To survive

Hello; is anyone still out there? (echoes into the ether)

This space is in dire need of a refresh, isn’t itso let’s get moving. No time to waste.

Back in May (how far back it feels), I left a story here about running. About my own evolving relationship with it, my questions about why we do it at all, and, in the simplest sense, a trail race. Concluded, closed, done. Box, meet check.

Right?

Perhaps not.

Occasionally, lately, I’ve still been pondering this conundrum of health-seeking in this as well as other spheres. Meaning, not only exercise, but also food, psychological and spiritual practices, relationships, and work habits. After recently exploring this with a friend on her blog, I still am left with the question of why so many people, mostly in the U.S., go to such lengths for so-called ultimate or perfect health.

One easier answer is this: that, on a certain level, we possess a simple desire to be well, to feel good, and to take care of the gift that is the body. It is the soul’s sole vehicle for navigating this world, after all.

Another possibility, more difficult, is this: that, perhaps, we must cope with that age-old problem of mortality somehow. That problem of not just navigating this world, but of how to actually do that. And of course, this past week (or these past months) (or this past year) (or years), this has become that much more potent; when so much is senseless, including how we live and die, running and walking and eating and stretching and so onthey are simple and they make sense.

All that in mind, it is interesting how, sometimes, this cultural concern with health can become borderline religious. Not necessarily surprising—nor is it an outright good or bad thing. Rather, it’s a curious thing, and has the potential to go in dangerous directions as well as beneficial ones.

But of course, it’s only one side of an enormous subject, and there are so many other reasons for being concerned about one’s wellbeing. So the question remains unanswered, which is frankly how I like most questions anyway.

And all of that aside, this long preamble is for an idea that might better be represented elsehow. Thus:

“To Survive: a docupoem”

Zen in the city

It’s been awhile, but not without good reason. I.e., sometimes – most times – you’ve got to do your growing away from the world of Interweb. Over the past few months, I’ve started full-time work, began exploring the potential for a(/another) new career path, gone to a concert, planned a vacation, and tried, countless times, to sleep in this noisy humidity. Did I mention ruing the day I left California?

Richmond’s not bad. I’m being unfair/mostly kidding. But my favorite places tend to be the quieter ones. The North Shore of O’ahu, for the most out-there example: I absolutely adore the country towns there. Not everything about them, but the beating heart of the entire area. It is a small, but sufficient haven; a home that is quiet, but calming.

Richmond, as I said, is not bad, and it’s not the Big City, but it is also not the country, and by no means is it quiet (she wrote, waiting for the next siren to whistle by).

There’s a beauty to this cacophony, of course. Music pouring from car windows and balconies; dogs barking; the racetrack abuzz – it’s a bizarre symphony of sorts, but it is uniquely ours. And it’s exciting that there is so much possibility living here.

But then there are moments when the noise mellows out, and if one pays attention, there are pockets of serenity to be found. And this individual revels in such spaces.

(That, or one could live with jaw clenched ad infinitum. It’s up to the individual, I suppose.)

I’m spoiled to have to take just a few steps to get to this first destination: the VMFA Sculpture Garden.

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Whoever designed this area deserves a hug. It remains gentle and traps no chatter even when people are about, not unlike a park or bigger green space. That joyful echo of laughter and footsteps… swoon.

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I am writing, in fact, from this very location, cool blissful breeze rustling the grasses, leaves, flowers, edges of water. With the art just in sight, it’s soothing. Wouldn’t miss it.

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You can’t talk about peaceful places without mentioning the trails at Dogwood Dell and the Pumphouse ParkSomehow I always end up drawn back here, to the grassy expanse by the amphitheater and the short yet winding trails. You could lose hours wandering here.

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ah.. cliched, but truly a sight for sore eyes

Then, on a more spiritual level, there’s Richmond Hill: a longtime spiritual haven and monastic spot for those committed to praying over the city.

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I can think of no better place than this. High in Church Hill, its sweeping views of the streets, buildings, and river below keep it utterly engaged with Richmond’s heart. And its garden (notice a trend, eh?) is a relaxing place to sit, read, or pray.

Rest is important. Real rest is hard to find space for. There are so many demands on our time, energy, headspace. And that’s part of why environment matters: it’s an all-natural way of compartmentalizing between busyness and rest. There’s a reason we have happy hour and pau hana; there’s a reason we have a day of rest between workweeks. Because sometimes, just one step is all it takes to move you from stress-laden to chill.

I personally tend to have a hard time taking that first step. But these places are such an encouragement. How about you – where can you find such encouragement in the space around you?

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post: