Friday, May 24, 2019

Grace and Racing

Last year on Mother’s Day I ran my first marathon. I was a little disappointed: not really because I had expected to run it faster, but because it wasn’t really fun. That is, there were no moments that stood out for me. I know why: it was completely my fault for taking a load of emotional baggage along with me for the full 26 mile run. I had a spirit animal last year who ran with me and who personified me: Mrs.Tiggywinkle is a short, stout, prickly hedgehog who keeps a clean house and takes in laundry. I had taken in way too much laundry last year, and during the three weeks before the marathon instead of tapering and trying to gain strength and revitalize after months of training, I spent my time cleaning, cooking, and taking care of other peoples’ business.

This year, I’m running as a human. My spirit animal may be a donkey, as I am stubborn and strong. I’ve been training since December 2018, every month, every week, but not every day. I ran through the winter, and it was a doozy this year. We had snow, rain, ice, freezing rain, ice pellets, and everything in between. Temperatures hovered between -25 and +10 for most of the five months I trained. I put screws in my shoes and bought ice cleats. I ran a half marathon in deep snow and got my slowest time ever. 

“Fitness is classist AF,” wrote a young relative of mine. Certainly, what we understand to be Fitness is a privilege exercised by a small group of wealthy people. Pun intended. But we were born to run. Humans were made to use their bodies. We were made to sweat, and feel our muscles, and push our physical limits, and we were also made with an urge to play. 

I love going out to play. I am so grateful that my body is healthy enough that I can go outside and run around, for twenty minutes, for an hour, or for almost a whole day. I am always aware that I am privileged: I have a body that functions, and I can spare the time to run with no particular place to go.

This year, my dedication to training my body for this race has led me to understand some techniques for running, and also some techniques for living.
1. big things can be broken down into little things: one step at a time
2. a lot of stuff just isn’t that important
3. love is all we have
4. you never know what might happen
5. smile
6. drink water
7. be grateful
8. always bring a hanky
9. talk little, breathe deep, tie your shoes well
10. laugh at yourself

And finally, you need to learn to submit - to surrender - swim upstream by going around the obstacles instead of using all your energy to fight them. Grace is a wonderful characteristic to explore.

I’m hoping to finish this marathon in less time than my last. I’m hoping to finish. I’m keeping some people in my heart as I run the last five miles or so: Becky is my cousin, and her body is hard to use. She has cerebral palsy and eats twice as much as me just to do a simple day. She perseveres and doesn’t need help, and she’s one of the people I am in awe of.
My friend Perse is an athlete and survived a particularly rare and vicious type of cancer. She’s my oldest friend (over fifty years and counting!). She is enthusiastic, tough, and just doesn’t let anything push her around.
My friend Syd fought an addiction and won. She spends her life putting love into the world. 
Kimberley is my running  buddy. When we run, we talk. We weave and untangle, laugh and analyze. Agree and build. I hope she’ll be running next to me for many years to come!
I hope that these strong women will be beside me when I am pushing through those last kilometers. 
See y'all ‘round the bend! I will definitely let you know how the cookie crumbles!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Gratified Desire

From my living room, from the time I was 5 until I left home at 16, I could see the outline of the Rocky Mountains puncturing the sky behind the provincial city called Calgary.

In my Grade 10 classroom, the enterprising teacher had printed a few lines of a poem by Wordsworth and stuck it up all around the room, above our heads:

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours"

The rest of the poem describes the Romantic's dilemma: that we have removed ourselves from nature, and that removal has cost us dearly. Wordsworth was writing 200 years ago; how much more we are getting and spending now!

The young romantic in me escaped the banal ugliness of a soon-to-boom oil town and ran to the mountains. I spent days in the Rockies, observing the slowness of so-called "Mother" Nature as the seasons ground from one to the next. I met animals, marvelled at wildflowers, grieved for my young friend who died from hypothermia during an ill-timed May camping trip.

