The Stories I Weave Myself

I am sitting in a small dorm room at Carroll College. The window overlooking downtown Helena and the Helena Mountains is to my right, and the sun has just broken out of a thunderstorm to break into a beautiful sunset at 9:20PM.

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Earlier, when I was supposed to be writing this piece (though I confess, I had no idea what I was going to write about), I was sitting with my feet up on the windowsill as a lightning storm passed through. Thunder boomed, lightning shot across the sky, and the rain streaked down all the way to the range– long fingers of cloud-wisps reaching from the horizon towards the trees. I sat in the room, alone, listening to Jazz music, just… watching.

I am in Helena, Montana, for a seminar on nature and education. It seems fitting to try and paint the picture of my setting for this story.

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I had an interesting realization earlier this week. While I’ll be studying with a cohort of 16 people, I don’t know anyone on this trip. I don’t know anyone in Montana. I got on the plane out here knowing that, frankly, I was going to be alone. No one to meet up with or reach out to, no one sitting on the plane next to me holding my hand and planning adventures. I was on my own.

As much as I am an introvert and love my alone time, I realized that I actually am very rarely alone. I’ll go through brief afternoons and evenings, but I haven’t really been on my own since I moved to Hawai’i five years ago. Ever since then, I’ve found people– friends and family– to call mine. If I’m really honest, I’m a serial monogamist who hasn’t been single in quite a while either. I function best, I think, when partnered.

Or, I assume. Of course, I am still (very happily) partnered, but there was no feasible way to get my guy out here to join me on this journey. So, for the next three weeks, I’m flying solo, and it’s completely new to me.

And, as much as I should have been excited, I’ve actually been terrified. What if I lost all my luggage on the trip? What if being apart like this destroys my relationship? What if someone I love dies while I’m gone and I wasn’t there? What if I hate everyone? What if everyone hates me?

These questions don’t just stay simple, easy-to-answer dilemmas in my head. Unless stopped, they will often weave their way into full-blown, worst-case-scenario stories. I will very vividly visualize the horrors each one would rain upon me. A pit forms in my stomach. I can’t stop seeing the worst.

As much as I love stories, as much as I’ve been focusing my life on storytelling, I see now that sometimes my own stories hold me hostage.

I used to see Panic as the monster who would come and get me. That’s an apt metaphor much of the time, and sometimes my panic attacks will come out of nowhere, with no decipherable trigger. The problem with that image, though, is that it means I have no agency with my anxiety. Sometimes I don’t– sometimes it just hits me like a ton of bricks, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Over the past few weeks, though, I’m beginning to see the ways I have, perhaps, let anxiety come to run parts of my life. I have become so accustomed to weaving tales that, sometimes, I’ll follow the yarn of a question all the way around and around until I weave myself into a web of despair, unable to claw my way out.

I am trying to get better at pulling myself out of the web. Instead of wriggling around, further entangling myself, I am trying to stop, breathe, and re-evaluate the situation. Often, though, I have someone who can help me start finding my way out.

Now, though, I am sitting in a dorm room thousands of miles away from the people who love me, with no one but the mountains and trails to help me find my way out.

So, at first, I was terrified by this.

But this morning, I woke up after very little sleep (Helena is currently in an unseasonable heat wave and our dorm room unexpectedly lost air conditioning, so little rest was had). I was tired and moody. I missed my partner. I missed air conditioning.

Then, I decided there was no one to cry to about it (literally, as I was the first person in the seminar to arrive), so I better just go out and do something else. I hiked up the 1906 trail to the summit of Mt. Helena. I saw nature like I never had before– endless sky and mountains covered in more evergreens than I could ever imagine. I was welcomed and helped by friendly strangers and their dogs. I ran down trails that looked like the ones I have dreamed of.

Then, I bought myself some chocolate milk, did some work, and watched the rain fall outside while listening to some Jazz music.

I’m currently going through a bit of a mind-shift, I think. As I’ve been asking myself what I really want, it also means coming to terms with the things I actually need– not just of other people, though, but of myself. What do I need to do to bring happiness into my life? How can I stop letting anxiety write the story that I should be writing myself?

