Wednesday, July 08, 2009

On Running and Writing

So this summer I'm taking a writing class, Inspired by Literature, through the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Last week, we read Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin. Inspired by his counter-intuitive yet completely insightful descriptions and themes of exile and strangeness, I wrote this inkling of an essay (building on one paragraph that I had written before). Perhaps I'll expand it at some point. I really want to explore the idea of that, to run or write seriously, you can't simply do it in moderation -- even if that requires flirting with insanity.

Three years ago I lived in Gwangju, South Korea. More precisely, I lived between a slaughterhouse, a sawmill and an expressway, on the fifth floor of an apartment building with walls like soot-coated cardboard. The first time it rained – no, monsooned, they said – thick black sludge seeped through the roof, slithered down the stove and submerged the not quite custard colored linoleum kitchen floor.

Every night I left that apartment and ran. I ran past a charred brick bus stop. I ran past a dog, with a bark that sounded like rust, standing guard on a rooftop. Then I dropped into a series of rice fields. It was always colder there, and quiet. Once in the rice fields, I disappeared. There, under a brown or orange or olive sky, I was no more or less strange than anything or anyone else. The first night, as I tentatively high-stepped through a dark tunnel that underscored the expressway, I remember thinking that soon the location of each pothole would be instinctively mapped in my brain. After several weeks, I felt completely comfortable. I understood my surroundings. My confidence in my environment was a rare blessing for a foreigner living in Korea, but it was gone the instant I climbed the last dirt slope into the floodlit street.

Of course, I ran during the daytime, too. But the dark, and everything I saw or couldn’t see in it, felt safer. One night, the stalks of the rice plants, waist high the day before, were shorn at the ankles. A few nights later, the rice stubble was smoldering. Still, the glowing embers and cellulosic smoke felt more manageable than the throngs of uniformed school children who would giggle, shout and follow me, or the old men who would silently stare.

Running makes every place seem more familiar. Taking in strange streets and woods and crowds at seven miles an hour instead of three doesn’t make me any less lost. But when I run, getting lost is an imperative, not an accident. In Bangkok, I ran loops around a steaming hotel parking lot near the airport. In Ohio, I ran through lazy canyons. Sweat squelched between my toes and the air was like a full, dripping sponge. In Detroit, I sprinted across busy streets and through smudged glass walkways. In Hong Kong, I found myself alone, surrounded by thousands of people, running a marathon. In Big Sur, I pounded up sticky fire roads that caked my shoes in mud. Pounding back down, mud chunks the size of hockey pucks and quarters flew off my heels. In Washington, D.C., I failed to startle clusters of grazing deer with the sound of my feet. And I failed to evoke a smile, wave, or even nod from passing runners.

I never know, on any given day, quite how running will feel. Sometimes, despite all the right training, nutrition and sleep, my legs move like a spoon awkwardly clutched in a round, too-small fist, not delicately balanced between finger and thumb. And other times, despite all the wrong sickness, or partying, or lack of training, I run like bubbles easily escaping to the top of a tall glass of Brut. Even when I run in the places I call home, I can feel at odds with myself.

Running isn’t a zen-like state where I lose my mind, but a lucid state where I can finally find it. As I run, I often write. While my feet hit gravel or pavement or dirt, words bounce around my head, uninvited yet welcome, though they rarely touch a page. The last thing I want to do when I get home, dripping and exhausted, is sit down and type. So, instead, I read what two of my favorite author runners, Haruki Murakami and Robert Sullivan, have written about these curious sports. They know, too, that tying a pair of running shoes and smiting a blank screen is half the battle, though not the hard half. Like writing, running something that is perhaps healthy in moderation, but no doubt pathological in immersion. But there’s not a writer, or a runner, who would stop because of that.

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