Finish Lines/Starting Lines

11 09 2014

Sitting on my front porch after a recent run, I felt as if I were at the starting line for fall. One or two yellowing leaves from the elm and Chinese pistachio trees drifted down every minute or so, slipping quietly into the grass. A hint of coolness whispered across the wet, heavy morning air. Claws scritching on tree bark, the squirrels scrambled across the tree limbs and grass with a bit more urgency and purpose. The old turning is happening once again, and I sat in my sweat-spattered t-shirt and shorts, grateful to be witness at yet another beginning. And there will be others: our younger daughter recently announced the imminent arrival of twins early in the new year.

I’m also bearing witness to another finish line: this blog. It has served my purpose as a journal for a few years, and a few others who have stumbled across it seem to have found it helpful from time to time. But, like the leaves (and most blogs), it started to slip away – first a few less posts than before, then longer stretches of emptiness, and now bare.

But, like winter’s skeleton trees, not dead. I have been thinking about my next blog, and I intend to start it pretty soon. It will be something like this blog, and yet something not like it, too. Again, its major purpose will be as a personal journal, although as always I welcome anyone who wants to take a peek and stay awhile. I’ll post the address for it here when it’s ready.

But I think you and I know how to run with Mu at this point. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and yet it’s also the hardest. It’s the work of a lifetime.

Thanks for stopping by. Please enjoy every run, the changing seasons, and your one and only life.


21 04 2014

One of the nice perks about working for a running store is that we periodically get free pairs of new running shoes from the manufacturers (even part-timers like me). I ran for the first time yesterday morning in a bright yellow and red pair of Newton Gravitys. They’re super light and the fabled Newton design is a wonderful marriage with my forefoot-focused running style. In the highest compliment I can pay a shoe, I forgot I had it on, and I can hardly wait for my next run in them. The revised Newton design for 2014 (more open in the toe box) was very comfy. Wonderful! Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Finding a good pair of running shoes is simpler than you might think. In fact, once you start thinking is when the trouble starts. Stop reading online reviews, stop listening to friends, and go with what really matters: how they feel on your feet. Go to a reputable running store in your area and start trying them on. And don’t get your mind too involved in the decision. I’ve watched customers put on a pair of shoes and stand up with an utterly lost “what next?” look on their faces, walking gingerly around in their prospective new shoes like someone tiptoeing through broken glass, eyes darting back and forth in a labored attempt at concentration. “What am I supposed to be feeling?” a customer will say. Whatever you feel is what you’re feeling! Whatever you feel is right. If it doesn’t feel good to you, if it doesn’t feel comfortable and gets out of your way so you can just run, then it’s probably not the shoe for you.

And don’t give up on a shoe in the first 10-20 steps. If your store has a treadmill or a space to run, take advantage of it. Really run in the shoe for a minute or two and wear it around for 10-15 minutes minimum. Your foot and the shoe may need a little time to get acquainted, which is fine. If some of those odd things you felt in the first 10 steps persist, then try other shoes to see if you have the same problem.

And if you can find two or more different pairs that work for you, buy them and switch them out during the week. Alternating shoes and running surfaces means you’re going to hit different stress points and pressure points, and I am certain that has helped keep me very healthy over the past 20 years or so of running.

Besides finding a favorite new shoe, the past few days have been filled with larger matters of life, death, and loss. A friend died too young, and we said goodbye to one of my favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As often happens, thoughts of death brought me back to the Han Recitation, a Zen gatha that I posted on my Facebook page:

Resolving the matter of life and death is of prime importance
Everything bears the mark of impermanence
Everything passes quickly by like a fleeting arrow
Let everyone be mindful each moment
Do not let a moment pass by unaware!

A friend jokingly commented: “It doesn’t rhyme.” So I wrote my own rhyming version and posted it:

This whole life and death thing is pretty severe
So I humbly say to those who will hear:
Everything’s temporary, no, nothing will last
The future is fiction and what’s past is past
So when mowing the yard or washing your hair,
Enjoy every sandwich, be fully aware!

My friend commented again: “Now I’m just hungry.” But Carol wrote, “I’m thankful for every day I spend with you.” Which was unexpected and very sweet. There is always, always something to be thankful for, like new running shoes and life partners who are just that: partners for life.


14 04 2014

Spring has taken one step forward, two steps back. It’s cloudy, windy and cold today, with temps predicted to dive into the upper 30’s tonight. I’ve been watching the sparrows and chickadees desperately cling to our backyard bird feeder as it sways, and the chimes on the front porch are ringing like it’s a royal wedding. I’ll probably run to the high school track for a speed workout later, but it’s going to be a windy cool one … maybe the last really cool one for a number of months. Or not. The weather these days is explosively volatile.

We got a lot of rain yesterday as a prelude to the cold front moving in. I dashed out of the house for a run during what I thought was going to be a lull, but half a mile from the house the heavens opened and the water poured down. I hadn’t run in the rain for a while and it was actually very exhilarating to splash through the sudden streams and mini ponds that sprang into being. How quickly and heavily the rain fell! I was soaked through by the time I reached our front porch again.

Today was a day off and I spent the morning in silence, meditating, cooking breakfast (oatmeal), and reading quietly. I decided no errands today, just enjoy the stillness. I did just finish watching an 30-minute online documentary featuring Michael Gira of The Swans, available through and with footage from the band’s current tour. Watching documentaries about musicians at work and listening to them explain their ideas has always been very stimulating to me. A third of the way through the documentary I received the gift of an inspiration for a poem, which I’m going to work on in a few minutes. This is not the first time this has happened while I was watching a musician documentary – I don’t know if it’s stimulation from watching them being creative or guilt that I’m watching someone else at work. But hey, I’ll take a poem idea when I can get it.

I recently wrote a short essay about an experience I had with the Heart Sutra relating to the day my father died several years ago. It was intended for a sort-of essay contest, but after re-reading the rules regarding the contest it seems they are looking for personal experiences with sutras from the Pali Canon, which the Heart Sutra is not considered part of. So I can’t send this one. Or maybe I will and tell the sponsors to consider it for another occasion. Once again, I’ll take inspiration for a piece of writing when and where I find it. I might post the essay here when it seems appropriate.

It’s weird how the sutras can work — much of the sutra literature is written in a highly repetitive style that was intended to aid in memorization before the days of widely printed books, and they often don’t make the most compelling reading, in my opinion. Much of Buddhist philosophy has a pedantic, almost scientific bent to it, so rather than the pithy, heart-on-sleeve aphorisms of someone like Jesus, the Buddha comes across to me as more like the best college professor you ever had — very smart, cool, but very heady. Yet, the sutras have the power to resonate with you at the most unexpected times. And that’s pretty much what my little essay is about.

The sun is starting to break through for the first time today, and I’m guessing after a little more quiet time and playing a bit with the poem idea, I’ll feel like a run. Running always goes well after a lot of stillness and some head work. I’m happy I enjoy all of it, and to constantly discover new connections between them.


10 04 2014

It’s still precariously Spring here, but in this part of the world it definitely lives on borrowed time, waiting for the hair trigger that will submerge these breezy, cloud-speckled days into something thick, deep, and still. Spring is always counted here in days, not months. The leaves on the trees have already unfurled but are still that fragile newborn green, and as of yet do not rustle in the breeze.

I spent a good chunk of the morning and early afternoon enjoying some yard work — planting some lantana and marigolds in the back yard, mowing and wrenching up crab grass. Most of the neighborhood lawns are still constellations of green and brown, but ours has already greened up nicely and quicker than most. I felt a bit spent after two and a half hours in the yard, so decided against running today. It would have been my third day of running in a row, and that is a lot of running these days. Now I’m typing this with sore hands and arms that I’m quite sure will be even more sore tomorrow. No matter how much yoga and running I do, gardening muscles seem to be in and of a class by themselves and defy all attempts to get them used to exercise.

The writer, Zen Buddhist and teacher Peter Matthiessen died Sunday and I was reflecting on the fullness of his life – a disillusioned CIA operative during the Cold War, novelist, journalist, editor, Zen master, environmental activist, world traveller and adventurer – and the relative tameness of my own. I am simply not a risk taker (running ultra marathons on trail was pretty far out of my comfort zone), and my life has been, for the most part, quiet and no more eventful than most. If I had attempted to live any other way, however, it would have been living a fiction. The authentic me is quiet, solitary, and given to more introspective activity (listening to music, reading, sitting, running/hiking, writing). It is all the more amazing to me that Matthiessen found the time and energy to write, his exterior life was so busy.

And I think of Emily Dickinson, sitting year after year in her parent’s house suffering from something akin to agoraphobia and writing nearly two thousand poems, many of them among the most unique to have ever been penned. The freedom of the human imagination allows swift travel to worlds even the most ardent traveller never dreamed of. While I may still do some globetrotting in my life, I have always found the journey inward a more honest expression of myself. I admire both Matthiessen and Dickinson for their very different examples, but am more relieved every time I think of Dickinson’s — not because I think I could be her equal, but because she was every bit Matthiessen’s. Onward and inward.


4 04 2014

One of the little ironies of trying to keep a journal seems to be that when you have a lot to write about, you don’t have time to write, and when nothing is happening, you can finally find time to write – but there is, er, nothing to write about. Trying to remember your exact thoughts, emotions, etc. from events 2-3 days prior is like trying to remember the bubbles in a stream; they constantly appear from nothing and disappear back into nothing – too many to remember at all, much less clearly.

The weather has had that uncertain, nervous quality typical of a change of season in North Texas. I ran 4.2 miles yesterday into a shifting wind that changed, like someone flicking a giant switch somewhere, from gusting to sighing to suddenly silent over and over, while clouds and blue sky competed fiercely overhead for attention. Weak shadows formed briefly on walls and sidewalks, but the sun was a shy stranger and the air unusually thick and wet. As the day turned to night we sat on the front porch and watched banks of thunderheads marching to the distant north, lightning seething deep within. We later heard that not far north of us a tornado touched down for awhile, and the ground was pelted with hail the size of a toddler’s fist. I called my mother to catch up on the latest and she recalled times when I was a child, when a great thunderstorm would come and I would open the curtains to the big window in our living room and lay on our couch to watch. “I was always scared to death,” she said, “but I never let you know I was.” To sit in the boiling middle of a thunderstorm and experience its fury is still one of my greatest joys. I really can’t explain why, but the natural drama of a big storm touches something deep within.

I nearly decided not to sit in zazen today – I got up rather later than planned, and today was a work day – but I finally did sit before leaving the house. I remember someone saying that if we only sit when we want to, we only become familiar with that part of us that wants to sit, and it is probably the part of us that doesn’t want to sit that may bear the most observing. So I sat, and after a few minutes the resistance I had initially felt ebbed away.

We really are the most temporal of creatures, our emotions and desires as extreme, sudden, and shifting as the early spring weather – and potentially as destructive to our inner nature. As with running, so with sitting. Just sit. Just run. Be with that part of me that doesn’t want to sit or run, and experience it fully. If I don’t shut myself off from the positive or negative within, if I don’t judge it as “good” or “bad” but simply be with it, I can eventually arrive at a fuller understanding of my self … and realize I am as subject to change as the clouds racing overhead. “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form,” goes the most famous line from the Heart Sutra. It sounds sort of like something Neo would have said in The Matrix, but each of us lives the truth of it every second we are alive, and coming utterly to terms with it – realizing it completely in our hearts – can set us free. Sitting, running, I continue to feel my way toward that realization, like the child I was who watched the storms swirling without fully knowing why. I try hard to remember it’s the work of a lifetime.


1 04 2014

Spring gave me little to no warning. I opened the screen door a couple of days ago and bam! Tender green shoots dotting the ends of the tree branches, a warm and thick breeze with a exclamation point of moisture at the end of it. Things turn so quickly and we can’t fall asleep for an instant or we miss the start of another season. I’m beginning to feel acutely aware of how few springs I realistically have left – probably thirty or so if I’m lucky. They are born and die so fast here. And it is rarely a real spring, but only a sort of hurried prelude to summer, no longer than a typical Scriabin piano prelude and just as full of stormy twists and turns. Much rain is forecast for the next two weeks, and the skies are boiling with darting grays, whites and blues.

My speed workout at the track this morning was under a shifting, nervous heaven with a small, anxious wind insistently tapping at my face and back. I ran alone, as I do most of my runs, and thought back to my run on Saturday. That day I ran a different route on a whim and passed a number of what I guessed were runner training groups – clumps of 10-15 people spaced 2-3 minutes apart, running toward me on the opposite side of the road. I don’t know what organization or running program they were affiliated with (probably not with the store where I work, because I didn’t recognize any of the group leaders), but they were very active and chatty, calling out words of warning when cars approached and carrying on lively conversations with each other.

I have never been someone to run with a group. I do understand that some people get a great deal of support and motivation from running with others, and that for some people running is a highly social activity. For me it was always a journey inward. When I began running in high school it was, in retrospect, a way for me to sort out all of the chaos in my fevered young brain and come to grips with my world and myself. I loved running alone down deserted country roads, with only the cows in adjacent fields for company (always eyeing me a bit nervously – I’m sure I was one of the first, if not the first, running human many of them had ever seen). My parents loved me and watched me very closely, and I suppose running was a way to be entirely on my own for awhile, with no one asking about my plans or my well-being, or judging what I was doing and offering helpful suggestions. It was a run to freedom, and a run to my self. Running is still very much that way for me, and even more so now that I am no longer racing.

