front door to the shore has been a practice for setting my sights on something beyond my current ability. Since leaving the touring life of being a band on the road, I've been timid about looking too far down the road. Running from the Door to the Shore is a sight I set beyond what I could see. It's been a practice of having faith in myself. Committing to an idea. Becoming something new. Tapping into some kind of inner super hero. Trusting that I could grow beyond what I'd ever thought possible.
The half marathon in October went really well, but the following week I developed an over-use injury in my foot that sidelined all my physical activities for a few weeks. The doctor ordered me to stop running, spinning, walking, and practicing yoga completely for two weeks to allow my foot to heal. I was derailed by enthusiasm. This has happened before.
It's pretty impressive (read: dismaying) how quickly the body softens from inactivity. Over November and December, I rested. I went to holiday parties. I baked a million pies. And then, after Thanksgiving, slowly began building up my miles again. On New Years I recommitted. On January 2 I started training again. I struggled to even do an 6 mile run. For all of January I kept going out, but every run I felt heavy and sluggish, as if I hadn't put in all those miles for the first ten months of 2012. I wrote about it on this blog. I kept track of my miles. I wondered if I'd ever again feel that inner superhero I channeled at the October half-marathon.
Finally, by mid-February, I built up to half-marathon distance again. In retrospect, I'm glad I'd signed up for the race, but it was tough. The six weeks of training kicked my butt. The race itself was so hard, I almost felt defeated. I bonked out at around mile 9 and when I saw the 2-hour pacer group fly by me -- they had started the race after me by a few corrals -- I nearly stopped right there. I was disappointed in myself before I even got to the finish line. I wanted to lay down on the side of the road at mile 10, but I had no savior who could come and get me so I kept going. At mile 12 (ish) I saw a friend and her new baby cheering me on from the sideline, and somehow found a last surge of energy. I picked up the pace a little -- at least, it felt like it -- and when I saw the balloons, I sprinted to the finish line, arms up in the air as if I was the first-place winner. Which of course I wasn't. But I'd finished.
The next week I set out to increase my miles again.
At the beginning of April I ran my third half-marathon. By then I had increased to 14.6 miles, so I thought the 13.1 miles would be no-problem. I was wrong. Again, around mile 10 I started to bonk out. This time I had been running with the 2-hour pacer the whole time, and when I slowed at mile 10 and she sailed past, my heart sank. I don't know why I wanted to clock in under 2-hours, but I did. I really did. I begged my feet to move. I said things to myself like, "Keep it up, buttercup!" I bargained with myself. I pleaded. And then I found an extra store of energy at around 12.5 miles. With less than half a mile left, I picked up the pace. Again, when I saw the finish line, I sprinted towards it. I came in .5 seconds under the 2 hour mark.
And then the week after, I ran 15 miles.
Last weekend I did my first17-mile run - my furthest ever.
Which brings me to now. Five days till my beach run. I am ready. My body and mind are trained. Here we go now -- DOOR TO THE SHORE. Saturday 4/27/13.
Incomplete Thoughts on Boston
Another 5.5 miler today. Straight into 15 mph wind for about half. That brings my week's mileage here in Los Angeles to 11 since the Boston Marathon bombing. I just kept my head down and ran, and ran, and ran, trying to figure out what exactly it is I have been looking for as I've been reading essay after essay about the Monday's events.
The only times since Monday that my inner-agitation has ceased has been when I'm out running or at the yoga studio, teaching or practicing. The constant monitoring of media has made me feel like I'm a little boat on a big ocean, tossing around at every weather change. I've been trying to understand how everyone there experienced it -- the runners who finished, the runners who didn't, the spectators waiting for friends and family, the families of the injured and deceased, the experts, the reporters, the runners and writers who weren't there in person but, like so many, were there in spirit.
My sweet n' sexy man reminded me this morning that had I been running that race, he would have been waiting at the finish line for me, just like he does here in California. I shook that thought away. "No, I wouldn't have gotten to the finish line for another 20 minutes or more. It's not just place, but time."
He was right, actually, but I couldn't bear to think it.
The fact is, I would love to run the Boston race one day. I've wanted to since long before I considered myself a runner, long before I even knew it was so many distance-runners' dream race. I've wanted to since 2003 when I ran the last two miles of the Boston Marathon in my biker boots and a cowboy hat, drunk as a skunk on the margaritas I'd been downing with friends since the morning as we waited for my running roommate to pass us on the course.
As I ran today I tried to quiet all the stories. The wind in my face was loud, louder than my thoughts, and I let it fill my ears.