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Over the past year or so, I’ve gone through the five stages of grief for the part of me that was once a runner. After a bad injury in the end of 2008, I was already running a lot less by the time we left for Portugal, but once we were there, the hills and the lack of non-asphalt running venues more or less did me in. I’ve struggled to come to terms with this reality, which has run the gamut (pun intended) from grief to anger to denial. At last, I think I am entering acceptance. Kind of.

Yesterday, a girlfriend and I attempted to go for a quick run in my favorite local state park up the coast. There is a short, flat coastal loop that makes for about a  half-hour run, which is about where both of us are in our running careers at the moment.

However, we soon realized that it was not to be, as it turned out there was a triathlon taking up most of the roads between my house and the park. After crossing the bike course once, we then encountered it again on the highway heading north along the coast, which was where we were intending to go. “Right,” I said, “how about a walk by the ocean instead?”

Just after our turning point, we saw the first triathlete, who was nearing his own turning point. If he hadn’t been wearing a number, I wouldn’t have believed he was in the race, as he was all alone, ahead of the rest of the pack by a good ten or fifteen minutes. That meant he was phenomenally good at all three tri events. Yes, we hate him.

Pretty soon the rest of the elite competitors started to appear, including one poor guy who was running so fast that he got knocked over by someone who couldn’t get out of his way quickly enough. When he got up and kept running, swearing under his breath as he brushed himself off, I got the distinct feeling that it wasn’t the fall he cared about, it was the effect on his time. This impression was confirmed when a while later we saw a guy running with a massive hole torn in the seat of his shorts, revealing an equally massive raspberry on his cheek. Ouch. That must have hurt.

Not so long ago, witnessing this display of physical prowess would have made me jealous, guilty about letting my own training slide, and motivated to get back into it with renewed vigor. This time though, I discovered I was perfectly content to sit back and watch the other people do all the work. My friend agreed, and we judged that in general, it is far more fun to watch (and judge!) a triathlon than compete in one. I know what you’re thinking — well, duh! — but hey, I’m a slow learner sometimes.

Turned out we were just as good at what we were doing, as one of the runners coming up behind us said, “Nice work, ladies,” as he passed us by. Gotta admire someone who can still have a sense of humor in the final leg of a grueling, hot race.

As I thought about it throughout the day that followed, I realized: I was doing nice work. I was taking care of myself without demolishing my body or devoting my entire waking life to training. In other words, I was being healthy, without being obsessive. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, and I’m still struggling with it, always feeling like I could/should be doing more than I am. But I think I’m nearing the acceptance stage, and I for one could not be more glad. In fact, I think I can hear my knees cheering now.

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Time is going by so fast. Almost every day now, Gabe and I look at each other towards evening and say, “That went by quickly!”

The reason for our alarm is that we’re now past the half way point of our year abroad. We’ve been gone for six months, and we have only five months left to go (since we’ve decided to come back a month earlier to give ourselves more time to move back into our house.) And those five months will be very, very full: family visiting next week and for half of March; traveling for most of April and May; a slew of visitors in June; more travel in July, then home for good. Crazy.

Ironically, since I’m more comfortable here now, that thought makes me sad… and yet my increased comfort level is precisely what makes the days go by faster and faster. When we first arrived, each day seemed to last for years… and now they’re gone in what feels like seconds. I wake up, I eat breakfast, I write, I blink, and then it’s dinner time.

It doesn’t help of course that I keep spending these cold, rainy days entirely inside, working, going to the gym, reading, and planning our upcoming trips. But as demonstrated by Monday’s excursion into the wet woolly wild, the weather is hardly conducive to going out and exploring, either.

So yesterday I embraced the weather as a chance for another recovery day, only leaving the house long enough to go to pilates, pick up some groceries, and at last mail that stupid card. Luckily all of these mundane activities were just that, and went off without a hitch.