City life intervened, as it does, and I spent years in cities doing city-like things like work, study and city play. But in 1985 I moved to rural Italy and there I learned about living in and with nature.

Farming is hard work, especially when you don't know what you're doing. We had a big stone farmhouse, 7 acres of land, a wheat field, a vineyard, a huge vegetable garden, a muddy pond, many poultry, a dog, a cat, and four small boys. There was a spring down a muddy green path where I would go every day and collect my 18 litre jerry-can of water for the day. There was a big grass snake who lived under the wall. There were wild boar who trampled the vineyard until we put a radio down there and played opera at night. There were badgers, porcupines, foxes, weasels, nightjars, cuckoos, and peasants who surrounded us and wanted to teach us their trade.

Nature isn't unforgiving, or gentle, or kind, or threatened, or dominated, or forgiving, or logical, or chaotic, or female. Nature is beautiful. Nature couldn't give a rat's ass about you. Nature doesn't care. Nature does what it does. It is unknowable, and mighty, and extraordinary. Nature wastes: things die all the time, unnecessarily. Nature attacks: weird bacteria, viruses, and prions love to inhabit their hosts. Nature kills.

But, of course, we are part of nature, and nature has taught us over the years that it is a good idea to respect the immutable laws that nature dictates. If you're going to say 'aw this is airy-fairy leftie bullshit', might I remind you that even the most powerful human has a maximum 10 degree centigrade window in which to survive. And that most powerful human, even if he did survive birth, fever, hypothermia, infections, accidents and so on... will still be completely absorbed by nature in the end.

That teacher also introduced us to Shelley's Ozymandias: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!" The will to power, domination, kingship, command... it's all horrible if you're one of the dominated, or thrilling if you're the king, I guess, but you'll die like the rest of us and be buried in the sand. As will your great achievements. So, then, what's a thinking teenager to do? Nihilism was an option, but I had a handicap there, and I shared that with William Blake.

In The Tyger, Blake suggests that something so beautiful, ferocious, complicated and confusing had to be created by a higher power. Well, even though I was brought up by a communist artist and a scientist, neither of whom shared my deep-founded belief in The Divine, I was pretty sure Blake was right. How else could you explain that I had miraculously survived all of the shenanigans that I took part in as a young teenager in the 1970's? How to explain why that big mama moose and her baby walked beside me for a few kilometres and didn't attack me? How did I stare down that pack of dogs in the middle of a snowy night on a field in Calgary? Why wasn't I one of the young people who went missing or died during those ridiculous years? Not because of nature, or luck. Not due to atoms, molecules, or any number of metaphors. But because my path wasn't that one. The tapestry that was made before any of us was born included me living at least for 62 years.

I was making our bed a few weeks ago and was brought to tears because I felt the enormity of the failure of our task. I thought to myself that I might as well just go shopping.

My life has been a life lived in the physical world. I farmed, I carried water, cement, and wood. I birthed babies and breastfed them, and held them, and fed them. When it was time for me to work, I worked as a farm labourer, picking peppers and tobacco, and as a domestic, cleaning peoples' houses and washing dishes in a cafe. Then I learned to attend births, and I rubbed feet and backs, held women as they birthed, cleaned messy pads and bedding and clothing, ... and then caught babies as they slipped from their mothers' bodies.

When that work stopped, I started to prepare and serve food. It's physical. Life is physical.... except. Except that so many people don't know so much about the physical world. There are fridges for sale for thousands of dollars, and people no longer cook and eat at home. People can't fix something, they buy a new one. Do you mend holes in your clothes? Can you light a fire? Can you distinguish dandelion flowers from coltsfoot? How does a duck look when it flies? What is the difference between Water Hemlock and Queen Anne's Lace? How do you mix cement? What berries can you eat? What do you do with a tree once it is felled?

