Still friends, but not neighbours: saying goodbye to Doug Alward

I recently had to say goodbye to one of my close friends. Doug has been a challenging training partner and a loyal friend to me for over 20 years. He has moved to Penticton where his father and many other family members live, leaving the Port Coquitlam area that was home for most of his 60 years.

Doug Alward and I met as members of the Phoenix Running Club sometime in the late 1990s. At that time we were both “young” masters runners. Doug has been a serious competitive runner since his high school days. He never quite broke through to become an elite athlete but he has always followed the exploits of the best runners, both local and international, with great interest.

The Marathon of Hope

Those of my readers who recognize Doug’s name know that his life has been shaped by a singular accomplishment that was related to running. Though he didn’t break any Canadian or world records, Doug’s accomplishment required character traits and a level of sacrifice that few of us could muster. Doug accompanied Terry Fox, his best friend, on Terry’s Marathon of Hope in 1980. Terry’s dream was to run all the way across Canada to raise money for cancer research. He ran almost a marathon a day, for 143 days—with a prosthetic leg replacing the one he had lost to cancer as a teenager. Doug was Terry’s constant companion and the driver of their van (the two were joined later in the Marathon of Hope by Terry’s brother Darrell).

Their journey began on April 12, 1980, at the harbour in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The early stages of the trip were lonely, the early spring weather in Newfoundland raw and inhospitable. But by the time they reached Ontario, support for Terry’s mission was snowballing (an inappropriate word choice considering he was now running through sweltering summer heat in southern Ontario!).

Canada mourned when Terry was forced to end his run near Thunder Bay, Ontario on September 1, 1980. The cancer had recurred in his lungs.

Terry died at age 22 on June 28, 1981, but his feat of courage and endurance has made him one of Canada’s best-known heroes. To date, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised over $360 million dollars for cancer research. Terry Fox runs are held every September in over 4,000 communities across Canada, and in almost 25 countries all over the world. Terry’s initial goal was to raise funds for cancer research to the tune of $1 for every Canadian. He could never have dreamed how huge his legacy would become. Not only that, Terry forever changed people’s attitudes towards the disabled. He proved that a disabled athlete could be a great athlete—by anyone’s definition—and he exemplified the power of  following one’s convictions with unrelenting mental toughness.

***

Doug has always been modest about his own contribution to the Marathon of Hope. The full story is his to tell, not mine. But over the years Doug has told me enough understated and funny anecdotes about the trip to make me realize that the Marathon of Hope succeeded not only because of Terry’s drive and courage, but because of Doug’s (and later Darrell’s) patience and endurance as they coped with Terry’s moods, physical needs, and the sheer boredom and discomfort of endless weeks in the van.

Doug put his own life (including his running) on hold to make the realization of his friend’s dream possible.

Doug spent all his working years as a psychiatric orderly at Riverview Hospital. He once told me he regretted not getting a nursing degree. He seldom mentioned his job. During workouts we talked almost exclusively about our training and racing. Doug also had a keen interest in up-and-coming runners, and went to watch local promising athletes race whenever he could.

Doug trained liked a maniac. Although he had great respect and affection for our coach, George Gluppe, Doug was basically uncoachable because he insisted on doing his own thing and trained harder than anyone else in our club. He came to our workouts once or twice a week but also ran many extra workouts and miles on his own.

My clearest memories of training with Doug are from the winter of 2004–2005. At that time I was 45 and he had just turned 47. We were both very fit and pretty well matched in training. I was trying to set new road race records in the women’s 45–49 category. Doug, at that time, was more competitive in his age group than he had ever been. We decided that we would get together at least once a week outside of the club’s Saturday morning workouts.

That was the most brutal winter of training I can remember! Doug had no fear of pain. We pushed each other relentlessly in our Mundy Park workouts. We mostly ran long repeats, anywhere from 1,200m to 3K. Doug was a heavy breather. We’d be one or two minutes into a 3K repeat and he would sound like he was about to die. In contrast, my breathing was relaxed, but as the anaerobic effort mounted and my legs started weakening, I just couldn’t shake him. Each repeat felt like a race. We were never more than a few seconds apart.

I have to admit that I started dreading running with Doug. But our hard work paid off. In February I ran 1:18:59 in the First Half (on three running workouts a week). At the end of April, we were both in Victoria for the Times-Colonist 10K. I was second to Leah Pells (who ran a great 33:30 or so in one of her few masters races, at age 40), finishing in 35:08 for a Canadian masters 10K road best in the 45–49 age category. Doug was pleased to run about 34:30.

Fame, fundraising, and being an introvert

Doug’s  life since the Marathon of Hope has had to be balanced on his continued role in supporting Terry’s legacy, and his natural tendency to be a private (and in some ways an eccentric) individual. He is still friends with Darrell Fox. Over the years Doug has often been forced out of his comfort zone to attend public events honouring Terry. He has given talks to children at many schools and he participates in Terry Fox runs every year.

He has also been a valuable resource for people creating movies and books relating Terry’s story (such as the television biopic Terry [2005], and the young adult book Run, by Eric Walters [2003]). Doug also wrote a chapter for the book Running in the Zone: A Handbook for Seasoned Athletes (2006), co-edited by world-famous running/triathlon announcer Steve King and “seasoned” runner and coach Dan Cumming.

As Doug’s friend, I’ve been able to see and chuckle about sides of his personality that the public wouldn’t know about. For years he carried an umbrella with him during all our Mundy Park workouts: he was ready to defend himself against unruly or dangerous off-leash dogs. I’ve listened to his earnest concern about being “fat” during times when he was forced to cut back his training due to injury. I’ve seen him follow a Spartan diet most of the time only to despair after some mild binge-eating incident.

Doug is a devout Christian but he never preaches to anyone. He confided in me about his beliefs a few times when he sensed I was receptive. I remember an extraordinary race he had when we went to Vancouver Island to race the Pioneer 8K in 2009. Doug and I had been right together in workouts that winter, but on that day he beat me with a 28:02 (an all-time PB for him, at age 51!) while I ran 29:11. He told me afterwards that he attributed his astonishing performance to the spirit of our running friend Dave Reed, who had been with him, Doug said, in that race. Dave had passed away only a couple of months before that, a too-young 54 years of age, after contracting a serious infection that was diagnosed too late to be treated effectively.

Gearing down

After I tore my ACL in 2009, I could never run at the same level again so Doug and I rarely trained together. He suffered from serious injuries at times, too, which I considered inevitable given the fanaticism of his training. When he managed to string a few months of consistent training together, he achieved some impressive age-group performances, including a 2:45 marathon at age 50. Many were the times when, injured or exhausted, he assured me that he was “retiring” from running forever. But then he always found a new goal to strive for.

When retirement from his “real” job came, he bought a house high on a mountain above Chilliwack and lived there for a couple of years. He had wicked rolling hills to train on and often rode his bike several kilometres down the mountain into Chilliwack for groceries, doing the arduous climb back up with his bike heavily loaded.

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Doug fuelling up for a track workout in Chilliwack, 2015.

In the summer of 2016 I visited Doug in Chilliwack for a couple of days. We spent those days doing brutal bike rides and hikes followed by hours of watching the Olympics. I barely survived his Spartan diet of beans, oatmeal, eggs, vegetables, and fruit, all unadorned except for spices. The almonds saved me. (I wrote about my Chilliwack visit in my post “Cycling on Doug’s Mountain“.)