I’ve been going to this Wednesday morning pilates class regularly now, as I find it extremely restful. That might sound odd, as it is taught in another language, and between the music and the guy’s accent, I can barely understand what he’s saying. But I base my movements largely on what he’s pantomiming and what the other people are doing, which means that I have to concentrate so completely that it effectively shuts out all other thought. If I get distracted or space out at all, I miss what we’re supposed to be doing, and have to scramble to catch up. Luckily the teacher is very patient and good about correcting each student individually, but that makes it all the more gratifying when I am doing something right and he just walks on by.

For some reason, yesterday’s class left me tired all day, so I stopped working earlier than usual (you know, around 8 PM) and read on the couch til it was time for bed. I then slept like a rock for over 8 hours, and feel much improved on this sunny, bright morning.

I may even leave the house today — you never know.

Less than a week from Thanksgiving now, and I just realized that I will probably have my usual Portuguese lesson on the actual day. Not in Kansas anymore, for sure!

However, I had an epiphany this morning that I think will make all the difference in the long run. As I was making my breakfast, I realized that a large part of my homesickness here is that I am comparing this year abroad to past ones, and assume that this year’s transience is just the beginning of an extended period of homelessness.

Whenever I’ve lived overseas before, the homesickness of being in a different country was magnified by the underlying knowledge that I actually didn’t have a home to go back to. I always had my parents house, of course, but never my own — by necessity, I had always moved out of whatever dorm or apartment I was living in at the time in order to move overseas.

I keep forgetting that this year is different, because at the end of it, I get to go back to my own house. Granted, it will take a while to get it set up again and erase the marks the tenants leave there. But regardless, a year from now, I will be making breakfast in the house we own, in the home we’ve made together, and looking forward to Thanksgiving. By then, the memory of watching Lisbon wake up through my window will be just that: a memory.

Even more importantly though — I will be doing the same thing the year after that, and the year after that one, over and over until we go on sabbatical again in seven years’ time. In other words: this is only a temporary displacement. Not a permanent one, nor the sign of a larger state of transience and impermanence in my life.

Apparently, even after living in our house with Gabe for almost three years, the concept of having a permanent home still has yet to fully settle in. Hopefully once it does, I can relax into our year abroad a little more and enjoy what I have here without worrying so much about what I am going back to. Because my house is still there, albeit with college students in it, and this is all temporary.

With that in mind… yesterday was another good and productive day. We’re definitely on a roll here. I had my personal training session in the morning, which turned out to be far more helpful than I’d anticipated. My trainer gave me a whole set of exercises to rehabilitate my knee, which was wonderful, and something I’d been wanting to do for quite a while. But we didn’t neglect my upper body, either, which my biceps are already reminding me of this morning — he gave me a whole other set of arm/back exercises to do as well, which will give some tone to my skinny little twig arms.

Overall, I really enjoyed walking around the weight room and talking with my trainer (in English, thankfully.) Unlike a lot of the people who work at this gym, he is a shy, wiry, totally non-pushy guy, whose French birth gives him not only his name but also a slightly different tilt to his English than what I’m used to hearing. (He was shocked when I told him he had a French accent, as if I’d just informed him he’d been walking around with toilet paper on his shoe or something: “No one ever told me that before!”)

Best part of all: he didn’t try to sell me on anything, for which I was greatly relieved. He was genuinely concerned with helping me recover and get stronger, which was a welcome change from the attitude I’ve come to expect at this gym. It definitely went far to compensate for the now-infamous Bikini Incident last week!

I came home, tired and hungry after doing just half of my new workout. Gabe and I both worked at home for a few hours in the afternoon, crammed together at our one desk, with the sounds of the neighborhood and the increasingly chilly afternoon air coming in through the open window.

I soon left again for my Portuguese lesson, which was conducted mainly in English this time, due to my brain being fried after two days of website coding. (Turns out I can only learn one language at a time!) Even though we didn’t have one of our usual wide-ranging societal discussions, this time we made a different, more technical kind of progress, reviewing the past tense and prepositions, which I needed. We did at one point get into the politics of the swine flu vaccine, but as that conversation was conducted in English, it only counted toward my overall education, not my Portuguese skills in particular.

I meandered home as usual, enjoying the remnants of the sunset and the chill in the air, the yellowing leaves and the quickly multiplying Christmas lights on the buildings. All this is temporary, I thought to myself. So enjoy the hell out of it.