I look out at the sunset, breathe, and remember the joy I felt this morning running along a lonely trail. Surrounded by trees, I felt so blessed just to exist, on my own, in such a beautiful space. It was a complete 360 from the despair I felt this morning. It was seeing that with each footfall I took, on my own, I was slowly stepping out of the web and back into myself.

And that’s where it begins, I think. As much as I love and need the support of people in my life to help me manage my anxiety, I need to be the one to break out of the narrative and back to the blessed reality that I am loved, supported, and incredibly blessed. People can tell me that as I further entangle myself in darkness, but ultimately I have to be the one to believe it. I have to be the one to set it down in ink on my heart so I don’t lose sight of it.

No one can write my story but me.

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Rhythm and Flow: Beating Myself Back Into my Body

I’m becoming certain that, as unexpected as it may seem, there is nothing quite as mindful as getting punched in the face or choked by your own collar.

I’ve been toying with the idea for several months now, ever since I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and sparring in Muay Thai. After years of becoming knowledgeable as and identifying myself a runner (something I’m struggling with), I’ve jumped into two physical worlds where I know… absolutely nothing. I’m newer than new to both sports. I had a brief stint with Karate as a kid, and trained some boxing and grappling on and off over the years, but nothing consistent.

Needless to say, the experience has been incredibly humbling. There’s a lot to learn, and while I’ve always considered myself generally athletic, there’s something really different about BJJ and Muay Thai that’s asking me to do something completely new: be totally and completely present.

Don’t get me wrong. Running and weightlifting both require thought, especially in order to do well. Running distance asks you to consider pace, strategy, and efficiency of motion. Weightlifting and doing a difficult WOD means thinking about form and timing strategy as well.

Still, both (running especially) have allowed me to slip into a cradle-rock rhythm of “work” and lose myself there. I’ve said before that running is a form of moving meditation for me. It often allows me to zone out completely until I’ve suddenly run many miles without realizing it. It has offered me solace and escape in this way for years.

Now, though, I’m working in a world where the consequences of zoning out will punch you in the face. Literally. As soon as the bell rings, all my attention has to focus on that moment– what is my opponent doing? Where am I expecting them? How will I counter their move? The physical muscle memory I am trying to build so I can hit or grapple safely and effectively is in a consistent, intertwining dance with the mental chess game at stake. Come at me with a body kick? I can be ready to throw the cross. If I’m able to take mount, I better be thinking about how to keep my base and try for a submission. Every moment is assessing the situation, choosing a response, and planning the next move.

Still, while it’s tactical, it’s a graceful and powerful experience too. It’s dangerous to overthink (and, thus, slow down) while sparring, so while there is consistently critical thought, there’s also the need to let go and see how well training and translated to good instincts. There isn’t always time to debate every possible move; the person in front of me demands a response in this moment. It demands my body to move in space with another. It forces me to interact with the world around so completely that I can no longer turn only inward and ignore everything around me. Instead, I allow myself to be drawn into the push and pull of another person, and the tension is fraught and exhilarating and reaches into a deep, gut-level part of myself that I so rarely get to interact with.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of Flow, a state of joyous and complete focus.

As strange as it is, I have always had a hard time reaching Flow while running or even while doing yoga. I would try and focus, be mindful, concentrate on my body, but the repetitive movement made it so easy for me to zone out, stop thinking about my body, be able to work through other mental things (something, again, I often love).

As I am trying to grow in these new arts, though, I find myself not only focusing more quickly, but almost being forced into Flow. In some ways, a sparring situation is a Flow or Die kind of moment. You either pay attention and do your best, or you get smashed.

There’s no shame in getting smashed though. If anything I’ve come to welcome it. There’s nothing like a teep in stomach or getting rolled over your head to bring you back into your body. When I am tempted to lose myself down the rabbit hole of my own mind, being in a space with other people who will beat me back into my body– quite literally– is actually incredibly soothing in a way.