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Doug and I at the summit of Mt. Thom above Chilliwack in 2016.

Doug always helped and encouraged others with their training, especially young runners. He was unfailingly modest about his own achievements. I remember him for small acts of kindness, like the way he used to give our coach George small bags of homemade baked goodies every year at Christmas.

Doug visited his parents, siblings, and other members of his extended family in Penticton regularly. He seemed uninterested in having a family of his own. Doug’s club teammates were quite intrigued when he got a girlfriend. He seemed happy in that relationship for several years. However, after it ended he confided to me that he and his girlfriend had both been too old and “set in their ways” to be able to stay together as a couple and make the necessary compromises.

Never the last comeback

Doug’s latest running comeback started in the summer of 2017 after he had been sidelined for over a year by a serious foot injury. For a couple of months, before he was very fit, I could do the occasional workout with him in Mundy Park. But he was soon eclipsing me by far. In February he was pleased to run 1:28:16  in the First Half Half Marathon, a good start to his racing in the 60–64 age group. We got together soon after that for a short Mundy Park workout. We did a couple of 2K loops but Doug had to give me a big lead on each of them. Chasing me gained him fast times, at least!

But his heavy training caught up with him yet again, just as he was poised to run a fast Sun Run. His foot started hurting in the way he knew well from his previous injury (though this time it was the other foot). He figured he had a stress fracture and didn’t even bother getting confirmation. He raced the Sun Run a couple of weeks later, despite being in terrible pain, and ran 38:51. After that he knew he would have to stop running again, probably for months.

Finally . . . an easy workout

Doug and I got together about four days before he was planning to leave for Penticton. His foot was still too sore to run, so we just did a bike ride on the PoCo Trail. It was an unusually cold day for June, and rain was threatening. We were both wearing several layers of clothing, and Doug even had long track pants on.

After countless workouts together, this last one was unlike any other workout we had ever done. It was an easy ride. We rode side by side whenever we could, so we could carry on a conversation. After an hour or so of riding we reached the playground at one of the trail exits, where I would leave Doug to ride the few kilometres back to my apartment. We sat down on a bench and Doug entertained me with stories about his insider’s knowledge of the local real estate market and some of his wily negotiations.

I finally had to say goodbye because I was too chilled to remain inactive any longer. I hate long goodbyes, anyway. They are too painful.

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Doug and I after an easy ride on a cold June day.

I will miss Doug’s presence in my neighbourhood, even though we have trained together only occasionally for many years. It’s significant to me that we have been together on a journey of becoming older, and gradually accepting what we must accept, however grudgingly.

In Doug I recognized a kindred spirit who insisted on giving 100% when he showed himself in the public arena of racing. I recognized someone who demanded excellence of himself and trained beyond common sense in trying to achieve it.

We both rebelled against the limitations of age, but ultimately we submitted by adjusting our goals and finding comfort in age-group placings and the percentages of the age-graded tables.

I know Doug and I share each other’s sadness sometimes. I felt terribly disappointed for him when he got his foot stress fracture after training so hard during all the hostile winter months, the dark mornings at the track, the cold and rainy days. In turn, he must find me pitiful to watch as a runner now—he can remember when I didn’t run with a limp or have to stutter-step downhill because of my knee.

Doug would have understood why I was bitterly disappointed to run 21:01 in the Longest Day 5K when my “A” goal was sub-20:00 and my “B” goal was sub-20:30. I even missed my “sure-thing C goal” of sub-21:00. Doug would have known that these are not small differences. Only a kindred running spirit like him could see my disappointment, perplexity, and frustration as “normal.”

Terry and Doug at the Scarborough Town Centre

Almost thirty-eight years ago, I read in the newspaper, or maybe even heard on the radio, that “that amputee guy running all the way across Canada” would be at the Scarborough Town Centre, a few kilometres from my parents’ house. It was the summer of 1980. I was already a serious competitive runner and had been on a couple of Canadian teams in cross country and track, but this summer I had a knee injury and couldn’t compete.

I could so easily have jumped on my bike or taken a bus and been at the Scarborough Town Centre in about fifteen minutes. It baffles me now that I had so little interest in Terry’s amazing achievement.

It gives me a strange feeling to think that I could have seen or met Doug Alward as a 22-year-old: a young man who was unaware that he was creating his own destiny, that his best friend Terry Fox was making history.

 

 

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Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Relationships, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Imagining the future: growing into old age

 

I hesitated and actually cringed before typing the words “old age.”

There is a big part of me that rebels against even thinking about “the dying of the light.” (This is from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” see the bottom of this post.)

Yet recently I have been thinking about what my future will hold. Talking to a friend made me realize that one of my flaws is a tendency to be too passive about taking control of my life. Perhaps too often, at times when I should have made big changes in my life, I avoided making decisions and let fate or others’ actions determine what happened to me.

It is in looking back that we can recognize the overall patterns in our lives and see the stages—usually predictable—that emerge. We like to tell stories about our lives, to create a narrative that makes sense of everything.

My mid-life crisis

I see now that it was almost inevitable that my life would change dramatically when I was in my late forties. There were deep, long-standing flaws in my marriage. I had been burying my unhappiness (mostly), and concentrating on running, tutoring, and all the daily chores and routines that distract us from reflecting about the overall picture.

I knew I felt a choking sense of stagnation. Looking back, I can see that my unhappiness and my subconscious awareness of things being deeply wrong was manifested in my severe insomnia and occasional heavy use of sleeping pills. Now I understand that in times of resignation and stagnation, the pressure to change will build up, revealing itself in conscious and subconscious unhappiness and anxiety.

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Buntzen Lake 2009. A last happy excursion with Paul.

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The same day: at the top of Eagle Ridge.

I couldn’t have predicted some of the individual events that happened, like tearing my ACL, but it was inevitable that my life would undergo a major eruption, forcing change. My mid-life crisis happened when I was between 48 and 50, probably a typical age, though I don’t think many people experience as many changes as I did all at once. In a period of about eighteen months, this is what happened:

  • I realized that my marriage was over.
  • I experimented with online dating.
  • I discovered I could still feel intense attraction to men, and intense emotions; incredibly, I felt in some ways like my fifteen-year-old self.
  • I began a new serious relationship.
  • I stopped my part-time tutoring job and went to college for two years to get a diploma in professional writing.
  • I tore my ACL and had two knee surgeries in the following two years. This effectively ended a professional running career of almost thirty years. It caused turmoil and depression. A good part of my identity was bound up with running. Not being able to run affected me socially since so many of my friendships were based on running.
  • My son left home to go to university in Japan.

And, within the next two or three years after that, big changes continued to come:

  • I did a summer internship at The Vancouver Board of Trade, briefly trying an “adult job” for the first time in my life. I made some terrible interpersonal gaffes!
  • I started my freelance writing and editing business.
  • I started my blog about “Running, Reading, and Relationships.”
  • I moved out of my home of almost twenty-two years, and into an apartment with a scenic view of Burrard Inlet. For the first time in my life, I was living on my own.
  • I lost my greatest lifetime friend and coach, George Gluppe.

These years were a difficult and overwhelming time for me, especially having to witness George’s increasing disability and pain. I was George’s closest friend, and I struggled with guilt and heartbreak about not being able to help him more. I don’t know how I could have got through those years without Keith’s unwavering support.