… I learned from jumping rope.

In the final few weeks of my kick ass pilates class, we were subjected to… er… privileged enough to have regular intervals of jumprope. Turned out I was not the only person in that small class who hadn’t picked up a jumprope in fifteen years, because there were a couple of us who could not keep it turning for longer than a few seconds.

The biggest problem was that we were doing it barefoot. Let me tell you, a thick plastic jumprope (or even a thin one, for that matter) smacking against your bare toes at high speeds is really unpleasant. Even worse is when it smacks you on the head on the way back up, which the shorter jumpropes did for me. Between the two, my reacquaintance with this diabolically simple (yet so very difficult!) piece of exercise equipment had a steep and very painful learning curve.

My biggest downfall on the jumprope, however, was not my bare feet. It was my brain. As usual, the anticipation of hitting my toes was far worse than the actuality of it, and tended to hasten the very event I was dreading. Just as I’d get up a good pace, I would start thinking about messing up, then thinking I shouldn’t think about it, then thinking that thinking about it would definitely bring it about, only now I was really thinking about it, and… OUCH! There goes the toes. Or the head. Or both, if I was feeling particularly talented.

The only way I could get around this trap was if I just went for it, without fearing the jumprope as it whizzed past my ears or anticipating the smack of it entangling itself in my feet. I couldn’t think about those things, I just had to do it, no thought involved. By the end of class, I was getting up towards thirty seconds at a time without flinching, and even then, I had finally learned how to lift my toes enough to deflect the punishing slap down towards the soles of my feet.

Since then, I’ve started to see how the jumprope principle applies to the rest of my life. If I let myself fear the stinging repercussions of an action, they will most likely come to pass. Witness my recent bout of insomnia — the more I anticipated not sleeping, the more likely it was that I would not be able to sleep. The brain is certainly a marvelous and insidious thing.

I thought about all this a lot yesterday, primarily while on a trail run with my brother. On the flatter portions of the trail, I could keep pace with him fairly easily. But when it came to traversing the downhills, I balked every time. I know how badly it hurts to roll my ankle, and I know that it puts me out of commission for at least a couple days afterwards. So I tend to slow way down on the descents, allowing my brother to pull far ahead of me. (I also slow down on the ascents, but that’s more to do with the fact that I can’t breathe.)

As I was picking my way down a particularly long stretch of downhill slope, it occurred to me that it was like jumping rope — the more I thought about rolling my ankle, the more likely I was to bring it about. Witness my brother, far ahead, who just throws his body down the hill and trusts his feet to find the proper footholds. Sometimes he rolls his ankle, yes, and in fact he has even been known to sprawl face down on the trail, then pick himself up and continue running. He doesn’t let the fear of falling stop him, he just barges right ahead. Why can’t I be more like that, in my running and in my life? Why do I have to be such a scaredy cat?

This issue is even more relevant than usual these days. I recently got a new job, one that scares the crap out of me with how perfect it seems to be for my life, both immediately and in the long-term. I am so excited to have this job, and yet so scared to mess it up and squander this opportunity. For a long time, I preferred to make the safer, less challenging options in my career because I knew that I had less to lose if I didn’t do the job right. But this time, the stakes are much higher. And this time, I know that I can’t let my fear of falling carry me on down the hill. My feet led me here in the first place, so I need to trust them to carry me further without incident.

So what’s the takeaway here, be it in jumping rope, sleeping, running, or working? Don’t let your head get in the way of your feet. It’ll only trip you up.

With the return of my insomnia last night, I decided perhaps the problem is that I haven’t been running enough. (Or maybe I’m just turning into a night owl in my old age?)

The last month of my pilates class has been more “high-intensity,” aka “kick-your-butt/crossfit/OH MY GOD I’m sore/you want me to do WHAT???” Most of the time, I’m either afraid to run (the day before class), exhausted (the day of), or way too sore (the day after). So running has become a thing of the weekend, when I’ve had a day or two to recover from class and at least one more to prepare for the next.

