About eight years ago, shortly after the birth of my third child, I realized I needed to renegotiate my relationship to myself. I wasn’t just tired and burned out, I was on a slippery slope to the kind of martyrdom that doesn’t work in the best of cases, and can bring a family down when it comes to motherhood. My mother is fond of the ‘airplane’ analogy when it comes to this behavior: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs. It’s a great principle to live by, but putting it into practice when you’re low on sleep and you’re hanging around all day with three people who don’t read is another story entirely. In order to even remember that oxygen masks were available to any of us, I began to realize, I needed to get out of the house.
My husband carefully suggested an exercise class. Not because I wasn’t beautiful, of course, he said in the exact same breath, but he’d noticed, in the past, how much more relaxed and happy I was when I got to run around a bit. This is true for any animal, incidentally. I dare you to spend time in a stable with a horse who hasn’t been allowed to run about for a few days. We just forget that mothers are living animals, too.
But no regular exercise class responds to the head-snapping speed at which young kids’ needs change on a daily basis. Also, gyms smell like middle school and a few minutes sweating on a machine that goes nowhere makes me want to go lie in the street. The most obvious choice seemed to be to take up running, something I could sneak in at any time of day and begin the moment I walked out my front door. The only problem was I didn’t know how to run.
I know what you’re thinking. Who doesn’t know how to run? I promise you, I did not. I was thirty-one years old and simply hastening my speed while crossing the street resembled nothing so much as Lurch trying to slog his way through quicksand. Also, my hips hurt and my boobs moved in several different directions and my feet asserted their newly found and desperate love affair with gravity.
It defies all logic, I know. I was a medium-sized woman in very good health, but my body simply refused to run. It kind of always had. I always wanted to run, but even in elementary school I would take off with the pack and bliss out in a few minutes of flat out running, sure I was near the head of the crowd, only to find out I was several paces behind the girl who was still recovering from an improbable case of childhood polio.
So maybe it was my desperation, maybe it was the unreasonable mindset of chronic exhaustion, but I decided to give it a go anyway. I downloaded a learn-to-run program from the internet, and slowly but surely, Lurch graduated from quicksand-slogging to peppy Frankenstein, an achievement I took no less pride in than an Olympian does a sub-four-minute mile (Is that a thing? I think that’s a thing.).
My husband was mystified. A high school athlete, the first time I came home to glowingly report that I had achieved a fifteen-minute mile (no, that’s not a typo), he stared at me, uncharacteristically dumbfounded. But it didn’t matter, not really. Because you know what? I absolutely, unequivocally LOVED IT.
In the years since, I’ve continued to ‘run’, though now I call it what it is: meditative jogging. Speed walkers still pass me on occasion, but no one walking a stroller passes me anymore. And though I’m probably more graceful than I once was, the truth is that I sweat like a pig and have to wear an enormous amount of sunscreen to protect my Irish-bookish-Jewish skin, and that I rarely traverse more than three miles at a time. But I still LOVE IT. Because it’s fun, and it’s one of the only things I do for no other reason than to get outside and let go a little. I know I could do speed training and research form a little more and hire a coach, but that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy a steady and rewarding relationship with my imperfect self.
And the side effects are incredible. I truly believed it’s made me a better person, and a better writer. Doing something you’re really bad at regularly and in public does astonishing things for the judgey parts of you that want you to always look like you’re in control and doing the best you can and in every other way towing the mores of social acceptability like Marley’s chains. If you try, instead, your own equivalent of my middle-aged sweaty mommy grinning jogs that make runners coming in the other direction either act as if I don’t exist or grin back at me in disbelieving but good-natured bafflement, you might also be amazed at the personal joy and creative juices it can unleash. Because at the end of the day, I think writing and living both respond really well to daily practice that maybe isn’t so elegant, that prioritizes what is true and life-affirming without imposing any of our ideas on it.