Each hit, blocked or eaten, is a reminder to breathe. Each slam of breath out of my lungs makes me grateful for the next gasp I take in. And when time my training kicks in (finally!) and I land a hit or take a stronger position, there are double blessings: there is a brief moment of triumph that my I learned and executed something new, followed by the humbling realization that it was one moment in a series of many, and that I better get back to work.

Because the work is exhilirating, empowering, and exciting.

What’s Next: Teacher, Writer, …?

When I started this blog a few years ago, it was in part to document my journey attempting to hit a sub-4 hour marathon. As I stared at the Wordpress title field, trying to think of a name, I decided to label it after my three favorite activities: teaching, running, and writing.

As I am approaching 30 (*oomph*) I had always sort of assumed much of my personality was set. Naive, of course, but I saw myself as a lifetime runner– one of those folks who would be marathoning when they were 80 or something. Running wormed its way into my heart as a daily necessity, a place I had to go to each day to be able to breathe properly. I loved it.

Now, in 2017 I don’t think I’ve run more than 15 miles a week. Tops. I have gone over 5 or 6 miles. I’m not sure because the band of my Garmin broke in January and I didn’t bother to get it fixed or get a new one. I no longer plan my life around my a run.

I still run, on occasion, as a way to help train the fighters at the gym where Chase and I coach or as a warm-up for my own workouts. It is still the place I can go to clear my head or listen to some good music and just disconnect from things. I still enjoy running, but is running still a core part of who I am? That’s a harder question.

I woke up before my alarm this morning, though, a rare occurrence that made me wonder if I should lace up my shoes. I’d had a bad day yesterday, and spent much of the afternoon overwhelmed and crying on my apartment floor. My eyes were swollen and groggy, and I wasn’t sure if I could muster the energy to coax a run out of my already sore limbs– a feeling I hadn’t experienced in years.

I decided to give it a whirl. I slipped on old shoes and trotted out the door, my body easing into a familiar rhythm. I put on some salsa music, thinking that since I was out of practice, I’d need the motivation.

As I crested the hill near my apartment, I could feel my muscles flexing with each beat against the concrete. “Oh, hey,” my legs sputtered, surprised, “we’re doing this again?” I cracked my neck back and forth, ear to shoulder, and smiled.

“Yup. Here we go.”

Within a mile, I shut the music off. I found my groove– slower than normal, I’m sure, but steady and solid. I buckled in, dipped my head forward and began to move forward. The road was still there, unchanged in my absence, ready to meet me where I was again.

As we move into April, I’m excited to start figuring out what’s next for me, at least as far as the physical is concerned. I’m teaching Yoga three times a week, taking Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and lifting heavy things at CrossFit. Each of these is challenging and exhilarating in its own way.

But it’s nice to know that, no matter what happens, the road will always meet me where I am. In a world in which I am always asking, “What’s Next?” I am grateful to know that I don’t need to eschew the things I loved before to grow– I merely find a way to fit them in. Whenever I need to, I can always strap on a pair of shoes, strip away all other distractions, and run back to myself.

Redefining Measurements

Recently, I  asked my students to write about something that had recently begun or ended in their life.

Their ears perked up immediately, and I have to say the prompt got me thinking too.  What  had I given up in my life recently? What have I learned to let go of, in order to make space for new things?

Now, there are a whole lot of emotional things I could bring up, or relationships that I’ve moved past. But a few weeks ago on my birthday, I was reminded of one have it I had recently given up without even meaning to.

I looked in the mirror on the morning that  I turned 29, smiled, and realize that it had been weeks since I’ve measured myself.

Whenever I’ve written about fitness, I’ve tried to be honest and that I’m nowhere near perfect when it comes to self-love are having a positive body image. I struggle like anyone else. While I had learned to let go of the scale, I still measured my body every day. Bust, waist, hips, thighs. Every morning, sometimes even multiple times a day, I would take stock of how much “progress” my body had made. How much I ate or whether I worked out were anchored to that  daily act of measurement.

In the past few months, something has changed. I’ve implemented so many different things– CrossFit, Muay Thai, Yoga–  into my routine with running, but I frankly just lost the ability to focus on these a static measurements. I have regularly found myself working out 2 to 3 times a day, and having the occasional private yoga session with my boyfriend in the evening to try and recover from it all.