You would think this much exercise would knock me out. If I was normal, I’m sure it would. But I’m not normal, I’m a runner. No matter what other exercise I do, nothing is quite the same. Yes, my body is exhausted after each class, and I spend most of the day trying my best not to pass out on any flat surface available. But when night rolls around, it’s still not enough to make my brain shut up long enough for me to fall asleep.

The crucial difference here is that for me, running is not just a physical exercise. Running has always been a form of moving mediation, less a way of escaping my thoughts than working through them at a faster pace. I put my body on autopilot, synchronize the pace of my mind to that of my feet, and I go. I run, I think, I dodge branches, logs, strollers, and bikers, until I’ve worked my way through at least a few of the things on my mind. In the end, a good run is one that achieves complete unity between head and body, leaving me at peace both mentally and physically.

While I love my kick-your-butt, I mean pilates, class, it just doesn’t have the same effect. When you’re working that hard, you don’t have time to think. You just do, and do again, praying all the while that your muscles will have enough strength left to do the next set, and the one after that, and then oh wait, don’t forget the mat work too! It’s great to find something that will actually shut my mind up for an hour, but it really doesn’t give me a chance to work through very many knotty issues.

Conscious and unconscious exercise — it’s almost like the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. They are both valuable in terms of building strength, endurance, and flexibility, but you can’t neglect one at the expense of the other.

So this morning, I told my body, “Look, I realize you’re sore, but you’re just going to have to deal with it. I need to run.” And run I did, on my favorite trail, stopping in the middle to catch my breath and gaze at the (slightly low) creek. I didn’t make record time, that’s for damn sure, and I struggled with a couple of the hills. But I did a lot of thinking, and felt my mental muscles loosening up even as my physical ones protested at the abuse. Again, too bad. It felt great.

The best part of the whole run came at the end, as I was cooling down and stretching by my car. A hiker was just starting out along the trail, equipped with two walking poles, a pack, and a suitably determined look on his face. He greeted me, and said, “Funny thing about this shirt — they told me it wouldn’t smell. I’ve been wearing it for five days straight, and it doesn’t smell.” With that, he kept walking.

See what I would’ve missed out on if I hadn’t convinced my legs to take me running today? That made it all worth it. That, and my old friend the runner’s high. Oh, how I’ve missed it. Nothing else is quite the same.

I started this Olympiad with the best of intentions. Late last week, after a conversation with my mom about our shared discomfort with the whole affair, I decided (mostly on a whim) to boycott the Olympics. This was hardly an educated decision, mind you, just a gut reaction to various things I’d been hearing about how China was preparing itself and its citizens to fall under the global microscope. Call me a weekend warrior liberal if you’d like, but hey, my intentions were good.

Too bad good intentions turned out to be just about all I had. On Friday night, my husband quickly overcame any similar qualms he may have had and turned on the opening ceremonies about thirty seconds after they started. Things were already looking bad for my putative boycott — if our shared TV is tuned to the Olympics, who’s to tell that I’m not watching? I mean, should I go into the other room and tune that TV to CSI reruns, just to prove my point? No. I did manage to stay focused on my book during most of the overwhelming LED antics, but I have to admit, the costumes with the green lights on them were pretty cool. All kinds of ideas for Halloween…!

What really got me though, and what gets me every time, were the athletes themselves. As soon as they started marching out — faces gleaming, smiles radiant, bodies magnificent — my boycott was officially over. At that moment, I remembered why we watch the Olympics, why we have always loved and followed the Games, no matter what political objections we may have: we enjoy watching our fellow human beings transcend the limitations that bind us. These are the superhumans, the men and women who defy gravity and the frailty of the human body on a daily basis. They simultaneously remind us of our own weakness even as we live vicariously through their strength. Their faces echo hope, courage, confidence — traits our TV screens normally only portray as fiction.

From that moment onward, I was hooked. I have been watching the coverage on and off since then, even staying up past my bedtime for two nights running to watch the unbelievable, unflappable machine that is Michael Phelps. These are men and women at the top of their game, and they have prepared for this moment all their lives. It makes no sense to punish the athletes for the transgressions of the host country. They did not choose to compete in Beijing, it was chosen for them. They merely showed up to compete, because not doing so — whether for political, personal, or physical reasons — would have squandered four years of all-out training. Who am I to devalue their efforts by not giving them an audience?