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. The final poem that I only just figured out is this one:

What is it men in women do require? 
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. 
What is it women do in men require? 
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

When I was in high school my teacher, my classmates, and every literary critic of the time thought this was all about sex. It's not. 
It is about being gratified. It's about living your life fully, as a life. As a life not dependent upon things, upon getting and spending. It's about loving someone who is happy, and having a hard time loving someone who is miserable and unfulfilled. 

We have been misled. Women especially. We've been led to believe that it indeed is a life-threatening and dangerous event (not to say an expensive one) to bring a child into the world. We've been led to believe that our children need to be socialized by someone other than ourselves. That our shitty job is somehow more fulfilling than caring for our offspring (I'm not talking about that fine mother who needs to work three jobs to support her family, nor the professional who loves her work as much as her children). That in the name of equality and because we are so damn exhausted it is fine to bully one's partner into folding baby clothes at 10 pm (who folds baby clothes anyhow? But I have seen it with my own eyes). That nature is something that needs protecting, and that weirdly we need to protect ourselves from it. That our bodies cannot be trusted. 

So I say to you: Take a hike. Say something controversial. Get off Facebook. Don't get the epidural. Stop folding laundry. Don't have a baby, if you don't want to. Think twice before buying a new thing. Be kind. Be sassy, or not. Be yourself. 

What am I gonna do? I'll keep on making food and serving it; I'll teach women about maternity care and childbirth; I'll think my thoughts and mostly keep them to myself.

I don't have a rootedness in a physical place. My mountain hideaway is mine for a while. My bungalow in the 'burbs as well. My rootedness is a long and straggly root that winds past minds, poetry, essays, manifestos, novels, long conversations, thoughts. The place of the thinking person. A place I've yearned for my whole life, and visited once in a while. But I always know its there, and it's home.

Yesterday I went for a 15 mile run. It was tough. My body was ploughing through some bad emotions. But when I got to Mont Royal, our lovely mountain at the centre of our city, I went to the trails, away from people, and ran. It eased my heart. Let us reconsider our relationship with nature, with each other and with ourselves.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Runner's Alphabet

A is for Attitude.

B is for Badass

C is for Calories

D is for Depression

E is for Endorphins

F is for Friends

G is for Gym

H is for Happiness

I is for Intervals

J is for Joints

K is for Knees

L is for Love

M is for Marathon

N is for Victory

O is for Oxygen

P is for PR

Q is for Quads

R is for Runners

S is for Smile

T is for Training

U is for Underwear

V is for V02

W is for Woman

X is for Cross-training

Y is for You!

Z is for Zen

next time won't you run with me?

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Dreamchasing Trails

In 2003 my winter blues reached a breaking point and we decided to leave the city for the summer, use our savings to buy a piece of land in Italy, and start building. This is what we bought, the second year after that - when we first bought it, you couldn't even see the house because everything was so covered in greenery.
But I knew when I first stepped out of the car and breathed the clear air, and looked down into the valley and saw this:

that I was as home as I would ever be. Time passed and over the summers we made the house beautiful. Then we started working on the barn:

This fine structure is a drystone construction, with high beams and rafters, and an original thatched roof that had been covered with corrugated metal at some point. It housed animals, shepherds, resistance fighters, snakes, squirrels and other assorted creatures. We found in it many wine bottles, the old blown glass kind wrapped in straw, two army helmets (one German, one American..), lots of old shoes and garbage, and some religious postcards.

A few years ago we started work on it. I wanted to do some upper body work that summer, so I figured a good start would be hauling 20 cubic meters of dirt from where it was down to another terrace. After the dirt was hauled away, we started building a retaining wall or two,

And we ended up with these pretty terraces.

This summer we have to redo the roof. It's gotta be done. If we don't do it, it will fall in. Not a good idea. So, we have to take it down, remove the beams, then make a new roof. Don't worry, I'm not the master builder. There is actually someone in the picture who knows what he's doing. But I have built a couple of roofs with him, so I'm pretty handy with a cement mixer and all that.

This place contains some of my dreams. Not all of them, because I'm not that rooted in place. But I have plans to create a space up on the mountain where people can come and retreat. They can come and run, eat, think, create. Or just play nutball, which is played with unripe walnuts and a stick.

