Don’t Train, Listen

I’ve trained with heart rate monitors for most of my adult life.

A personal trainer once told me that people become too dependent on their monitors, that they limit themselves by the numbers on the wrist band.  “Contrary to popular opinion, monitors don’t increase performance, they limit it,” he told me.

I never listened.

A few months ago, I lost my monitor’s transmitter.  That kind of thing never happens.  I don’t lose gizmos that cost me a good chunk of change.  Since this heart rate monitor isn’t old, I couldn’t  justify purchasing another.

“Wait and see if it shows up,” I decided.

So for the past months, I’ve trained without a monitor.  Getting back into my body.  Enjoying the process.

Inadvertently liberated from numbers on a wristband.

In Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run,” Jurek discusses about how the Taramuhara, the world’s fastest runners, train.  They eat simply and then they run, because that’s what they do, it’s their lifestyle.

No conceptualization.  No arbitrary boundaries.  No goals.  No heart rate monitors.  No prepackaged processed foods passing for nutrition with x grams of protein, x grams of carbs.  Just the body nourished on simple, whole foods, the running spirit unleashed, and they are the fastest runners in the world.

Except for those elite runners who learn to run like the Taramuhara, runners like Scott Jurek.  Because for Jurek, running isn’t a race of numbers, running is a vehicle of self-discovery, a catalyst for expanding awareness, connecting the individual to the universal, losing the self in the moment, when one pushes one’s limits to hit the flow.

Running is an art for the best runners.

I will never be an elite runner, my times are atrocious and will probably never be exemplary, and I can live with that.  What’s more important is that I am learning to listen more deeply, and taking that awareness to the page.

Writing’s not a word count or a sold manuscript, it’s a vehicle of self-discovery, pushing myself into those moments when I lose myself into something greater than I previously imagined, hitting the sweet spot of flow found in work’s abandon.


Memory Weaving

A couple of weeks ago, I heard from an old friend.

Several lifetimes ago, he asked me to marry him.  There was a little problem, however.  He was engaged to someone else.

I said “no,” and pointed out the little problem.  He laughed , and said, “yeah, that is a little problem, but” . . . . then he raised his left eyebrow, lowered his voice, and in a serious tone said, “I want to marry you.”  I can still see his teeth flashing, his eyes dancing, the cavalier and earnest attitude in which he sat me down to ask me to marry him while engaged to another.  And without a ring, the proposal lacked a ring, which I promptly pointed out to him, as I laughed.

If it had been anyone else, I may have thought the man despicable, but there was an innocence to his proclamations of love, even as I told him I wasn’t interested.

He was charming, sensitive, handsome, gentle, and kind.

Oh, yes, and a Muslim.

Devout, I now see how he grappled with modern American life, after moving from his home country to pursue research in the states, behaviors and cultural attitudes that eluded me then, become clearer now.  None bad, none stereotypical, just ways of being that were endearing because he wasn’t an American, and his ways of approaching love and life that weren’t all about ego, consumerism, and self-aggrandizement.

This is how we met: one evening he saw me in the grocery store near the campus where we attended school, eventually our eyes caught over the apples, he then introduced himself, walked me home, asked for my phone number, and after pursued me.  It never occurred to me that he was a Muslim.  Or a foreigner.  Or anything other than himself.  I simply thought, “Hey, this guy’s cute.”  But he seemed hopelessly irresponsible (compared to my annoying gravitas about every bit of micro-minutia life brought to me), because he was a man of heart, which he wore on his sleeve.

I wasn’t interested in marriage, I had worlds to conquer (read: gravitas).  And I wasn’t interested in seeing an engaged man, no matter how good being with him made me feel, despite the tenderness and passion of our moments.  The situation made me uncomfortable, even though he told me stories about his spoiled fiancée whose father paid all of her bills, the non-stop fighting, etc.  “Not my problem,” I thought.