Yet many exciting and positive experiences came out of these changes, too. Not being able to run was a huge loss for me, but it allowed me to focus on long-buried talents, like my writing ability. At Douglas College, I experienced a different kind of camaraderie outside of the running community, and I interacted with classmates of all ages between 18 and 60-something who shared my love of writing.

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Starting a new career: Portfolio Show at Douglas College, 2011

I learned that no part of life need be over when you are 49. No, it was not too late to feel intense emotions, start a new relationship, learn new technical and social skills, and take on new professional challenges.

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With Keith in 2015. I finally met a man who could cook–and he taught me how to appreciate wine!

The next stage: another crisis?

The concept of a mid-life crisis is well known. Now, as I’m getting closer to age sixty, and Keith has recently turned sixty-five, I’m suspecting that many people might experience another crisis as they contemplate moving into old age.

Why might we have to/want to change as we enter old age?

  • Chances increase that we will experience a health crisis or the health crisis of a loved one.
  • Other unpredictable events can occur: the end of a long-term relationship, losing one’s job, having to move, accidents.
  • If we continue to learn, start new hobbies, and meet new people, we can’t know where this will lead!
  • Many of us will choose to reflect about the sum of our lives up until now, realizing that remaining years are limited. We might ask ourselves: What is my life’s purpose? Have I achieved everything I want to? Have I made a good contribution to my family, my community, the world? Some people might evaluate a long-term relationship and ask, “Is there something I want to change about this relationship?” or “Should I leave this relationship?” Others might be questioning what they will do when they retire.
  • Some will feel a vague sense of stagnation, restlessness, or resignation, similar to the feelings that lead to a mid-life crisis. Now the choice is whether or not to make changes now—because there may be no “later.”

My friend Steve encouraged me to make a plan about what I want my future to look like—in, say, five or ten years. I found this very difficult to do! Then I remembered that I had recently listened to a TED talk by Dan Gilbert called “The Psychology of Our Future Selves.” The gist of this talk is that we always underestimate how much we will change in the future. I figured that listening to this talk might inspire me to take my future more seriously. You can listen to the talk here and I have summarized some of Gilbert’s main points below.

Dan Gilbert’s TED talk: “The Psychology of Our Future Selves”

We all know that change occurs faster when we are young, and slows down as we age, but what Gilbert’s team found is that we underestimate how much we will continue to change, even in our older years. We have a misconception that the age we are now—whatever age that is—is the age when change goes from a gallop to a crawl, because now is the time we have become our final self, the essentially unchanging person. This is called the “end-of-history illusion.”

Here is an example of the kind of experiment Gilbert’s group did: They asked one group of subjects to estimate how their values would change in the next ten years. They also asked another group of subjects (who were ten years older than the first group) to report how much their values had changed over the past ten years. What they consistently found was that the actual amount of change reported (by the group looking back) was much greater than the amount of change predicted by the group looking forward. This misconception about the amount of change to come in the future applied not only to values but to personality changes and preferences about music, hobbies, and friends.

How does Gilbert explain this discrepancy between how much we change at all stages of our lives, and how much we expect to change?

It’s because of the ease of remembering vs. the difficulty of imagining.

I found this conclusion reassuring. It means it’s normal for me to find it hard to imagine what my life will be like in five or ten years.

I also think it’s natural for people in their fifties, sixties, and beyond to feel reluctant about imagining the future. Physically, we know we are facing a downhill slope, a relentless decline in our physical powers. Mirrors are not our friends. Can we look forward to the future in spite of these limitations? Yes!

Putting a positive spin on getting older

When I think about the challenges I faced during my intense mid-life years, I realize how much I gained and how much I grew. This can happen to anyone who grapples with big changes during mid-life and old age.

Many of us become less afraid to be honest. We don’t hide being unconventional or expressing unconventional opinions. We have more self-confidence. For me, a key benefit of my writing program and some work situations afterwards was that I became more empathetic, more interested in others, and more socially at ease. Although I’ve always considered myself an introvert, I discovered that I liked people and could find common ground with almost anyone.

My recipe for aging gracefully

Here are some of the “action ingredients” that work for me:

  • Continue learning
  • Embrace technology, but for specific purposes. What technology do I need to use for profit, for efficiency, to connect with people I care about, for fun, to be creative?
  • Understand myself. What are my needs? What makes me happy? When am I productive and mentally alert? How do I balance my need for solitude with my needs for intimacy and sociability?
  • Be grateful: for health, for close relationships, for all the little things that make me happy.
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2017, with Phoenix teammates. Running still makes me happy, despite my surgeon’s warning in 2011 that I was finished.

The hardest ingredient: making decisions

My life has rolled on quite smoothly for the past six years or so, since I moved into my apartment. But once again, I have a sense of stagnating more than is good for me. I suspect that another wave of change is coming. In fact, in the past six months I’ve made some small but significant decisions. Greater change may still be yet to come.

I need to become a more active decision-maker, rather than leaving things to chance or waiting until life “forces” decisions upon me. This statement is somewhat at odds with one of my fundamental beliefs about the role that chance events play in our lives. Despite the most careful planning in the world, life will shoot unexpected arrows at us from all directions and we can only try to make the best of every situation. I acknowledge life’s chaos, and I embrace it. Somehow, there has to be a balance between taking initiative, “seizing the moment,” and being flexible about things we can’t predict or control.

Some people have very few choices. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility for one’s choices.

All I know is that I want to be learning, growing, and moving until the day I die.

***

This poem by Dylan Thomas has long been one of my favourites because it expresses an intense love for life and rebellion against death, that existential reality that we all must face.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night (1952)

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way.
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The peacefulness of snow

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My neighbourhood: the morning after

Snow is wonderful if

  1. You don’t have to drive . . .
  2. . . . or have a vehicle equipped for battle.
  3. You are a skier.

February 23, 2018

After successfully driving up the slight incline out of my apartment building’s underground parking, I took in the depth of snow already on the ground and surveyed the implacable flakes thickly falling. I immediately placed myself in category “a” above and drove back into the parkade.

I would do my errands on foot.

I like the way snow changes normal routines. All the changes to do with driving are bad, but the other changes are exhilarating or whimsical. Snow completely transforms both the exterior world and one’s interior landscape. Adults can become kids again as they bundle up to play in the snow with their kids or their dogs. Even when they act like responsible adults and shovel their driveways and sidewalks they share an unaccustomed sociability with neighbours and passersby. We are in survival mode. Everyone has a snow story to tell. Even Vancouverites feel like real Canadians!

***

My day started well. I woke very early, after sleeping deeply. As soon as I had coffee, I was aware of feeling calm and alert at the same time. This would be a good day for editing work.

My energy level was too high to allow me to sit still for long, so I walked to the rec centre to work out in the gym. I felt good enough to tackle kettlebells. Yes, this was one of those rare days of being physically “100%” that don’t happen often as I get older. I put extra effort into my kettlebell swings. My hard breaths and grunting sounds mixed with the music from my iPod Nano.

At the end of my workout I did a Pilates pose that always makes me feel strong, balanced and graceful (even if I’m not!). I stretched up on my tiptoes, my arms high above my head. As I did this, I savoured my feeling of physical harmony and wholeness. My uplifted arms reminded me that a bad shoulder injury inflicted a year ago is finally almost better. My arthritic knee felt fine after doing an easy run on Mundy Park’s lightly snowy trails the day before. So much to be thankful for!

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Mundy Park near Lost Lake. This was before the big snowstorm.

