Death, Singularity, and the Memory of Running

"... as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes …  I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow.” 
— Paul Harding, Tinkers

Injury has kept me from running for more than six months, and I finally decided last month to go under the knife, hoping that the surgeon could somehow make elastic again a right achilles tendon that had been chewed by my calcaneus over the course of thousands of miles into a ruptured mass of inchoate flesh. The surgery was a success; he took the flexor hallus longus — a tendon that runs the length of the bottom of the foot to flex the big toe — and somehow used it to reinforce and stabilize the achilles. Just yesterday I began to walk awkwardly without crutches. It will be a few more months until I can run. With luck, I will be able to train a year from now.

So for the last little while running — that faithful antidote to all the ideas in my head — has now become an idea. My relationship with running is no longer immediate. I am a runner, still, but in memory, in dreams.

Here are the things I remember: the acid first early steps of a run, the complaining legs falling like mules into halter, a steady rhythm, steamy breath, the shoulders loosening and legs warming. The second curve of the track, bending patiently around, the bodily humors surging and flowing, pain and pleasure mixing like ginger beer and whiskey. Mischievous thoughts, playing with the pace, baiting training partners into feeling too good, running too fast, until we are flowing and cranking and leaning into the curves.

When something in your life is lost: your father, a favorite shirt, an old habit, or a place, what is remembered is arbitrary: a collection of moments adding up to only so many particulars. So it is with running; away from the rhythm of training, away from the constant ache and hunger, the wooden legs and bird-chest, running comes back to me as scattered bits and impressions, never as the whole. The brain weakly assembles what in immediate experience is so much fuller: the symphony of experience played back by a solitary and sweet violin.

But I believe what Paul Harding is saying in Tinkers, as George ruminates on his father's death, is that in the re-assembling of memory, in the broken particularity, is a kind of connection. As particulars, as belt buckles and lunar dust and railroad spikes, we possess the kind of fractured density that Kant could only call the object =x. Singularity is the word for it in philosophy — as singularities we are not the same, we are absolutely other, as mute to each other as a pillow to a strand of hair, as the diamond to the orange peel, as every object is to every other. We are all made out of this soundlessness.

The logorrheic beings we are, we constantly bridge this soundless singularity through narrative, piecing together the separate nouns that clutter perception with verbs and syntax, holding the whole grammar together in the stories we tell. Narrative weaves together the disparate, fallen apart, and lost objects into a coherence that — done well — recreates the deep and immediate flow of experience.

But narrative itself only holds together in the moment of reading or the even more fragile moment of writing. Narrative, itself, is an experience, and does not last. We read and are captured in the grip, and then lost again. 

With running too: we run, are captured in the grip, and lost again. Like wrens, we flit from branch to branch, the perchings and the flights, lightly touching and grabbing and holding on, then falling into flight. 

That's what I miss from running, the catchings, the fallings, the effort to piece it together until it then comes together. The violins drop their piecemeal whining, the soundless objects cease their muteness, and -- the symphony begins, and it strains and flows and lasts the whole while, like life, until it ends.


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