To some, watching the Olympics might amount to tacit approval for the policies of the host country. And sure, I can see that. But that is what has always been so fascinating about the Olympics: they are symbolic of international politics, and yet they still manage to transcend them. On one level, the Olympics are about different nations meeting and competing, a safe, bloodless microcosm of global conflict. And yet they also show us the best of what it means to be human, no matter what race or nationality. Even if you resent the Chinese for stealing the gold away from us in women’s gymnastics last night, you still have to admire the skill and power that went into that feat.

So really, by watching the 2008 Olympics, I am only doing what is in my nature: I am paying tribute to those among us who strive to become more than human. By doing so, they remind us that boundaries are there to be transcended, be they physical, mental, or political.

In the spirit of my post about pilates the other day, I thought I would update you on my continued attempt to introduce new things into my life. Witness my comical attempt at trying a Zumba class last night at my gym.

I’ve seen the classes start a number of times, usually as I’m exiting a relatively sedate yoga or pilates class, and have been curious about it for a while. I was drawn to the sensuous, voluptuous teachers who walk in, oozing confidence and wearing tight, midriff-baring spandex, and the rhythmic, hard-hitting beat that commences soon afterwards. However I was never brave enough to try a class on my own, and had to wait until I found a victim, er friend, who was willing to give it a try with me.

Last night, said victim and I arrived at the gym, replete in our own brightly-colored form-fitting spandex. (The same bright color — a vibrant pink — might I add. Good thing she got the memo.) We started out by walking on the treadmill, which I could definitely handle. I felt good, confident, strong, ready to embark on new adventures, one aerobics class at a time.

Within minutes of said hard-hitting beat commencing, I was well and truly, thoroughly and disgustingly, one hundred and eighty percent lost. Not since middle school have I felt quite so awkward, gangly, and disastrously uncoordinated. The class consisted mainly of Latin dance moves done in sets, interspersed with intervals of squats. I got the squats down fine, but the dance moves, done rapidly with hardly any instruction, were absolutely beyond me. I’ve always enjoyed dancing, but when it comes to choreographed movement, turns out I am utterly hopeless.

But again, there was that one crucial difference: I did not allow myself to give up. About half way through, I thought longingly of just throwing in the spandex and getting on the treadmill. That’ll show them, I thought. They all think I’m just another uncoordinated goober of a white girl trying pathetically to shake her nonexistent bootie! I bet I can outrun anyone in this room! Yeah! I quelled the urge to regain my injured pride by returning to my safe go-to activity, and I stuck it out, laughing at myself the entire time.

I don’t mean to write again about my exercise addiction or my proven status as a gym-rat. The reason I tell this story is that I am starting to see a life-long pattern of perfectionism gradually getting whittled down, and I could not be more thrilled. The fact that I A) took the class in the first place, knowing full well how dorky and uncoordinated I’d feel; and B) stuck with it throughout the entirety of the class, knowing full well how dorky and uncoordinated I looked… that’s a far cry from the adolescent girl who refused to learn how to ski because she didn’t want to do anything she was guaranteed to be terrible at.

Who says you can’t teach a young dog new tricks? By next year, I’ll be climbing Everest. OK maybe not, but perhaps I will have learned a few Zumba moves by then.

This summer, I am rediscovering what it is like to push my body to its outer limits. Call me crazy, but damn — it feels good.

The last time I felt this way was two summers ago, when I trained for a half-marathon. As I’ve mentioned before, I “only” got up to eleven miles in my training runs before my dad’s illness cut my concentration to shreds. But the memory of that achievement stayed with me long after the routine was gone: walking the tightrope of my body’s limits, constantly pushing them upwards and outwards, every week achieving something I didn’t think I was capable of doing.