Here’s what I know I’ve learned before, and will probably keep learning for the rest of my life: the more I focus on my body’s ability to perform rather act rather than just be seen, the better I am able to redefine how I perceive success.  Instead of using a measuring tape to figure out exactly how much I would let myself eat that day, I’d see three different work outs in my calendar, listen to the growling in my stomach, and stop leaving the meal I had brought in my lunch bag untouched. It is impossible to perform at the level I want if my body doesn’t have fuel, so I’d set that as a higher priority than what the tape might say. Frankly, at a certain point, I just sort of forgot to measure my waist and just measured my ability to be moving at the end of three hard sessions.

A few days ago, I decided to check in with both my weight and my measurements, just to see if my actions have created any noticeable change.

My waist and hips had generally stayed the same. But I’ve gained about a solid inch of muscle in my arms. I can also with more, run faster, and throw a better punch that I could a few months ago. Those seem like successes to be happy with.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think you need to spend hours in the gym to attain some level of happiness, worth,  or pride in your body. I don’t think the change happened when I started spending more time working out, I think the change happened when I had new, exciting goals for my body.  The ability to run faster and focus on that was why I had dropped the scale in the first place. The ability to do new, crazy things with my body is, but I hope, has let me get rid of the measuring tape too.

So,  with my marathon season about a month away from the end, it’s time to start rethinking what’s next. Here’s what I’m sure of: it definitely won’t be boring, and I’m excited to measure how successful I am by how much fun I’m having along the way.

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Beasts and Badasses

This week, Teaching Tolerance featured something I wrote about the words we use for women:

For nearly a decade, I had sought approval under different names, ones much less badass than “beast.” I reveled in being called “cute,” “small” or “too pretty” to do something. When that same coach had, earlier that month, described me as a “110-pound girl,” I basked in the glory of that diminutive for days. I would see myself in the mirror and secretly smile at having been mistaken for someone so much smaller than I actually was.

And isn’t that a problem?

If you’ve followed this blog at all (Hi, Mom!), you know that body image is something I grapple with a lot. The balance between concepts of femininity, masculinity, and what all of that means for me has always been tough. It’s difficult to not swing to either extreme.

So, I appreciate the space to keep figuring this out. Not just on my blog, but as a teacher. I guess all I hope is that my female students don’t have nearly as difficult time to balance this narrow edge.

 

 

 

 

Running Back To Myself

This last week, On Being (one of my favorite programs) featured a piece I recorded with “Creating Our Own Lives.” I’m incredibly honored. The episode is below.

This past week, as I prepare for my 10th marathon, Kauai, this being shared feels especially sweet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about strength and vulnerability this week. It’s a frequent theme in my writing.

And re-listening to this made me realize something important: the road can be a brutal place.

If my race reports have shown me anything, it’s that racing doesn’t always feel like sunshine and butterflies. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s bloody. It can make you cry. Hell, it will make you cry.

What running also taught me was the value of getting back up when we fall.

It’s something I’ve noticed before, but it was a reminder I needed this week.

Here’s the thing: the road is going to be there, regard of how we feel. Riddled with ankle-breaking potholes and unforeseen dangers, the road is always going to be there in its imperfect splendor. The only way to escape the journey is to wallow on the sidelines and give up, but I’ve never been the sitting-still kind.

So, even on the days that are hot and horrid, where I drip sweat everywhere; or the days I am running from monsters who eventually catch me, and find me sobbing on street corners; or days where the run feels like fire, and I am made of sunlight streaming the sky, the fact remains: the road needs to be run.

The only thing I control is whether I keep going or not.

I decide: do I stay down on the sidelines, or do I get up and begin the process of running back to my self? The self that is powerful, has a soul forged by the beating of sole-to-pavement, the one who has broken every barrier she placed down on herself. Do I become her again?

Then, I look down at the road, riddled with potholes but heading towards the horizon. I get up, smile, and begin the journey once more.