When I left the rec centre it was already snowing quite heavily. I decided to take the long route back to my apartment via the Inlet trail. It’s always a meditative walk, with the calls of the waterfowl and the expansive view of Burrard Inlet. The snow muted the background traffic sounds and enhanced my post-workout trance-like state.

Above all, I love the peacefulness of snow

After I returned from my walk with a few essential food items, I was perfectly content to stay inside for the remainder of the day. For me, snow muffles not only sounds but the often-anxious ramblings of my interior voice. It makes me calm, centred, and introspective, an ideal state of mind for writing and editing work.

IMG_3541.JPGAt my desk, I look out my study window and the gently falling snow is almost ecstatically hypnotising.

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After a couple of hours of work, my clear-minded state has turned to sleepiness. Snow days are perfect for afternoon naps or reading in bed. I recently started a 700-page novel, but then realized I didn’t have the time or eagerness to tackle it. I felt nostalgic for “comfort reading,” which for me means rereading one of my most-loved books. Many of these are books from my childhood or teenaged years.

However, for my snow day rest time I chose Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a novel with accompanying short stories written in the 1890s and reprinted in 2004 (when I discovered Chopin).

Kate Chopin was a writer far, far ahead of her time. Her stories are shockingly modern in their portrayal of women’s desire for sensuality, creative work, and independence from men. Chopin was a feminist before the term was known: she was a successful professional writer, and when her husband died young, she became a single mother of five children between the ages of three and eleven.

Ironically, my favourite short story of Chopin’s is called “The Storm.” Since Chopin’s works are always set in hot, steamy New Orleans or its environs, her story involves torrential rain, not snow.. Moreover, this story contains a different kind of storm; written in 1897, it was too erotic for Chopin to publish at the time.

Spellbound by the snow outside and Chopin’s story within, I let the gray-white afternoon darken into evening.

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The morning after: sunrise

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The morning after: walking to the gym

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bill bissett’s banana peels and slipping into a Zen moment

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January morning at Burrard Inlet

Just another rainy morning

Last week, the weather forecasts for Vancouver were lousy, predicting rain or heavy rain every day. On one of those mornings I resigned myself to doing an indoor workout at the rec centre, figuring if I went out on my bike, I’d soon get drenched.

When I finished my gym workout, it still wasn’t raining. The air was mild and soft. I felt great after my workout and wanted to be outside longer, so I decided to take the long route back to my apartment, walking on the Inlet Trail.

SoaringMediumCropIt was 10 a.m. on a weekday morning, but as usual there was plenty of action around the rec centre. Two groups of soccer players were practising kicking goals on the artificial turf soccer field. People were walking, some with kids or dogs; mothers played with toddlers in a small artificial turf area. High in the sky above I saw two birds of prey circling together. Usually they are solitary.

I thought about how much I love my neighbourhood. It provides for so many of the simple daily activities that make up the regular fabric of my life: my bike rides, gym workouts, Starbucks and Cobs (for my staples of coffee and healthy bread), the library, and the Inlet Theatre, where I can go to special presentations and the monthly movie nights.

Someone who lives alone in one of the nearby condos (like I do) can always feel connected other people in the neighhourhood. The bike paths and trails are usually busy with joggers, cyclists, and walkers, many of them with strollers or dogs. In the evenings and on weekends, the soccer field becomes animated with the energy and noise of the players and their fans, and bright lights are a beacon against dark rainy nights.

On weekdays, though, the soccer field is usually empty (or nearly so), and I’m free to do sprints on its perfect springy surface. Today, I just strode quickly across the field, avoiding the soccer players, on my way to the Inlet.

When I reached the trail by the water’s edge, I noticed there were hundreds of geese and ducks resting on the flats beside the water, and a few birds in the water. Without thinking about it (at first), my eye took in the pleasing looks of those tidal flats protruding from the water, covered with the neat shapes of the birds. I noticed how motionless they were—there was just the occasional rustle/spread of wings or the odd bird shuffling a few steps. Their collective lack of motion transmitted a kind of peacefulness to me. I stopped at the bridge, thinking, “They are content doing nothing. I can stop and do nothing for a moment too.”

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The car traffic of Murray Street was close by, yet for those moments I could forget about it, and my whole world was that bit of the wild, the vast sky overhead, the hundreds of birds, the trickle of streams joining the Inlet that leads out, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean.

***

I don’t often read poetry, but that morning, before going to the gym, my editing work had introduced me to poet bill bissett’s unique writing style. And I think it was because I had been immersed for a little while in his philosophical mindset that I was ready for that  contemplative moment at the Inlet.

The lines I’ve copied below will quickly reveal the quirkiness of bill’s spelling and punctuation.*

ther is mor thn wun banana peel 2 slip on in fact ther ar

a multitude uv availabul peels redee 4 us at anee millisecond n all

thees send ups make humour out uv almost all our intensyuns

almost all our egos

Initially,  I thought that this was just gimmicky. Then I realized that by being forced to slow my reading dramatically (in fact it was best to read out loud), I was adapting to the poet’s rhythms and had more time to think about his meaning.

I liked what bissett wrote about the banana peels that are always waiting for us. I’ve always believed that we can plan only so much. Luck and fate play such big roles in our lives. When a banana peel trips us, are we ready to be humbled, or to be led onto a different path? Or simply to appreciate the view from the ground?

That morning, two tiny experiences led to my Zen moment. One was unexpected: my first reading of bill bissett’s words. The other was a routine that I have repeated hundreds of times, my familiar walk along the Inlet trail.

By opening myself completely to both of these experiences I received my small but perfect interlude of serenity.

 

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* This is a short excerpt from an email-exchange interview between Maidie Hilmo and bill bissett that will be published in the upcoming issue of the UBC journal Canadian Literature.

 

 

Posted in Personal stories, Poems, Vignettes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Running and reflecting on Remembrance Day

 

Today was a Saturday morning so I ran, as usual, with the Phoenix Running Club in Mundy Park.

The ambience of the park was fitting for Remembrance Day. It was gray and calm, fairly mild, with a few drops of rain that became more regular near the end of our workout. The park was more peaceful than it usually is on a Saturday morning, when the crowds of dog walkers and their dogs are out in full force during the off-leash hours.

The dogs have become increasingly difficult for runners to negotiate around on the park trails, so I’ve been picking workout loops that aren’t as crowded. Today we were starting at Mundy Lake and running a 1500m course that includes the challenging 1K stair loop plus the Mundy Lake loop, where dogs are not allowed.

My reflections while running were a bittersweet mixture of sadness and gratefulness. Just like the weather, my thoughts seemed appropriate for this holiday that is still meaningful for Canadians a hundred years after World War I.

One reason for disappointment was that I had to do most of the workout alone because very few Phoenix members showed up. This has been an ongoing problem for our club for the past year. I couldn’t help but think of the “glory days” of Phoenix when we’d have six or eight fast people searing their lungs on the demanding steep uphill section of the loop. We’d be at our limits as we crested the hill at the top, after completing many stairs, and we tried not to slow down too much as we turned left and headed for the downhill trail back to the lake. Then it took all the agility we could muster to gallop down the trail at top speed, finishing with a sprint to the edge of the lake. We rested a minute or two, then were ready to tackle the stairs again—and again—five or six times.

Today I was the fastest Phoenix member there. Yet I was aware of my clumsiness on the stairs and the slight pain in my bad knee. I pushed hard to the top, but running downhill I could no longer run fast; not only did I have to save my knee from the pounding, but dogs were constantly blocking my path. I couldn’t risk being tripped. I had to slow down and weave my way carefully. Then, once I got back to the lake, I did the 500m lake loop as fast as I could before taking a rest.