Yesterday members of our sangha sat together at a new temporary location. Our old zendo, our sangha home for many years, has been sold and we are looking for a new, more centrally located property to call home. The possibilities for growth and bringing the dharma to more people in our area are tremendous, but the challenges of finding a suitable new place won’t be easy. I was soothed by the floor of the temporary zendo, which had a pattern in its wood reminiscent of the old zendo floor that we had walked over together in kinhin so many years. Sitting together, breathing together, was reassuring and healing in this somewhat unsettled time in our Zen community.

When sitting zazen I enjoy sitting alone and in a group equally – both have a different energy but both are very nourishing. I don’t know why I have never felt the same about running. While I feel connected to the larger worldwide “sangha” of runners, share their personal triumphs and setbacks, and even understand them from a new perspective as I help fit them in running shoes, I still prefer running alone. Running is still my personal journey inward, something I cannot bring myself to share directly. In some ways, it is even more private to me than zazen. I suspect that, for as long as I can do it, it will always be so – perhaps even more so as years go by. And, more than ever, I am aware of their going.

Nothing reveals the fragility of life more than a run in this weather – the trees bursting with new life even as the last dead leaves are ripped from them and blown into the path of my onrushing feet. The sky, flashing with appearings and disappearings over and over, the wind chasing its own tail like a crazed animal. Hardly a time of gentle flowering, but instead a jerky, confused series of brutally rapid disruptions across the heavens and earth, thunderstorms and tornadoes. It is a very alive time, a chance to stand in the seething cauldron of creation and experience it fully. We’re lucky to be able to meet it head on if we choose. And we should.


27 03 2014

A day of (re)discovery. One of the nice things about not having to follow a race training plan is you are free to run when and where the spirit moves you. This morning I took off in a different direction than originally intended, through a hillier section of the neighborhood down to a road that parallels White Rock Creek. There are horse stables clustered around a small hill opposite the creek, and as I ran past the quietly munching horses I was startled to hear the sound of a woman in distress. Then I realized it was the call of one of the albino peacocks that live with the owners of the horse stables, a sound I hadn’t heard since last summer. The other peacocks nearby answered with their own despairing voices, and the air was suddenly filled with their wailing, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy warning me of disaster. It was a little eerie in the semi-darkness, but thrilling.

Later I meditated with the window open to the sound of a gentle rain, the water plashing on the patio, gurgling through the drains, soaking into the slowly greening grass. Sitting in zazen to the sound of rain falling is deeply enriching, worlds within worlds. The rain has since stopped but the sky is still a shifting kaleidoscope of grays, whites, and blue patches, the air thick and wet with a quick coolness cutting through it every so often. It’s that tug of war between spring and winter, one growing weaker but not quite giving up, the other pulling with a little more force every day. Or as I read today in May Sarton’s luminous journal The House By The Sea, “The cosmos and marigolds go on and on.”

Another (re)discovery today was a new recording of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, performed on organ by Frederic Desenclos. It was only recently released and, since Bach’s WTC has been weekly if not quite daily listening for me since high school, I was eager to hear it. Having heard versions for harpsichord, piano, clavichord, and even wind ensemble, I wasn’t expecting it to translate so well to organ, but this is a revelation. Desenclos plays tastefully and his voicings fit well into his characterization of each prelude and fugue. Through hearing the WTC afresh on this recording, I’ve also rediscovered Bach’s organ music and did my morning yoga routine to an inpromptu Bach organ recital via Beats, my music streaming service of choice. Bach’s organ music and yoga make a surprisingly terrific pairing.

So far, a wonderful day of rediscoveries and unexpected connections between old enthusiasms. Another rediscovery I’ll work on later today is a poem I’m trying to finish. I recently began writing poetry again after a lull of several years and have learned that, of all forms of writing, poetry gives me the most personal fulfillment. I don’t know if these poems are really any good, but “good” doesn’t matter. Like running, like meditation, the joy of writing poetry for me is in the doing and the new things I learn about myself every time I do it. Our tax preparer recently asked me, “What are you going to do now that you’re semi-retired? You’re not that old, you know.” I’m fortunate to have the extra time, and I’ve found there still aren’t enough hours in my day (although I’ve been jokingly reminded I have the same number of hours in my day that Beyonce has) to follow all the trails I want to go down. As I like to say, it’s my blessing and my curse to be interested in everything.


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