Friday, April 19, 2013

In Praise of Sweat

Thursday night, before my city became paralyzed with the brief, strange confusion of “sheltering in place,” I attended a vigil for the marathon bombing. The wind was blowing hard, the half-mast flags snapping in the darkness. It was hard to hear—the wind was blowing across the speakers with this strange hollow-thunder noise. I loved that, the wind making itself known, this invisible force that can only be seen and felt in the reactions of what it touches. Like love, really. Someone read a poem, and other people sang, and it did what those tools do—opened hearts enough and pointed to the soft places in our souls where a scrap of comfort, if not understanding, can creep in. I was most moved by the runners who spoke. They talked of their community, of the love and support they find, of the comfort and challenge and addiction of running. Their words, these runners, were as moving as the poetry, the songs, the wind. In the end, it’s all the same thing.

I am not a runner. A marathon is something far beyond my abilities, or interests. When the world overwhelms me--as it has this week--I go to words. I read, I write, I re-find my sanity, my faith in humanity, my calm place to go forward with this often hard and messy business of being human on this earth, my best thing to give the world I love so fiercely. I know many people run for the same reasons. They pull on little fluorescent shorts, lace up their sneakers and go, pounding their hearts into the trails and pavements, until life comes back to focus, back to size. Other people take to their guitars, their pianos, their churches, mountains, oceans, deserts, kitchens, equations, woodshops, gardens…their best thing, the instrument or action they have where they can best give and receive of the good of the world. And where they can muddle some sense from the darkness. May we all find this thing, and soon.

My sisters are both runners, and in general, far better athletes than I am. I dabble, I enjoy, I stop to look at things and take pictures and come home and write essays and poems about all that I’ve seen and then wander about in a poetic, world-loving daze. That’s fine, and really, it gets a lot of attention for being a Good thing to do. I like to think that my words are the best I can give the world, and I find a lot of reassurance on that front.

But, my sisters and their running brethren go out and sweat and empty their bodies and find something like peace and happiness through that strength. They choose a hard thing, and take delight in their abilities. My older sister ran a half-marathon on a whim a few summers ago. (She admitted the next day to being “a little tired.”) After the events of this week, she, like many others, is looking for a marathon to run and hoping to qualify for Boston.

A friend told me this week that he cries watching marathons, that the power of that mental and physical commitment always impresses him. When I think of all that brings me to my knees as being beautiful—passion, effort, good-intention, and a holy glow at what humans are capable of—I cannot think how I overlooked how inspiring and glorious running is, or, really, all athletics are. What the human body is capable of is no less soul-inspiring than what the human mind, the human heart can do. We are becoming a nation that does not know our bodies well—we are no longer required to be physically strong in order to eat. And so, such physical strength and the body’s natural grace often becomes a sport, a game. Except that it shows us yet another way in which we can be wonderful, malleable, resilient. “Or haven't you noticed just how invincible and unbeatable spirit is, so that its presence makes the whole soul fearless and unconquerable in any situation?” Socrates asked that in The Republic.

How that spirit presents itself varies. For which I’m grateful. But here, for a little while, I’d like to lay all that I can, all my words and the best intentions of my spirit, at the feet of the runners. Your efforts, your sweat, your struggles, your success, your choice and joy in these actions…this is as beautiful and as needed as any words spoken to a lonely crowd on a dark night, seeking comfort.

Today, while listening to the news of the largest manhunt in U.S. history, I didn’t know what to do, so I started writing this. I made art, I read poetry. When, finally, the world became a little safer, I went outside. Some of the first people I saw on the quiet streets were runners. It almost made me dig out my running shoes.

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