Monday, January 20, 2014

Tracing a Path I'd Traced Before, Once Again This Morning

This morning I followed an old trace: it dipped down, dipped around, ducked under, squirming along an icebox creek, bursting out onto a high ridge into the sunshine and leading me out to the edge of a cliff where I saw Little Falling Water Creek plummet down off the dihedrals, the open vista just extending out eastward, on and on, reminding me that I had forgotten how clear the winter sky can sometimes be on a cold morning.

This was a part of my daily run
back in the day
It was the trail back behind the house I grew up in, and I ran it so many times that I knew every little dip, knew just exactly how to skip from rock to rock without breaking stride and how to carry my momentum up and down across the rollers so that it felt like flying.

In fact, 20 years have passed since I started running that trail, and almost 30 have passed since my brother and I discovered it. I ran it most often in the summers in high school and home from college. So of course as I ran all sorts of memories came flooding back, the old rhythms drawing back old experiences that had gone forgotten for years and then came bursting back up.

The memories were of course of old runs and old training partners, which then connected back to old experiences: the summer I spent with my friend Sam clearing land, the July nights in my early 20s when time seemed endless and actions had almost no consequence, the young girls, the music. But also the memories were physical: my muscles themselves remembered a more flexible time, a time when pain hardly meant anything, when my body and my intentions were hard to separate. I remember the feeling of almost absolute strength: I would just look at the top of the hill and my body would follow my eyes.

You can probably tell by my nostalgic tone that it didn't quite feel that way this morning. My legs were tight; my achilles tendons ached; my breath came hard and the acid in my legs came quick. Instead of skipping across the rocks, I picked my way carefully. Instead of leaning into the hills, I leaned back. Where before I had rolled, today I hesitated. I even walked at the top of the big hill. I remembered what it had felt like so vividly, and knew that I wasn't feeling it today.

I felt a little old.

I began this second running career now almost a decade ago, and I remember explicitly thinking that what I was doing was chasing a ghost of my former self. As we get older, we accumulate more ghosts: all the memories that haunt us, all the bodies that are buried alive in the body we have. We become like a strip of film that's been double-exposed or triple-exposed. We live here and also there, today and yesterday. We are haunted.

We hear all the time that we should live in the present, and it's true, we should. Life is easier when it flows, when we kill the Buddha or the Buddha kills us. The film gets exposed only once, and life stretches out before us clear and in full color. Our bodies do what we ask them to do. The mind ceases its mad swirling and for once flows forward and falls like the water off the dihedrals. The sky turns winter-blue.

As we get older, though, we accumulate more and more memory and life gets cloudy around the edges.  Things appear not just as they are, but always attached to something else. The same happens with our bodies: the workouts we run remind us of the workouts we used to run. Like Wallace Stevens' blackbird, everything happens in thirteen ways.

But here's the thing: I think I was like this even back then, even when I was young. Seeing things that weren't quite there, inventing memories and innuendo. I just wasn't as practiced at it. It's also not true to say that my body just obeyed: there was still the agony of the bad race, the brutal workout, the plain old bad day. Stevens says he does not know which to prefer, the blackbird whistling, or just after.

We do not always have to choose. We find ourselves -- just after -- but also again present, all these jangling and incomplete selves dipping and dodging and hesitating, and every now and then harmonizing. It was a beautiful morning: I ran an old beloved trail, I saw a waterfall that I had seen before, and I found myself once again young, but also older, standing alone on a ledge on the edge of a mountain under an open January sky.
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