I eventually moved from that city.  A few months after my move to another state, he tracked me down, phoned, and said, “I’m coming to see you.”  He showed up and showed me even more ardor, as if to say, “I am for real.”  But I never listened, because he was still engaged, I had no intention in fighting for a man, and still I had worlds to conquer.  I always felt there was something karmic between us, a connection not tethered to this lifetime, or any of the physical realities that we lived in.  I held this feeling lightly, given the circumstances.  Our histories couldn’t be more different: me, an only child, overachiever from a poor background, who rebelled against the doctrines of her strict Christian upbringing; him, a reverential Muslim from a large family with royal ties, who took his studies with a light stride, secondary to life.

So, after many, many years, he contacts me, out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago.  He and the one-time fiancée eventually married, then divorced, after the birth of two children.  (Their divorce was no surprise to me, the surprise would have been if they were still together.)  He now lives in his home country, is a founding member of a research facility, having remarried, and having six children with wife number two.

He’s been polite, gracious, and deferential in his recent notes.  No romantic overtures, no nonsense.  His seems only to have wanted memory weaving, for whatever reasons, for fond remembrances, for feelings of bygone loves, for echoes of youthful adventures.  He has settled into the responsibilities of research, marriage, professional and community responsibility, and six children.  What strikes me in our brief correspondences is how much good he’s done, how much he’s helped the people in his home country.

He now wears gravitas; and with everyone passing year, I rarely wear it, finding play life’s more comfortable garment.

Even with these character changes, I see why we connected way back then.  There was something terribly decent and humane and generous about him, as there was about me.

Flashback to a young woman by herself, in a big city, working two jobs — housekeeper and café waitress, one summer putting in sixteen-plus hour days, living on double espressos and grit — to take classes, striving to do and be her best.  One winter I volunteered to collect, sort, and fold clothes for the homeless, while wearing my wealthy room-mates tossed out bras, because I couldn’t afford to buy my own.

This oddity never occurred to me.  I just thought it Providential that I found the bras, that they fit perfect, and that she didn’t care that I had rescued them from the garbage dump.

While other students partied on Friday and Saturday nights, my free weekend nights were often spent in the university’s video library, watching the BBC’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  I watched every Shakespeare play at least once, and the ones I liked I watched more than once.  I decided that this BBC series was part of my education, assumed that if I hadn’t seen every Shakespeare play, I wasn’t intellectually measuring up.  This hyper self-critical myopia joined the relentless pursuit to live according to my inner music, and perhaps for this reason I ignored facts and circumstances that others may have seen as consequential (engaged, Muslim, foreigner).

This myopia dictated why I never saw my lover as a cheat, or labeled him unnecessarily.  I wasn’t interested in a long-term relationship with him, because I wasn’t going to give up on what I wanted, and that included moving to the east coast, living in New York, and, eventually, going to Harvard.  It took over a decade, but all of that and more came to pass.  Muslim, foreigner, or whatever the back story that  might have turned others off, weren’t even on my mattering map.  I simply saw someone with whom a long-term relationship wasn’t going to work because of my dreams.

Again, I never saw him as a Muslim, though he once gave me a copy of the Qur’an and told me “please don’t put this on the floor, it’s our sacred book.”  “Yes,” I said.  “My grandmother always says the same thing about the Bible.  Never put it on the floor.”  I never put the book on the floor, but I never understood if a book were holy, why its inherent power wasn’t greater than the floor, and I was less interested in another religious book than I was in literature and philosophy and art history and discovering the inner and outer worlds waiting for me.  

Again, I never saw him as a foreigner.   During his visit after my move, one morning we went out to breakfast.  I remember as we were eating, he put his fork on the plate, looked down and then looked me in the eye, and said in a hushed tone, “they are staring at us, because they think I am a black man.”  I didn’t understand him, thought he was being paranoid, remember thinking, “what is his problem,” because it never occurred to me that he was black or a foreigner from a country that even before 9/11 would raise eyebrows in suburban Amerika. “No they’re not,” I said in complete oblivion, “It’s just your imagination.”  I never understood what he probably lived with, and perhaps he found my naïve obliviousness to racial bigotry both incredibly sweet and insensitively annoying.  To me, he was just charming and irresponsible.  The problem wasn’t Muslim or foreign or dark-skinned, he was irresponsible — and I deemed him so, because he loved me, and he wanted to know with some certainty that I loved him, but I couldn’t give anybody that, then.