What I love to do there is to run on the trails. I have been running in the mountains since I was young. I love the feeling of my breath, my legs, I love taking in the air and the sights, the sound of my feet on the ground...

But you don't have to run. You can slowly walk up the hill, to the abandoned village, then take a left and go to the fixed-up house, or follow the road past the evergreen grove and past the house and then follow the bend which takes you up further, where there are often deer, and the best St John's Wort on the mountain. Then straight, and up and up and up, until you reach the logging patch, and then you go further and further and further, up and up, until you reach the ridge where you can look down - you are at about 1000 m above sea level now .... and running this trail is such a pleasure. You're sweaty and breathing hard. All around you is green, peace, and the sound of the mountain's breath. 

Life on the mountain is good. It's understood that you mind your own business. The road is treacherous and not for the weak-hearted. Occasionally a hiker passes by, or a cyclist, or a Scout. Often lost. It's quiet at night, and sometimes the whole mountain is lost in a cloud and the wind howls up from the valley.

There are buzzards in the sky, cuckoos in the spring; wild boar, deer, badgers, porcupines, snakes, lizards, all sort of bugs, honey bees... scorpions ... wild flowers everywhere, cherries, plums, apples, medicinal herbs of all varieties, mushrooms poisonous and otherwise. Nature is present, and thriving, as it does.

The green heals my soul. Running the trails on my mountain, I find peace from the human world, where cowardice and selfishness are fast becoming desirable attributes. Wordsworth wrote over 100 years ago:

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours"

Yes, we are getting and spending, and wasting ourselves. We imagine that busyness is constructive and useful, but it's not. It is much better to be consciously not busy; to have time to look around at the world, and to look deep inside yourself.

Don't be too busy to go for a run.
Don't be too busy to lend a hand to someone in need, even if it's inconvenient.
Don't be too busy to spend time with your child.
Don't be too busy to spend time with your lover.
Don't be too busy to give a friend some time.
Don't be too busy to cook supper, to eat with others, to feed yourself.
Don't be too busy to make the world a better place.
Don't be too busy to do hard things. It is the stuff of life, and it centers us in this marvellous world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Stuff and Memories

My mother died almost five years ago, and when that happened my sisters spent a weekend sorting through the house and sending me a Pod full of stuff. Well, no, a lot more happened of course. My sisters and I buried my mother, and we grieved and fought and made up again and grieved some more... but one big thing that also happened was that this Pod landed in my driveway.

Image result for moving pods

It was full: antique furniture; bedding; medical equipment; books. Lots and lots of books. Kitchen stuff; art; stuff from Botswana; more books; some clothes; knick knacks. Every single one of those things - every book, and piece of art, and small tea strainer, was a vessel full of memory. Some of the stuff was ugly and old and had no sentimental value for me. Other things were part of my life since I could remember. An old carved stool that someone in Uganda had carved for my parents back in the Colonial times when I was tiny: they brought it to Calgary and I remember how comfy my feet felt fitting so snugly on to the seat of the stool.

We got rid of some of the stuff and filled our house with most of it. I put some of the stuff in my cafe. 

There's a thing going around these days about the "spark". Pick something up, if you feel the spark you keep it, if not you chuck it. Nah, not for me. I love to keep stuff, especially if it is the stuff of memories. 

What is the stuff of memories? 

I love to remember different times in my life by using my senses to bring me back. The taste of a papaya brings me back to Uganda when I was tiny. My mother's purple cardigan gives me comfort. Her paintings give me joy. Her art journal gives me sadness.

When I'm running, I listen to music. If I hear a certain song in a different context, I am drawn back to that bend at 16 k when the song played during my first half marathon. My medals remind me of each race - the triumphs and the struggles. All of my books give me memories; my clothes are all from here and there and usually connected to a good friend or a sister or someone who gave me a gift.

