Falling out of shape
My grandmother, Betty Irene Harrison
In November of 2017, I ran the New York City Marathon. It took me just over four and a half hours. As I finished, I thought "I am never doing that again."
Growing up, I didn't enjoy running at all. I liked games and sports that involved running, but mostly in spite of the running part. Basketball was fun because of the fast-moving plays between my teammates and me. Swimming was fun because I got to skip school in the afternoon for meets. Weightlifting was fun because it involved chatty rest-periods with my close friends. I started running at the end of my senior year in college because it was cheap, and kept it up for that reason off and on for about eight years, never going much farther than four or five miles.
In August 2017, I had grown tired of running around the neighborhood where I lived in New York City, mostly because of the traffic lights I would hit and all of the ambient heat getting dumped onto the pavement by window-AC units (including my own). And it seemed silly to me to take the train to go run in a park when I could just... run there. So I started working up the stamina to make it from my apartment to Prospect Park and back, a round trip of about six miles, eight if I actually wanted to run around in the park. For some reason I'll still never quite understand, after reaching that goal in mid-September, my next thought was, "Well, if I can run eight miles, which I never thought I would be able to do, maybe I should try a marathon." So I googled "two-month marathon training program" and found a free guide online that seemed doable. After cross-referencing the guide with the weeks I had to prepare, I registered for the New York City Marathon.
When I say "for some reason I'll still never quite understand" that's actually not true. I know the reason; it's just not a very logical or satisfying one. One day I was talking to my therapist about how cruel and critical my inner voice(s) could get sometimes, how unbearably loud and merciless. I was desperate for them to stop. She mentioned that in fairy tales, when the heroine is confronted with a dragon, an evil king, or other kind of foe, it's assumed the best response is to stand and fight. "But sometimes," she said, "the best chance of survival is to run."
While my therapist might have been talking in metaphor, something about running seemed practical. I had tried pretty much everything to deal with my anxiety. I tried journaling. I tried CBT. I tried medication. I tried yoga, taking a shower, drawing, long walks, eating ice cream, buying new clothes, getting rid of old clothes, going to graduate school, moving to new cities and dating new people. None of it had seemed to work, so I decided to run. I would run until I couldn't run anymore, or until I felt different. Whichever came first.
Running from your feelings is usually the thing most therapists will warn you against. But in my case, I think it was actually a very important step for me, in letting go of a lot of beliefs I had about who I was and who I wanted to be. When I think of my state of mind back then, I am reminded of the Tarantella, an Italian folk dance that is named for the tarantula, in which the dancer works herself into such a frenzy that she literally sweats out the poison.
At the peak of my training, about three weeks before the marathon, I flew to Cleveland to say goodbye to my grandmother. She had had an aneurism, and was not going to wake up again. For five days, I sat around the hospice with my aunt and uncles, ate overpriced Caesar salads from the local mall, and quietly listened to my grandmother snore. The day I flew back to New York, before the flight, I ran 19 miles before showering and changing clothes in the bathroom in my grandmother's hospice room. It was the farthest I had run in my life. I was in the best shape I had ever been as I said goodbye to my grandmother at her weakest and most tranquil. She died two days later.
Two weeks after I ran 19 miles around the Cleveland suburbs, I ran from Staten Island across all five boroughs of New York City, to total 26.2 miles. My dad still has the newspaper from the next day with my name in it (along with the thousands of other people who ran that year).
Me with my family, shortly after running my first (and likely last) marathon
There were parts of that marathon that were exhilarating. The neighborhood bands--ranging from a geriatric Swedish metal band in Bay Ridge to a gospel choir in Harlem--the Hasidic families handing out Vaseline and water near Williamsburg, spotting my friend Liora in the crowd as I rounded the last mile and was thinking about quitting, seeing my family with homemade signs near the school where I worked: taking in all of New York really was tremendous. But by the end I just felt relieved: I had made it to the other side. The poison was out.
I've thought a lot about the marathon and the months leading up to it during COVID. Like many of us (or so I tell myself) I have fallen out of shape during the pandemic. I've gained some fat, lost some muscle. Three days ago I went to take my dog on a run and managed about two miles. That felt like about all I had in me. Now, without the motivator of an existential crisis to get me out of bed and into my running shoes, I've wondered: what exactly is the point of it?
After pondering this question, I still don't exactly have an answer, but I know for certain that doing it just to lose weight or look thinner is not a good enough of a reason. Even doing it because I know I should exercise for my health doesn't feels like a good enough reason. But after months of pushing myself to figure out my creativity, part of my biggest realization is that I get far more out of life doing things because I want to do them. Not because I should or because I'm scared of what might happen if I don't.
Part of that shift in attitude definitely came out of doing not one, but two live streams over the past season. I worked diligently for both, practicing nearly every evening and pulling off what I think were two pretty darn good online concerts. About 45 people tuned into the first one by my calculation, and maybe half as many tuned in for the second. They both were great. I had forgotten how much I loved performing.
But after getting through both, I felt depleted. After the first live stream, I re-watched all of Seinfeld. By that, I mean that I watched about four hours of Seinfeld a night for three weeks straight. After the second, I watched all of Stranger Things and all of Glow. I also read and napped and sat on my porch staring into space. If I knew in the fall of 2017 that I needed to run to survive, I knew deep down last month that I needed to pause, not produce. Even though every voice in my head was telling me "But you're just getting started, you said you'd produce an album and now you've realized you don't have enough money or time to do it this year and you wanted to do a live stream a month and now you're QUITTING?! THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO BE LAZY!!"