I am not certain that I could have loved him, or anyone else, in those days.  For the truth be told, as I write these things down, I understand that I was the shallow one, incapable of loving the person before my eyes, obliterated as they always were by the angels and demons haunting my imagination, the push to do more, be more, and keep reaching for something beyond the life I inhabited.

If there is a karmic tie between my friend and me, which I believe there is, it comes as no surprise that he comes around again, to remind me of things long-buried, to remind me of a younger version of myself, the woman who successfully overlooked the love she sought, the love right in front of her, over and over again.

There’s an unconscious ordering to our lives’ chaos, and every so often that ordering becomes a little clearer with hindsight, the fortunes of circumstance, and notes from former lovers who we never understood.


Eros And Angels

In my first entry on this site, or nearly my first entry, I wrote about “Death And Sex.”

In that entry, I wrote that eros had nothing to do with “getting off,” but with our engagement with life, on its own terms.  Waking up and being alive.  Being present to life, in the here and now.

Eros is usually contrived, relegated to the genitals ( being one of the largest sex for sale sites), or to hearts and roses, happily-ever-afters, and a cute little cherub ready to help us find the so-called one.

Not so much.

In early mythology, way back when the pre-classical Greeks were trying to figure out what thunder was, what made day and night, and why the earth existed, Eros was the primordial creative energy of the universe, the god that made manifest from the invisible primordial ooze of everything, the power holding creation together, the energy behind flourishing, the source behind all creative movement in the heavens and on earth.

Human erotic love may be our most powerful teacher of the great god Eros, who later become attached to the mythology of Aphrodite, but Eros originally offered more than a toe-curling “Oh, God!” moment.  (I’ve oversimplified Greek mythology to make my point, so I hope you’ll indulge me.)

Eros was about life’s dynamic existence in time, the coming into being from non-being, and the unyielding creative force in the face of death’s inevitability.

If everything dies, why is life so damn persistent, so intent on pushing on and on and on, over and over?

Eros.   (Again, I am taking modern interpretive liberties.)

For this reason, all literature is famously about sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, the eternal circle of life and death until time dissolves, a reality well beyond the reach of our imaginations.

While I often write on spiritual themes here, I’ve never seen these themes as separate from my other concerns, giving sex work some legitimacy.  It took me a good long time to recognize my work’s importance in a big way, understanding that “damn, I’ve done some real good in the world, and not only will it not be recognized, it is vilified.”

I am a high order ecclesiastic in the Church of Eros.  Because my work is precious, to hear people’s stories (well, men’s stories), have them trust me with their desires, and create a space for all the parts of them that are closeted or scared or lonely.  Or simply frustrated.

So this Valentine’s Day, I honor the great god Eros, the angel guiding my work, whose power I first felt as a toddler with her orange crayon (see my previous entry “Training With Angels”), because it really all is connected, the desire for transcendence, and the wish to leave our solitary lives, and return to Love in the other.  I honor that force of desire whose magnificence and power we have ridiculously fashioned into a cute little cherub, which is hilarious considering how scarred and fractured most of our lives are because of Ero’s relentless power.

Eros is the stuff of  creation and transcendence, life and death, love and loss, and being connected to everything and everyone while walking in our existential skins.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Wishing you love and laughter, in whatever way your heart allows.

Training With Angels

Today I offer thoughts on two unrelated topics: training for a half-marathon, and art journaling.

