What does a Dame do when she’s not writing? Other Dames have weighed in, and now here I am on a Wednesday with a head cold my darling child brought home from a slumber party, wondering why I can’t be more interesting. I’m a boring person. I like staying at home tapping at a keyboard, mumbling to myself. I love the solitary aspects of my job. Solitude enlivens me, recharges my batteries.
Still, I’ve got to stay in shape for the zombie apocalypse.
So I write, and I run. The two are not as dissimilar as you might think, as Haruki Murakami points out. Both are pursuits where one can measure oneself solely by one’s own yardstick, where one is not forced to compete against anyone other than oneself unless one truly wishes to. If the publishing industry tanked overnight, I’d still write. And I would still run.
A couple years ago, I made a a Labor Day promise to myself: I was going to get in shape to get my mother’s nasty sneering voice out of my head. I began at the very lowest rung of the Couch to 5K ladder: four minutes of walking, one of running, for twenty minutes total. At the time, I thought I was going to have a coronary from even that mild exertion, and I beat myself up over Not Being Fit Enough To Even Run For Sixty Seconds, Jesus, What A Failure Am I.
Now, two years later…well, four days a week I’m running five miles in the morning, a couple more miles in the afternoon. Wednesdays are my days off–I only run three miles in the morning. I often take the weekends off; sometimes I run on Saturdays just to do it. I went from barely being able to keep vertical during six minutes of very slow jogging to five frickin’ miles.
I am still amazed.
Running has become more than exercise for me. I crave the endorphins, I like being out early with the dog (I started running outside with Miss B just recently) when nobody else is up and the world is hushed and chilly. The rhythm of my feet as I pound out mile after mile shakes loose plot points and arcs, is a drumbeat behind my pounding heart, creates space for me to mull over my life and different choices. Running clears my head, renews me, and is solitary time I jealously guard.
If Miss B could talk, I wouldn’t run with her.
The kids think I’m crazy, but they’re also very interested. The Little Prince’s standard greeting on school mornings isn’t “Good morning!”, it’s “How many miles?” I get to tell both kids about things–the hawk who spent the summer near the elementary school, the coyote I see sometimes hunting feral bunnies, the way the mist rises off athletic fields, the slugtrails that glitter in gray predawn directionless light. The tiny changes I notice as I run help me–a military brat, stranger who has never stayed anywhere very long–feel like I belong, like I can dare to put down a root or two.
So, I write, and I run. What else do I do?
It started kind of on a dare. No, not precisely a dare or a whim. You see, I am afraid of heights. It’s not nearly as bad as my claustrophobia, but it’s bad enough. Stairs give me trouble. Ladders? Ha. Skyscrapers? Just don’t ask me to get near the windows.
So why climb?
Because I was tired of being scared and the community centre near my house has a climbing wall. Because it was the year of my divorce and the year of doing things I’d never done before. It was the year of proving to myself that I could. Just what I could didn’t matter, as long as I could. So I signed up for a beginning climbing class, and bit my nails and thought of canceling a million times. But I forced myself to go. I forced myself up on the wall. It doesn’t matter if you get to the top, I told myself over and over again. Just getting your hands and feet on the wall is a victory. Everything else is optional.
I didn’t expect to love it.
Climbing is the closest I’ll ever get to a team sport. I top-rope, which means I have a belayer on the ground. My climbing partner S is sixty years old and likes climbing, she tells me, much more than boxing. (She’s hardcore.) We cheer each other on, and trust each other with the rope. We’ve been doing it for a while now, and it’s gotten to where we don’t even need to yell take!. (Though we do.) It’s good to brace yourself for a difficult problem, clinging to the wall, and feel the rope tauten, a belayer’s silent message. Go for it, that tightening says. I got you. Try it.
I also boulder, and my bouldering partner E, is a total climbing junkie. She pokes me into coming along for clinics where I learn to stretch myself even further, that I’m far stronger than I think I am physically. When we boulder together, there’s a constant stream of encouragement and celebration. “You can do it! You’ve got it. Right foot there…yep, you’ve got it, last move…YES!” And there is the comfort of knowing that your spotter is right below you, that if you fall there is someone to make sure you land correctly.
Running is where my brain tunes itself to an expectant hum, the engine working over everything that I’ve got to do. Climbing is different. When I’m clinging a few panels up, it is pure one-pointed concentration. It’s the one time during the day I don’t have to worry about deadlines or what happens next. I’m too busy keeping myself moving up the wall. Often, I will reach the top and have no idea how the hell I got there. It’s comparable to the particular fugue state that happens while writing, where the world falls away and later, you look at the chunk of text and think I don’t remember doing that, it wasn’t me.
No, I didn’t expect to love climbing. I never expected to love running, either. But, if I’m not writing, I’m probably running. Or climbing.
Or reading, or chasing after the kids and the dog. But that’s another blog post.