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Running Mundy Lake loops with Larry Lorette in September 2017. Photo by Tina-Louise Harris of Originelle Designs Photography.

It was on my third (and last) circuit of the lake that I thought about how Remembrance Day is a time for celebration as well as for remembering the tragedies of the two World Wars and other conflicts. For me, the celebration comes from acknowledging the health and peace I have in my life. Here I was, still striding out at a pretty decent pace, running freely in this beautiful forest. I was exhilarated to be outside, breathing hard, even though it was gray and raining lightly. How could I even begin to imagine what people suffered in war, living in trenches, always cold and wet, with poor food and rats all over the place? Seeing their friends’ lives extinguished in a moment or after hours of hideous suffering, knowing that each day could be their last?

The Phoenix club is in danger of folding, after twenty-six years. But today, though we were a small band, I appreciated seeing my long-time running friend Alex, and being able to do part of the workout with him and Wendy, a newer but regular participant. Some of our members are older and can only walk now. But a few of us are determined to find new members and keep the club going.

I think about the immense support I’ve had from my Phoenix teammates over the years, and the enduring friendships I’ve made. Ever since I first starting running in high school, I’ve found that racing with teammates produces a camaraderie and shared memories that bond people together, sometimes for life. After all, racing is a test of so many things: physical strength and courage, mental toughness, strategy, and good sportsmanship. The emotions of fear, nervousness, and excitement—plus the exhilaration of victory or even finishing a tough race—are powerful.

The Hershey Harriers’ Remembrance Day 8K Cross Country Race

One of the races that the Phoenix team often participated in was the Remembrance Day 8K in Stanley Park, put on by the Hershey Harriers club. Every year I think about this cross country race, which the Hersheys had to discontinue a few years ago. Competing in this event, which was always held on Remembrance Day regardless of the day of the week, was a fitting way to acknowledge Canada’s veterans.

For most of its existence, the race was for masters (35+) only. One or two of the oldest competitors had served in World War II. For many masters runners, this was the only race they competed in; it was their way of showing respect and for reconnecting with the running community each year. The race always started at 11:02, after the Last Post was played and a moment of silence was observed by the nervous and solemn runners on the starting line. Long-time Hershey Harriers coach Jerry Tighe fired the starting gun. I’ll always have a picture in my mind of Jerry standing on the muddy field by Brockton Oval, wearing warm clothes and high rubber boots.

The race was always hard; the field was often soaked and muddy, and after the “easy” flat tour around Beaver Lake, competitors had to climb up and down two brutal hills. The results were age-graded, so that the efforts of men and women of all ages could be acknowledged.

***

I do feel sad that the Harriers’ Remembrance Day 8K is no more, and that I will never again test myself on that challenging course. The last time I did the race, in 2012, I had gone through two knee surgeries (to repair an ACL and to remove cartilage from my knee), and I knew I’d pay a price for running that tough, hilly course. But I was running because I still could—and also in remembrance of my coach George Gluppe, who passed away in April 2012. I don’t know how many times George stood out in the rain at that Remembrance Day race, cheering for me and all the other Phoenix competitors.

Today, Remembrance Day 2017, I ran once again in celebration: of my health, my legs, my running friends, and the beautiful trails of Mundy Park.

Posted in Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Javier Marías with Eleanor Wachtel: how imagination enriches our life stories

book-cover-thus-bad-begins-by-javier-mariasEleanor Wachtel’s interview with Spanish writer Javier Marías, which aired on CBC Radio One on October 15, 2017, was another Writers & Company interview that connected perfectly with my own current preoccupations.

Marías is billed as “Spain’s most celebrated contemporary writer,” and is the author of over a dozen novels. The interview focused on Marías’s most recent book, Thus Bad Begins, and included much discussion of Spain’s current and past (Fascist) political environment. However, the part of the interview that hit me hardest came in the last few minutes, when Marías talked about the role of imagination.

He started by saying that fiction set against a backdrop of significant historical events  can be “stronger” than any history book because it allows us to witness events through our imagination.

But it’s not only historical events that are enriched by the imagination. He explained: “Even what we live, we have to imagine it, too, in order to live it thoroughly.” As I understand him, when you pass on the events of your daily life to your imagination, you can see your life as a story, or as part of a story. By viewing your life through the prism of imagination, you gain a “richer understanding of your life, and your own self, probably.”

I inwardly said “Yes!” when Marías said the word “richer” to explain how imagination adds to life. We can use our imagination to embellish the facts, but we can also use our imagination to make something happen for real in the future.

Continuing to speak in the language of stories, Marías said, “Some people don’t feel the protagonist in anything, not even their own life—which is terrible! . . . But I know these people” [meaning “people like this”]. He added that when people see themselves as only a secondary or supporting character, even in their own life (emphasis mine), this is wrong!

Marías and Wachtel shared a laugh as they agreed that making a story out of your life can be depressing sometimes. Wachtel joked, “What a dull novel! Nothing happens!” But the point was that no one’s life story need be dull when it is examined with the help of the imagination.

As I listened, I understood the truth of what Marías was saying. I have recognized for a long time that I’m driven to think of my life as a narrative, and to create chapters and short stories within that narrative. I also need to create stories about the important “others” in my life and to explore their backstories—this can help explain how they behave, both generally and within the context of our relationship.

Using the imagination to create stories about our lives is a way of making sense of life’s chaos and randomness, the dazzling multitude of choices we make, the ways others influence us, plus all the happenings of sheer luck or forces we can’t understand.

Multiple personas

Another role that imagination plays is in the creation of our persona, the “self” that we present to the world. This persona or “self” includes physical aspects—some unchangeable, but some that can be to a large extent constructed, first with the visionary tool of imagination and then with tangible tools like makeup and clothes. We also reveal our persona through our behaviour and through the stories we tell about ourselves: the things we choose to reveal, hide, or invent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of “persona” because of a blog I came across recently called The Used Life. The author of this blog considers the shaping of her life and her persona as a daily act of creativity. She is aware of the role of imagination and how it guides us in creating our own persona (or personas).

In one post, she explains her admiration for two famous women, Anaïs Nin and Coco Chanel. The first is most famous for her writing of erotica and memoir; the second for her business success in the world of fashion; but both were geniuses in the art of creating irresistible personas that allowed them to be independent, free, and powerful women at a time when most women were followers defined exclusively by their roles as wives and mothers.

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In reading the works of Nin or a biography of Chanel, the writer of The Used Life experiences “an almost euphoric moment of recognition: I can’t believe it! She’s just like me!” The quality she is recognizing in them, which is vitally important to her, is

. . . a desire and an ability to adopt personas, to experiment with different ways of being, a vast and all-consuming curiosity that drives one to constantly become without losing the core of oneself entirely.

AnaisNinJournalCoverI, too, have long been fascinated by Nin’s erotic stories and, especially, her journal. The latter, a lifelong body of writing, has been edited and published in multiple volumes. (See my post on Nin’s journal here.) Nin lived the erotic life she wrote about in her fiction; for her, the creation of many personas, each suitable to her mood and her current experience and partner, was essential.

The author of The Used Life, like Nin, feels that having one persona is not enough; she must continue to fashion herself, “to experiment with different ways of being.”