First topic: half-marathon training.  With the New Year, I reluctantly set a goal to complete a half-marathon this spring.  I write reluctantly, because it seemed like a barely achievable goal, especially as the weather has been unfriendly, and, living in the middle of nowhere, there’s no gym.  This has been a big challenge since moving to New Hampshire: no gym.  But I put a half-marathon goal out to the Universe, and, in an act of faith, made reservations at a hotel near the starting line for a New Hampshire half-marathon that I found on the web.  It seemed doable.  But this 13.1 was far enough away that I’d need to spend the night, and it was in April, which seemed overly ambitious.

So I kept thinking and asking the Universe, should I go, what should I do to make this work, am I overreaching again?

It wasn’t coming together easily.

A few days later, during my shopping trip for produce, the produce manager and I started chatting.  I know these folks on a first name basis.  I order massive amounts of organic produce the day before I go shopping, so I can get what I want and it’s all fresh.  It’s a win-win, I get what I want, they get their sales numbers up, and I have helped shape their organic produce availability and sales since moving here.

So the manager and I were talking, and she told me she was marathon training, just laid it out there, out of the blue.  I then told her that I had completed the Jimmy Fund (26.2 Boston Marathon route, at a snail’s pace, no qualifying time needed for entry) three times, and that I was looking to unleash my inner runner.  It had been a long time, I said.  And I didn’t really run the Boston Marathon route.  I have the 26.2 bragging rights, but not as a runner proper.  “I would like to complete a half-marathon, and do so well,” I told her.

I was full of trepidation.

She told me about a half-marathon closer than the one I had found on the web, and told me it was in May.

I came home, checked it out, and yes, it was doable.  An extra month for training, and only an hour away by car.

But the ride was still an issue.  Even with this new and much more doable half-marathon now in eyesight, I’ve been reserved about commitment, the fear of failure being stronger than the belief that I can do it.

Well, the voice in my head got a big squelch this past week, during a phone conversation with a friend.  For some odd reason, I shared this goal with her, the first person I mentioned it to with some conviction.  She said, “I’ll take you.”  I was surprised, as she’s had major health issues, and getting up at 5 or so to make the race start at 8 a.m. was above and beyond any expectation.  I held her offer lightly, thanked her, and thought ‘we shall see.’

I received an email from her the next day.  She wrote that she had marked the day, and we were going.  BAM.  I wrote her back that we could wait and see how she was feeling come that week, and we’d see what happened.

“You are going.  If this is your heart’s desire,” she wrote, “you will get there, one way or another.  Car guaranteed.”  BAM, again.

I got my confirmation, as though the universe looked down and said, “YO, lady, we’re doing this thing.  We’re going to make it happen.”  BAM.

Not surprisingly, the next day, we had sunshine, and I had my best training day in over 6 years.

Come race day, I realize that my friend’s health may keep her from giving me that ride.  But I will get a ride, I know now for certain, thanks to my friend’s generous vote of confidence.  What transpired was the power of belief, and I once again saw how the big cosmic wheels turn when one follows their heart, decides to express that thing that makes them feel alive, when one connects to their deepest self.  Thanks to her, I got the confirmation I needed, wind in my sails, and a sense of yes, I will do this thing.


Second topic: art journaling.  Or more precisely, play.  I enrolled in an online art journal class, and this particular course is about visual journaling more than art journaling proper.   Visual journaling conflates journal writing with visual media, and there’s no emphasis on finished products: you open wide, get messy, and let whatever will be on the page, and then move on.  It’s raw creativity.  It’s self-reflection.  It’s spiritual.  I stumbled on it by accident (more serendipity), as another goal this year was to sink into my art practice more deeply, let it unfold in more satisfying ways.

Fortuitously, the instructor’s designed a course that doesn’t cover technique: it’s all about playing and connecting with your spiritual inner child.  I had no idea when I registered for this course that this was her skew.

This week’s lesson introduced the idea of play, and she asked us to think of times that life restricted our play, how circumstance trained playful creativity into perfectionism and performance.

Two memories came to mind: the first had to do with music.  Before I appropriated the Columbia House records (“Magic Eyes” entry), a family friend had given me a gray plastic phonograph, and a sackful of 45’s.  Tens and tens of children’s records.  Some were red plastic, some were blue plastic, there were a couple of pink ones, most were black.  I played them for hours and hours, there were so many, and they gave me unending musical enchantment.

