Transformation

March 13, 2011 § 4 Comments

A photo taken after sliding downhill on my bum.

With the coming of spring, I expected something of a transformation. We had a few days of really warm weather: soft breezes, sunlight you could feel, flowers beginning to break through the soil. This is it, I thought. Spring. The end of winter. (Now ask me how that went. Four days later, we had snow.)

In a way, I have always believed transformation was like this: a sudden and dramatic shift happening from the outside in. Before a new job, I buy new clothes, as if confidence comes in a shopping bag. I believe that if enough people like me, I will be able to like myself. I have been trying to ramp up my freelance writing, so I thought I would buy a new theme for my blog and get a real website. (That was something of a disaster as apparently you need to know code, which I don’t.) At 38, you would think that I know that transformation is not something that can be purchased at Barney’s. It isn’t full of warm and gentle breezes. It doesn’t have a homepage.

Last Sunday I woke up to cold driving rain. Hard rain, coming down in sheets. “You don’t have to go Sweetie,” Scott told me as I pushed back the covers and looked out the window. “It’s paid for whether or not you actually run.” I had signed up for a trail race series months ago, thinking that by the time the first race started I would have lost 15 pounds and gotten in shape for it. The first 10-mile race was that morning at Hemlock State Park in Clifton Virginia. Needless to say, I was not in racing shape. I still weighed 120 pounds. (OK, 125.) At 5’2″, it’s not like that weight makes me a candidate for a heart attack or anything. But it’s still too much. It’s an extra 15 pounds of chocolate eaten when what I really wanted was love. It’s the bread and butter I ate when what I really needed was comfort. It’s the extra glass of wine and piece of cheese  eaten when no one was looking. It’s not as though I mow through a bag of double stuffs or anything like that. But what I do is probably more damaging, more insiduous. I eat standing up: a handful of animal crackers after Oliver has had a meltdown that ended in him trying to kick me. I eat chocolate when I wash up the dishes at night or a teeny sliver of cake because what I really want (more time to write, greater ease with my first born, a friend who lives in my area code, compassion for myself) isn’t available at that moment.

Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God as well as a number of other beautiful books on women and food would say I am eating behind my own back. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Except that it is. Because Roth would also say that how I do anything is how I do everything. Behind my own back. As if I had to hide from myself.

Last week I had to go to the dentist. The office was in Roslyn, a veritable mecca of office building and Department of Defense Headquarters. Outside my dentist’s building, a well-dressed woman was huddled into her long coat smoking a cigarette, reading a romance novel, and drinking a Dr. Pepper. Her work badge was still hanging around her neck, but she was most definitely not at work. I felt her defiance as I walked by, as sort of If I’m gonna be stuck in  a cubicle at 1500 Wilson Boulevard, you can be damn sure I’m getting my smoke break. She may as well have been holding up her middle finger. She reminded me of myself except that I don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk when I eat chocolate. I hide, just as I hide from my own messy and marvelous life.

That’s why I got out of bed last Sunday and put on my running shorts. Socks that I knew would be soggy in about 5 minutes. Sometimes I feel so powerless over my own situation. I have fallen into doing what is easy rather than choosing my heart’s desire. The race was a promise I could keep. If integrity means doing what you say you are going to do, then I needed to begin again. I needed to run the race I said I would run.

To quote Lynn Jennings, the course at Hemlock State park was pretty much a boondoggle. A donnybrook. It was hilly and it was wet. It rained the entire time. We ran along a creek and had to jump from boulder to boulder. It was so muddy by the end that I slid down an entire hill on my feet. I went down another on my butt. The course was so washed out for the last two miles that I held onto trees at points to avoid sliding down a ravine. It took more than an hour and a half to run ten miles. After about an hour, it began to feel like childbirth: fatigue with a sense of panic thrown in. How long was this going to last? Was I going to finish? There was just the work in front of me and the great unknown of when it would end paired with the knowledge that even if I knew when it would be over, it wouldn’t matter. I thought of the book my son Oliver loved so much: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one. It’s a beautiful day. We’re not scared.

And yet. And yet I felt more myself than I have in ages. Running in the woods has always grounded me to the planet, tethered me to my own soul. When I was 16 and a senior in high school, I lay in bed one September morning and told myself that I would break the school record on every cross-country course I ran that year. Two months later I accomplished it. Three years later, I was the top US finisher at the Junior World Cross Country Championships in Boston. For a while, I had an insane sort of integrity about running. I did exactly what I said I was going to do.

Last Sunday, in the rain, I remembered that old self. She inhabited me again as my toes scrambled for purchase on tree roots. Only now instead of trying to win, I was trying not to finish last. I was running in the back with the former football players. I was trying to beat a girl with pink socks. Oh how the mighty have fallen, I thought as a photographer nabbed a shot of me as I slipped and fell. What happened to me, I wondered even as I already knew. It’s so easy for tapas, or zeal, to become obsession. My own integrity and commitment to running spiraled into a mania that ended with a broken pelvis and a stress fracture in my hip. My integrity had led me to pain and loss and grief. Somehow, I had let myself believe that dreams were too risky, too elusive.

Then, I heard a small voice in my head tell me that it’s never too late to be who you might have been. I have no desire to run competitively again. For one, I don’t have the pain tolerance. For another, there are other things I want to do. I want to be a better wife and friend. I want to write more. I want to meditate daily and have more faith. I want to believe in myself again. I want to surrender more and resist less. I want to help. I want to leave behind more light than darkness. I want to transform myself from someone who hides in her kitchen eating chocolate into someone who lives gracefully, who keenly feels the pain and joy and boredom and love of the present moment and then releases it so that the next can come. Transformation. Why was it taking so long?

I just finished a really good book called Ravenous, by Dayna Macy, in which she chronicles her own relationship with food from an olive grove to a slaughter house to her own hometown. When she is trying to change her own habits of overeating, she talks to her yoga teacher who tells her: “When you develop new samskaras and replace fantasies with clear vision, you’re leaving an old order behind. That order may not have been healthy but it was familiar and comfortable. When you leave it behind you enter a kind of transition state, a bardo in Tibetan terms. Being present in this state requires faith, because you’re not sure where you’ll land and fearlessness, because it’s so unformed.”

I was living a bardo as I ran in the rain and through the mud. I had no idea where my feet would land. I only knew where to go because I was following the runner ahead of me.  Towards the end of the race, I could only focus on what was in front of my feet. Mud, leaves, roots, rocks. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We have to go through it. The course was in the middle of the woods along a stream. The sky was grey and the ground was brown. At one point, when I was disoriented and cold, I thought it was cross country season again. October. Halloween. My favorite time of year. No. I shook my head quickly. It was March, not October. It struck me then, that in the woods, spring and fall look exactly alike. That sometimes, dying and being born are kind of the same thing.

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