I, too, recognize the desire to be more than one person, to have fun and be liberated by trying on different personas. This is achieved partly by how you fashion yourself on the outside: the “persona” you present to the world.

But the outside is a manifestation of a reality about yourself that you feel on the inside. It is a recognition of the complexity of competing parts of the self and the variability of moods (including intellectual abilities, sexual appetites and fantasies, the urge to be someone different, travel somewhere different, interact with people outside your “normal” everyday tribe).

There is also the fun of playacting. What can you get away with? How can you make a figment of your imagination (including your presentation of yourself) real? What interactions will happen when you meet those who want to “play” with this “alternate” version of you?

The compulsion to create multiple personas comes from a deeper need than “fun,” though. It comes from the awareness that I contain so many potentialities, and perhaps there is sadness and regret that only a small percentage of them gets realized and manifested. Ultimately, the desire to create multiple personas is a rebellion against the constraint of having only one body and one life to live.

 

 

Posted in Commentary, Psychology, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

An anti-inspirational running post

 

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I save my hard efforts for workouts with my Phoenix teammates. Photo by Keith Dunn.

So much of what we see online is an unrelenting positivity. I like to focus on the positive, too, but sometimes all that cheerleading can be intimidating in the face of life’s more mundane or difficult days.

People know me as an athlete who used to be fast. Sometimes I post here or on Facebook about runs and workouts that are still pretty good given my age and limitations imposed by my bad knee.

But I feel it’s important to be real—to tell you about the days when it’s hard to believe I ran 20:10 for 5K earlier this year.

A few days ago it was raining lightly when I started my run in Mundy Park. I didn’t mind that—it wasn’t cold, and after a summer of countless sunny days, I was ready to welcome a new season and the freshness of the forest when it rains.

But I knew right away that this wasn’t going to be a great run. No, it would be one of those days when I felt like an old lady. I had to start tentatively, with small, cautious steps. I was aware of my wonky knee, worried about my lower back (which had become very sore after my previous run, when I skipped my usual post-run stretching routine). As my hesitant steps slowly took me past Lost Lake, I was somewhat reassured—nothing seemed to be hurting. Yet I felt sluggish and tired. I could only conclude that I still hadn’t recovered from the all-out workout I’d done with Doug and Suzanne four days ago and a couple of subsequent bike rides.

I decided that I wouldn’t push myself on this run. I would simply let my legs take me on a new route through Mundy Park, not worrying about my Garmin numbers too much, until I had covered 6K or so.

As I warmed up, my pace increased but more gradually than usual. When I was circling the flat, easy trail around Mundy Lake, I was able to lose the awkwardness of my body’s fatigue and settle into a relaxed rhythm. Once again, as I do on every run, I repeated my mantra of thankfulness for still being able to do this. I enjoyed all the sensations of running in Mundy Park; the aromas of the moist forest, the sounds of rain and dripping trees and my own deep breaths, the far-in-the-background hum of highway traffic reminding me of the chaotic, busy world outside this oasis.

I ran 6.5K. I won’t tell you my time.

***

According to my Garmin, that was a mediocre run, a run that reflected the limitations of my 58-year-old body—a body that has gone through Achilles surgery, two knee surgeries, and femoral bypass surgery on both sides—a body that has been running, with some short or long injury breaks, for 42 years.

But I’ve grown more accepting of mediocrity, both physical and mental. That might sound bad, but it’s not. As people age, they have no choice but to accept some declines and limitations. I’ve found that both mental and physical slowness can be overcome by some degree of acceptance. You work with whatever you have (as I did on that run). Usually, very gradually, improvement happens. Brilliance is replaced by doggedness and simple endurance—by not allowing oneself to sink completely.

I’m fascinated by the psychology of aging. What is it in people’s makeup that allows them not merely to endure, but to find and cherish real joy, at any age?

I think it’s the capacity to enjoy whatever you have; to pay attention to and be appreciative of the smallest things. It involves a change in both perspective and the measurement system. After all, what is the alternative to slowing down? People my age are dying, or suffering from terrible chronic diseases. Others are overweight or unfit and probably can’t even imagine feeling good in their bodies.

As for changing the measurement system, that means accepting that most runs won’t be fast. I pay a price for the hard days, and I need longer to recover.

***

Oh, I love the times when I get high from running. Part of my gratefulness comes from knowing I still have those times.

Last week, near the end of my grueling workout with Doug and Suzanne, I stuttered-stepped down the last steep hill because of my knee. But after that, I knew only a minute or two of running remained before my “finish line.” I lengthened my stride and pumped my arms, using all the strength of my body, and as I accelerated to near-sprinting speed I automatically started running on my toes. It felt fantastic to be running so fast! —and I thought to myself, “I’m a real runner again!”

Those brief moments of speed had brought back my body-memory of so many victorious sprints to a finish line, all those moments of physical glory and triumph.

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Tufts 10K for Women, 1987. The only time I ever beat Lynn Jennings. Photo clipping from the Boston Globe.

 

 

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lisa Moore’s February: a perfect grip on the emotional truths of love, risk, and tragedy

 

FebruaryAnansi

Sometimes I’m astounded by a writer’s talent and finesse, and that’s how I feel about Lisa Moore’s writing. She writes like no one else I’ve encountered. In particular, I noticed how she gets inside the minds of her characters; she follows the way their thoughts move: back-and-forth in time, jumping from one subject to another, with fragments, without censorship, fixating on key memories that can’t ever be erased. After finishing February, I found myself flabbergasted the same way I was after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with the same thought: How did this all come together, how did it work? Now I have to reread this book!

Moore’s protagonist, Helen, is a 56-year-old grandmother whose husband Cal died when the oil rig he was working on capsized off the coast of Newfoundland. Helen and Cal were only thirty and thirty-one. They were in love; they had three children; there was another baby on the way that Cal didn’t even know about. So this novel is mostly about tragedy and how it happens in ordinary life and to ordinary people. How does Helen go on? Why does she go on?

In February, Moore gets inside Helen’s mind, but at many different points of time that are not presented chronologically. Somehow, Moore is able to create an utterly compelling narrative out of all these fragments: thought-fragments that ring so true the reader can’t help but think, This is fiction but it captures reality better than anything else I’ve ever read. We recognize the emotional truth of the way Helen is tormented by the “accident”; her fixation on imagined scenarios, questions, and if-onlys. It’s a loop of thoughts that replays in her mind from the first moment she hears about the rig going down, to the days following, the months following, the birth of the baby girl who would never know her father, and the years that turn into decades.

February is about luck. And risk. And risk management. The first time Helen and Cal have sex, the condom breaks. Is that bad luck? Helen gets pregnant, yes, but they are in love; they get married, twenty and twenty-one years old.

Cal considers himself lucky to get a job on the rig. He and Helen know the risks, but they need the money for their growing family.

What about the oil company, the people at the top who didn’t even phone the families of their employees after the sinking? The families heard “no survivors” on the morning news at the same time as their friends and neighbours. There is an inquiry, of course. Moore’s powerful, scathing words cut through all the obfuscating language and evasions of the company’s “risk management policies.” Here are some of the things Helen learns, forever imprinted on her mind:

Inside the control room there’s also a panel with brass rods that allows the ballast control operators to control ballast manually, and here’s the thing. . . . Nobody knew how to use the brass rods. If they’d known, the rig wouldn’t have sunk.