One day, my mother came into my room, and saw them spread all over.  I don’t remember her ever telling me to clean-up the records, but apparently she had, and when she saw them piled in chaos all over the floor, she went and got a shovel and shoveled the records into the garbage.  “I’ve told you over and over about putting these away.  If you can’t take care of your things, you don’t deserve them,” she told me.  “You have to learn to take care of your things.”

Things, not people.  In taking care of things, she completely forgot the child in front of her, the little girl who simply loved her records and was always going from on to another, not really concerned with putting them away.

There was a related incident, when I was even younger.

I had a book, “My Book Of Prayers.”  There were two beautiful angels on the front, exquisite angels looking up at heaven, from this glossy, hard bound book.  They reappeared inside the book’s paper pages.  I remember wanting to be an angel, wanting to make something beautiful like that, and wanting to be one with them, so I took a crayon and tried to color the page, thinking that I could make something with these angels — this was a toddler’s emotional response to these angels, and somehow wanting to connect with them.  I adored these angels, they were the most beautiful beings, and I just wanted to be close to them, feel them, be like them.

My mother took away the book when she saw the coloring, with the same argument.  “If you can’t take care of your books, you can’t have them.”

She kept the book, and returned it to me when I was old enough to treat it properly.  By then, I wasn’t interested.   I later saw my art for what is was, a deluge of orange crayon haphazardly scrawled over the pages.

I saw the book through eyes that had been properly socialized, and the angels were simply pretty children’s prayer-book drawings, no longer Divine creatures promising something transcendent.  Those were the feelings I had, when I took that orange crayon to my angels, perhaps my first taste of art’s power.  I didn’t know that it was transcendence and the ineffable that touched me, but I can feel those feelings again, the yearning and the sense of beauty.

Life tried to reign in those feelings early on, the heart’s free play conscripted to stuff’s importance, as I suspect happens in varying degrees for many of us.  Because we were poor, Mom took excessive care in valuing what we did have.  Respect the little we have, don’t take it for granted.

I get it.  Keep the stuff nice is a form of gratitude.  But the play animating my child’s heart broke deep and wide, and I learned too early and too harshly to quiet that sensitive inner child, and those arbitrary ideas of right and wrong eventually made that little girl into a self-sabotaging rebel, because her heart would not be still.  I came to understand that the messy enterprise of merging with music and angels needed to adhere to standards usually at odds with my heart’s visceral impulses, and I valued those visceral angels more.

It seems to me that the fear of failure, of reaching beyond my comfort zone and worrying about doing a half-marathon with “a good time,” and the creative fears I daily face, loom large for similar reasons.

I don’t need to finish the half-marathon with a “good time,” I need to feel the joy of two legs moving, enjoy a heart pumping, breathe the freedom of fresh air and sun, take pleasure in a life well spent, and live in wonder at the effortless unfolding of life’s circumstances.

Half-marathon.  Writing.  Art.  Music.  There are too many arbitrary ways of right and wrong that I am constantly unlearning, ways of being that keep me from using my orange crayon over life’s blank page, the only page that I am given.

So I am picking up the crayon box, reaching inside, and scrawling all over each day, learning to play more a little more freely and a little more deeply with every morning, play as though my life depended on it, because living this one wild and precious life does depend on it.

This is what I am telling myself, today: release judgement and dive into the dreams of my heart and its desires with crazy abandon.  Failure is impossible, because as long as I am living, I am in life’s incandescent glory.  Enjoy the day’s every pulsing moment, and all the miracles it brings.  Messily merge with experience, believing that things come together, and that life is simply a beckoning by and to the angels.

This is what play returns to me: messiness, and in messiness my heart’s transcendence.

I train for the half-marathon, write everyday, and create art so that I can sustain my heart, lose myself in the moment’s beauty, and feel the angels, again.