I am currently becoming reacquainted with that feeling, along with the sweet, excruciating ache that stays with you for days afterwards, reminding you that yes, you are alive and strong and whole. This time it’s not running that I’m focusing on, as I don’t think my knees, hips, etc, could stand it right now. This time, it’s that artful form of torture begun many years ago by Joseph Pilates.

I started taking classes at my gym a little under a year ago, seeing it as a good preparation both mentally and physically for my wedding in October. At first, I was truly humbled. After running and doing yoga for years, I had no idea that I could still be so uncoordinated… or so sore. But as time went on, the subtle movements became more familiar, and after about six months I found that the class I was taking at my gym was no longer as challenging. So I started taking a ball class with the same teacher, which was indeed harder, but it was still only once a week. I was quickly developing a new addiction, and I needed a better fix. Stat.

Then, at the end of May, my teacher announced that she would be doing a summer-long progressive workshop at a small martial arts gym in town. Oh, music to my ears. Now, instead of doing just one hour of pilates a week in a large class of varied abilities, I am doing two and a half hours a week, often with only three or four other people, all of whom have been there more or less since the workshop started six weeks ago. As a cohort, we go faster, push harder, and practice better. I love it.

Even as my body becomes ever more capable, however, I am once again humbled by how much I don’t know. Unlike with yoga, I am finding my lack of muscular strength to be a liability, simply because I lack the power it takes to maintain such tight control over my body. I am also remembering just how uncoordinated I am, which is a big reason I started running in the first place — I was too big of a klutz to do anything other than just put one foot in front of the other. So as everyone else is doing eight, ten, even twelve reps of each exercise on the ball, I struggle just to keep my balance in the starting position. Alas.

Here lies a crucial difference: for once in my life, every time I fall off, I get right back on, more determined than ever that this will be the time I nail this exercise, dammit. I am generally far too much of a perfectionist to bother doing anything I’m not automatically good at — “trying” doesn’t enter into my vocabulary, because it implies that “failing” might be a possibility. I hate skiing, because I started learning as an adolescent and didn’t like the number of times it required falling on my ass. As a kid, I couldn’t stand being laughed at in team sports, so instead I buried my nose in a book until college and then took up running, where failure is always a relative term. No matter how bad of a runner you are, there’s always someone slower or more goofy looking out there. Cruel, yes, but true.

My husband, who at forty still possesses more than his fair share of the daredevil gene, absolutely hates this part of my personality. It frustrates him to no end. I myself have learned to live around it, but it still feels great to find something that I don’t give up on as soon as I fall short of perfection. At least once a class, the teacher will demonstrate an exercise that makes me raise my eyebrows and go, “Yeah, right.” Even so, I roll up my sleeves (or more often my pant legs), pull in my belly button, and attempt to breathe through it all. In other words, I try, which for me is a huge accomplishment in itself. And you know what? To my utter amazement, at least 75% of the time, I can actually do it. Turns out my eyes and my brain are holding me back more than anything right now. Go figure.

And so I spend my 2.5 hours a week trying to balance my too-willowy, still ungainly body on a deceptively solid plastic ball, red-faced and puffing, loving every minute of it. I have missed the feeling that comes with pushing the limits of my endurance and strength, tip-toeing around the line of muscular exhaustion, walking up to it and then backing off just enough to be able to complete the exercise. Yesterday, for the first time, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish this set.” But I did, I pushed through that block in my mind, because all along my body knew that yes, it could finish, and yes, it could even continue to the next one. (It helped that we were three minutes away from the end of class, so my body also knew that there was a Luna bar and water waiting at the finish line.)

At this point in my life, I spend every other hour of my week in uncertainty and self-doubt. But for those two and a half hours, I am strong, determined, and forgiving of my own limitations. Every week, I accomplish things that I didn’t think myself capable of doing the week before. I can already feel the roots of that realization starting to reach down throughout the rest of my life, taking hold on things I once felt were completely out of my control, relaxing my need to achieve perfection at any cost. It will take a while, but eventually, I hope these lessons will permeate my life much more thoroughly.

Until then, I will continue to let myself look like an idiot, falling off the ball, picking myself up, and getting right back on again. I have a feeling that this process has many lessons to teach me, ones that I should have learned long ago.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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