. . . the water from the broken portal hits the electrical panel and short-circuits it . . . The man in the control room . . . he’s reading the manual, but here’s the thing: the manual didn’t say how to control the ballast if there was an electrical malfunction.

So he can read the manual all he wants.

He can read it backwards if he wants. Or he can read it in Japanese. It’s never going to tell him what to do. (p. 152)

Even more unbearable to Helen are the things she can never know. Did Cal, about to die, know that she loved him? Did he want to tell her the things she so needed to hear?

She would have liked him to tell her certain things, and she knows exactly what they are:

I’m not afraid.

Tell Helen thank you.

Tell the children I love them.

Tell Helen; tell Helen. (pp. 291–292)

Moore is fearless in confronting life’s ultimate, awful mystery—death—and Helen’s pain at being unable to share any part of Cal’s journey.

What Helen cannot fathom or forgive: We are alone in death. Of course we are alone. . . . Cal was alone in that cold. . . . Helen wants to jump into the ocean in the middle of the night when it’s snowing just to see what it feels like. (p. 292)

Helen is tormented by imagining Cal’s being alone during his last moments on the oil rig, but she too faces solitude—a solitude that extends to decades. She must go on living as a single mother who has had the love, help, and companionship of her husband wrenched away. When her children are grown up they encourage her to try online dating; on this subject, Moore manages to be both funny and pitiless as she describes Helen’s being stood up in a bar by a man who seemed exciting online.

Yet a few years after the bar incident, Helen realizes she might not have to give up on love and sex. She finds herself attracted to Barry, the carpenter who is renovating her house. I almost gasped with recognition when I read the line, “. . . she thinks again the thing every adult woman thinks of herself—that she is still her sixteen-year-old self.” (p. 242)

Helen knows:

How deeply she craves to be touched. Because what follows not being touched, Helen has discovered, is more of the same—not being touched. . . .

The only cure is to chant: I want, I want. (p. 242)

Still, Helen can’t stop thinking, “They are too old for love. It is laughable. For an instant she sees them fucking: grey pubic hair, puckered skin, creaking joints. It is a grotesque comedy . . . ” But Moore shows this isn’t true. With the story of Helen and Barry, February becomes a novel whose warmth and hope shines against tragedy and corruption.

This review has been mostly about Helen; I’m not doing justice to the complexity of the characters in this book, and the richness of their interwoven stories. The most disturbing and fascinating character is Helen’s oldest child, her son John, who is nine when his father is lost. Precocious, charming, sharply intelligent despite a learning disability, John causes Helen no end of grief yet takes on the role of helping his family from an early age. Moore forces us to confront the irony and moral ambiguity of a person who accepts a job with a company whose function is to “modify” and “trim” “redundant safety procedures” on oil rigs. By taking this job, with its obscenely high salary, John secures his own escape from the risky, physically horrible jobs he has done on oil rigs. He also gains financial security, and he supports his family generously. And when a casual, week-long vacation fling with a woman results in an unexpected pregnancy, John decides, with his mother’s help, to do what she would call “the right thing.”

February was the winner of Canada Reads in 2013. Risky in style and structure, it is yet a captivating, perfect novel, devastating in its emotional truth. I still don’t know how Lisa Moore did it—I can’t do justice to February here—just read it.

***

Quotes from:

Moore, Lisa. 2009. February. Toronto: House of Anansi Press

 

 

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Loving our bodies: imperfect, good enough, wonderful!

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2013 Photo by Keith Dunn

Our bodies, ourselves

One of the mysteries of consciousness is the way we perceive ourselves to be the “same” person throughout our lives, despite all the changes that age and experience bring. There is a core “sense of self” that remains immutable.

I’ve felt myself to be the same person since I was about 15 years old. That was when I first attained my adult sense of self, which is different than my childhood memories and perception of myself.

It’s similar with my body. Most people’s bodies change far more visibly with age than their personalities and mental abilities (except in the case of dementia). I’m unusual in that my body has changed little since I was 15. That’s partly because I’ve worked out almost every day since I started running at 16, but it’s also genetics; my grandmother was even smaller and thinner than I am!

But less important than appearance, I think, is the attitude that women have towards their bodies, because that can have such a powerful effect on their self-image as a whole.

My career as a long-distance runner affected my life in every way, but one of the most significant effects of becoming an athlete, for me, was that it completely changed the way I thought about my body.

At 15, I was a typical teenaged girl, despairing over my body’s “defects.” I hated my skinny legs. I looked nothing like the curvy models in Playboy magazines, even the thinner ones.

What I discovered after becoming a runner is that I can feel tremendous satisfaction about what my body can do, and how wonderful my body can feel, rather than thinking only about how its appearance fails to match some cultural ideal of perfection and beauty.

That core insight remains with me today. As a 58-year-old woman I have to accept the loss of attractiveness and a decline in athletic performance, but I can still celebrate what my body is capable of experiencing, both in athletic endeavors and sensual enjoyment.

***

Almost a month ago I had one of those “peak” moments of physical well-being and thankfulness (for me, these moments happen most often in summertime). I was walking up the stairs from the beach at Sasamat Lake to get back to my car, which was in one of the upper parking lots. The sun was out; its warmth was welcome since I was wearing a still-wet bathing suit under my shorts and t-shirt. How I love mornings at the lake! It’s still peaceful before the crowds arrive. On this morning, there was a good breeze; in the background I could hear some shouts from school hiking groups and the odd trill of a bird’s song.

As I walked briskly up the stairs, I was filled with a simple thankfulness for the way my body is still “working.” Before the lake, I’d done a 7K run in Mundy Park. It was a perfect temperature; I initially felt cool in the breeze and shade of the trees, but after ten minutes of running I was starting to sweat. Warm temperatures help the body move more smoothly and easily, it seems. I was able to run pretty fast, and timed myself on a couple of familiar loops in the park.

After my 7K, I drove to the lake. I continued sweating as I was driving in my non air-conditioned car. That meant my plunge into the cool lake was very welcome!

But back to my thoughts on the stairs at the lake . . . I looked down at my skinny legs and my knobbly knees, and I was glad I’ve lost my teenaged hatred for them. I knew, as I climbed those stairs, that I looked like neither an elite athlete nor an attractive middle-aged woman. My size small shorts were supposed to be body-hugging, to show off a typical woman’s butt and upper thighs. On me the shorts were baggy, and below them emerged my toothpick-like legs, the legs of a kid.

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This photo shows my running philosophy as summarized by the Brooks motto.  It also shows my favourite running shorts–they’re supposed to be skin-tight, but on me–baggy. Photo by Simrin Purhar (2017).

But I thought about how far those legs have taken me—all over the world!—as I competed in track, road, and cross-country races. Those legs, along with my powerhouse lungs, shaped my life’s path: my career (as well as the roads not raced!), my marriage, and many of my friendships. I’m grateful for the body that can still run after two knee operations, bypass surgeries on both my femoral arteries, and Achilles tendon surgery. I’ve accepted my limitations and learned to be joyful for what still remains.

As for what I look like—I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who is an ace photographer. Keith has taught me that I can be plain, cute, or sexy—a lot depends on the angle of the camera. Even more depends on the ability of the photographer, not just his or her technical skills but the capacity to perceive and capture the inner spirit of a person.

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Timing my personal mini-triathlon. Photo by Keith Dunn (2013).

Keith has this gift, and it’s enhanced by his love of photography as a creative art. Moreover, he cares for me deeply, and is able to bring out the best in me.

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Photo by Keith Dunn (2016).