Part of life is enjoying the process of making memories. Take a look around you, right now, as you read, and remember this moment.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Gold Medals

I ran my first race in 2015, a half marathon, with my sister and her husband. I had started running two years before, but I've always been someone who uses my body to do hard things.

Tomorrow I'm running the Hypothermic Half in Oka, Quebec. Last year the race was in Montreal, at a nice flat loop on one of the islands. This year they moved it - after I'd already registered! And the new place is more challenging. Hills, trails, and the weather this year is definitely something to be reckoned with.

It's in the middle of my marathon training schedule and I am longing for clear sidewalks, or sunny trails, and less layers. But life is what it is, and I'll be wearing layers tomorrow, and cleats, and my lucky hanky will probably freeze.

But I'll wake up and have my regular race breakfast - a caffe latte and a bowl of oatmeal... and good to go!

Why do I run? Because I can. Because it's something I can do on my own. Because it reminds me of when I was younger and I'd hike in the mountains, accompanied only by me, myself and I. Because it gives me time to think. Because it's fun!

And the medals? They're an extra little bit of memorabilia that I can look at after my race.

At my cafe, we had a tough little time back in the fall, when we were in the middle of a big concept change, and our workload shifted big time, and I was always tired, and .... one thing led to another and I ended up getting a 2 star review! It was a shock to be publicly dissed, but also a shock to see how much I cared about what is essentially bullshit.

So we made a few changes, and now our cafe is working well, as well as it can and as well as we can, which is to say that we are more often crowded than not.. and I have decided that going after the stars or the gold medals, or the flattering comments, is a rabbit hole down which I don't really want to go.

Because, after all, it is YOU who decides whether you have succeeded or not. Our culture is full of advice about how to be the best, but none of it means anything in the end because you're the only one who can truly and effectively be you. Which is maybe why I love running, because I'm only racing against myself, and because essentially we all are.

So, remember, next time your buddy posts a picture of her amazing family, or someone calls you a bad name in public (read: on the internet), or your kid doesn't do well on a test, remember that comparing isn't worth it. Are you doing the best you can? Are you getting help if you can't? five stars for effort, and that's all any of us deserve!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Work in Progress aka Life

In 2003, I was done with city life. We were living in Montreal, not a huge city, but big enough, dirty enough and fast-paced enough to qualify as a big city. Life was fast, cold, busy. We decided to take some of our savings, and borrow some, and buy a ruin in Northern Italy that we could fix up and maybe one day live in. We had experience: we raised four children, renovated an old stone farmhouse, and ran a small subsistence farm in the previous chapter of our lives.

We've lives our lives following our dreams. Sometimes they turned into nightmares, mostly not. We've been poor, rich, and in between. We've been lonely, together, with and without children. Now we have five grown sons and perhaps another chapter is opening.

In any case, our mountain hideaway is a big part of our lives, and it's always been part of other peoples' lives too. This past summer, we hosted our first "work-in-progress" retreat. It was a great success! It was a healing retreat for women, and we learned how to stop and let life happen. It was about fun, playing, resting, eating and drinking, hiking, and being ourselves.

This year, 2019, we have a huge building project! Our land has two stone structures on it. We've fixed up the small one:

and now we have to get to work on the bigger one!

This is the barn. It's a huge, beautiful stone structure with a giant corrugated iron roof, that was put up many years ago to cover the original thatch. The roof has to come down, the beams have to be replaced, and we have to put a new roof on that baby.

So no retreats planned this summer. But if anyone out there loves to build and you want to come and visit for a while? Come on down! 

Next summer, though, I have three fantastic retreats planned. I'm inviting eight women to come and learn how to rest. I'm inviting eight experienced trail runners who want to master trail running in these mountains ... 

and I'm inviting eight women runners who want to learn about running trails, in a safe and fun environment, with an experienced running coach.

Drop me a line if you're interested in any of these activities - more details and dates to come!

Work In Progress!

Beach day!

Sage Sticks