As women, we are fortunate when we gain confidence from the men who love us and love our bodies. And I maintain that what matters more than a woman’s appearance is her confidence and happiness about her body.  In French I could say, “Je me sens bien dans la peau,” which translates literally to “I feel good in my own skin” but really means, “I feel good about myself.”

 

For me, this attitude is one of the greatest benefits of a lifetime of fitness. The ability to accept my imperfect body—and more, to celebrate it with joy.

 

 

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Why dress age-appropriately on my own balcony? Photo by Keith Dunn (2015).

 

Posted in Personal stories, Psychology, Running | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Book review of Essbaum’s Hausfrau: NOT a modern Anna Karenina story

A couple of weeks ago I found two books at my local library using one of my common techniques for choosing books—browsing randomly. These books were in a corner of the library set aside for a summer reading club. This summer’s theme is “Walk on the Wild Side.” Two books piqued my curiosity and I checked them out.

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I first read Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. The back cover blurbs suggested that the novel could be compared to a modern Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. High praise, indeed, and all the blurbs gushed about Essbaum’s masterful writing.

 

As I started reading, I wasn’t disappointed. Hausfrau is the story of an expatriate American wife, Anna, living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children. Anna is not happy; after nine years in Switzerland she still feels herself to be an outsider and has no close friends. She is bored, without personal ambition or direction, and feels distant from her husband. At first I found her story compelling, mainly because it includes a lot of well-written sex scenes. Anna starts an affair with a fellow student in her German class. Only weeks later she gets drawn into another affair, this time with a family friend.

But Hausfrau is not a steamy romance or an erotic novel—it is neither of these. Essbaum is asking serious questions about how a woman creates her identity and becomes fulfilled. What roles can marriage and extramarital sex play in that process? What is love? Why does Anna feel so isolated? Why is she so troubled by the question of what comes after death? She has regular psychotherapy sessions with a Doktor Messerli, and their conversations make up many scenes in the book. Yet the psychotherapist seems unable to draw Anna into a state of greater self-awareness, or penetrate her depression.

Hausfrau engaged me completely and in that way it is a successful novel. It made me think not only about the questions above, but about how my reactions to the book changed as I continued reading it. I’m fascinated by the fact that different readers analyze and respond to the same book in different ways. For example, the jacket cover calls Anna an “electrifying heroine,” and a blurb on the back compares her story to the nineteenth-century heroines of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. I, instead, found myself puzzled and frustrated by Essbaum’s Anna. In my view she was unbelievably passive, and strangely indifferent towards her husband, lovers, and friends.

What I didn’t understand about Anna is that she has tremendous sexual energy, but seems unable to transfer any energy or joyfulness to other areas of her life. The sex scenes are powerful and erotic—yet the overriding message seems to be that sex is, for Anna, her only form of escapism and self-affirmation. At one point Doktor Messerli asks Anna what she is good at. Anna thinks, but doesn’t say, that the only thing she is good at is fucking.

She feels no emotion for her sexual partners; in fact she knows little about them and has no interest in getting to know more. Also, there seems to be no adequate explanation of what has gone wrong with Anna’s marriage to Bruno. Why are they so distant? There is one scene in the book where they have wild, rough sex after a party, and it’s clear that Anna still finds him very attractive, physically. Yes, they have their cultural differences, but Anna knew that going into the marriage.

Why do Bruno and Anna seem to have no interest in strengthening their marriage? There is one scene where Anna’s pseudo-friend Edith (a thoroughly unlikeable character) says she doesn’t have a clue what her husband does at work; Anna admits that she knows nothing about Bruno’s work, either. Anna says, “We should care enough about our husbands to know what they do.”

Edith replies, “The only thing we need to know is this: they bring home a paycheck.” So Anna, passive though she is, feels more compunction than Edith; Anna at least recognizes that this level of disinterest about one’s life partner is callous and strange.

One clue about Anna’s distance from Bruno is a backstory about an affair she had with a man named Stephen a couple of years before the present-day events of the novel. Of all the men mentioned from Anna’s life, Stephen was, apparently, the one she loved passionately. In fact, we learn that Anna’s third child is actually Stephen’s daughter, not Bruno’s, but Anna has never told anyone this. Stephen left Anna for a job in the States. He never wanted Anna to be a permanent partner. She wasn’t realistic about what she meant to him.

Yet Anna doesn’t tell Doktor Messerli about Stephen.

As I progressed through the book, I continued to be drawn in by Anna’s predicament but I was increasingly frustrated by her apathy. To me, comparisons with the heroines of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are not apt. Tolstoy’s Anna is passionately in love with Vronsky. She is the victim of the rules and conventions of her time. By choosing to live with Vronsky, she not only becomes an outcast from Russian society, but her petty bureaucrat of a husband bans her from seeing her beloved son. For Anna Karenina, every choice leads to heartbreak.

Emma Bovary is more similar to Anna in Hausfrau, in that both are unhappy and bored by their social environment. Both Emma’s and Anna’s first lovers (Rudolf and Stephen) don’t love them. But Emma is trapped in ways that the contemporary Anna need not be. Modern women aren’t severely limited in their choices the way women were in the nineteenth century. Emma’s provincial town has nothing to offer her in terms of personal development or stimulation. Also, Emma doesn’t love her husband or even feel any physical attraction to him.

Eventually Anna’s affairs can no longer be hidden, and can no longer shield her from some awful real-life events. Her son Charles dies in a freak accident. After that, Bruno finds out he’s not the father of their third child. He beats Anna up and then tells her she has to leave their home for a while so no one sees the marks he’s put on her. Now Anna has genuine causes for grief and desperation. Yet I still found her actions in the last part of the book inexplicable. How could she be so unhinged as to leave her purse and suitcase on the train? Why does she throw her cellphone—her last link to getting help—into the water? Is Essbaum implying that the only way out for Anna is suicide, as it was for Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary?

After reading most of Hausfrau eagerly, the ending left me dissatisfied and depressed. What was Essbaum’s purpose in writing it? In the end, the book seemed to convey messages only about failure: Anna’s failure to develop herself; her failure to find intimacy with others, including her husband, her lovers, or her friends; and the failure of the people surrounding her, including Doktor Messerli, to help her.

Despite the fact that Hausfrau disturbed me, the fact that it left me asking questions and postulating answers speaks to its success in engaging me. The novel seems real and honest, in part because it doesn’t shy away from exposing people’s darkest, weakest thoughts and actions.

It left me wondering how other people will react to Hausfrau and its “heroine.” How will they interpret the book’s conclusion? To me it gives a warning about the dangers of being passive—going with “the flow” of accidents and others’ choices without adequate self-awareness and reflection. Perhaps Anna should not have married Bruno. Perhaps she shouldn’t have had children. Perhaps she should have terminated her affair with Stephen early on, by admitting to herself that he didn’t love her the way she loved him.

***

When I was almost finished reading Hausfrau, I came across a quote from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website. She quoted the prolific writer Robert Penn Warren (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men) on the subject of “finding oneself” through taking time off from work or school to do extensive travelling. Warren’s words were:

. . . the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.*

Anna doesn’t make choices about her own work, productive leisure activities, or friendships. She only accepts, passively, the choices that others impose upon her. She never “finds” herself. Instead, she loses everything by leaving her suitcase on the train and willfully discarding her cellphone. It seems the only choice Anna is capable of making is that of self-destruction.

* From Democracy and Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1975)

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