Except it was the time to be lazy. It really was. Because as inspiring as I found Elizabeth Gilbert's book two months ago, finding the way those insights actually live in my life, finding my path, takes a lot more than just reading a book.
One of the books I read after Big Magic was The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron. Chodron is a Shambala Buddhist nun, and her book is a collection of talks she gave during a month-long retreat many decades ago. It covers some of the basic tenets and practices of Shambala, as well as some of her thoughts on existence, suffering, joy. In the very first chapter, she begins by trying to debunk some common misconceptions of Buddhism, like "If I meditate, I'll stop being such an angry / resentful / deceitful / petty / unhappy / selfish person." This is a common motivator that brings people to any religion, and Shambala is no exception. But for Chodron, any attempt to improve yourself or make yourself better is an act of aggression against yourself.
What a tremendous thought that is. And so antithetical to how I've lived so much of my life. I thought in order to do justice to the person I have the potential to be, I had to improve myself, had to fix the things that were wrong with me.
But one of the people who I think would have understood this immediately is my grandmother. At the nursing home where she lived for the last ten years of her life, her nickname was "No-Bra Betty." She simply refused to be bothered with something she had no use for. One of her favorite refrains whenever any of us asked her why she refused to get a haircut or put on shoes instead of slippers or keep her voice down, was simply, "Because I'm old, and I don't give a rip." More than most people, I think my grandmother understood that other peoples' attempts to tell anyone how to be better was actually an affront to the fullness of who we already are.
But she wasn't always like that. For about the first half of her life my grandmother was hemmed in by convention: she was the goody-two shoes, she told me, never dreaming of disobeying her parents. She met my grandfather because he spotted her at a bowling alley and said "I'm going to marry that girl." But I never heard her echo anything close to that kind of conviction or certainty about him. They divorced when my mom was in her twenties, and after that my grandmother lived pretty nomadically, bouncing between California, Washington, Texas, and Ohio. She pieced together a living as a lunch lady, a waitress, a receptionist, an RA and a sorority mother, even taking college classes alongside my aunt (much to my aunt's mortification). She wasn't born understanding how to be unapologetically herself: she practiced at it.
My grandmother's student ID, when she enrolled in college classes for the first time at the age of 58
I wish I could've told my grandmother about running the marathon, or that she could've seen me do it. Not because I needed her praise or pride, but because I feel like she would've said what she always said to me when I called her to tell her what I was up to: "You're always running from this thing to that thing to the other thing: when do you ever have time to just look at the clouds?" She would've seen right through the whole ruse. The marathon was not the accomplishment. Getting to the place where I could stop running was. Getting to the place where I could look at the clouds without feeling guilty for not somehow working to improve myself or do better: that has been the real marathon of my life.
After my last letter, I received a lot of great feedback from friends and family, most of whom were really happy to hear how I was feeling and doing. One of my friends was more honest with me though. He told me he was both happy and jealous: because part of him knew those Gilbertian aphorisms to be true, but part of him still didn't believe them. Or at least, hearing them had no profound impact on how he lived his life.
But as I told him, the epiphany of the book was a long-time coming and short-lived. For the past four years, I have spent one hour every week sitting and talking with a mental health professional about who I think I am, and what is meaningful for me. I could have read the most profound and canonical texts of human wisdom and never gotten anything out of them were it not for the years I have spent in psychoanalysis. I have put in honest to god work to live my life more intentionally, generously, and openly, but I needed a lot of help and support to start that journey.
And even after reading that book and sending that ecstatic email, I feel like I've only just begun to carve out a path that is truly mine in how I make things and share them in this world. When I say "truly mine" I don't mean in the sense that I am a snowflake-laced unicorn whose path is a reflection of how truly unique I am. I simply mean a path chosen according to what wakes me up in this life, instead of what puts me to sleep.
Part of that came from accepting, without judgment, the shape of me, my life, and my circumstances. A friend sent me a book last month called The Death of the Artist, about the state of professional artists in the 21st century. It's both inspiring and grim. When I first picked it up, I had to put it down because pretty early on it talks about the life cycle of the artist today. One of the hallmark moments occurs in an artist's early thirties, when many decide to bow out of the professional arts. As someone who more or less falls into that category, I felt crushed. I was one of the ones who couldn't cut it. But then I read on.
Making it today is not for the faint of heart, to say the least. It in fact seems primarily not just for those with a trust fund or an Ivy League education, but also for the monomaniacally focused. One of my favorite parts of the book are the extensive interviews with artists today. Of the artists who are managing to get by, most if not all of them are working constantly: 14 hours a day, seven days a week. And many (though not all) of them express the conviction that they know that living without health insurance and friends and a reliable income are all worth it to get their film made, produce their record, publish their novel.
I just don't feel that way. I really don't. I love music and writing, but I don't love them at the expense of down time. Of being geographically closer to my parents, or going camping with my partner. I also don't find my creative time most fulfilling when I'm constantly pushing to produce against those ebbs and flows in my energy. I was so glad I binged on those TV shows and spent two Saturdays in a row napping instead of making myself write or record, because two days ago three brand new songs arrived, and they arose from a deep place, a surprising place. A place of rest.
I want to be clear: there is no "better" path here. I am in awe of people I know who are still making work professionally, who in a pressure cooker generate intensely beautiful, amusing, moving, and virtuosic stuff. I thought for a long time that if I just found the right medium, or had the right self-help book, I could reenter that pressure cooker and come out the other side accomplished. But what I found was even with the "right" materials and the "right" mindset, I need to go another way.
I still really want to produce my album this year, and I still want to perform more, both online and in person. But I want to let the milestones I aim for come organically out of what I'm making, not a roadmap someone else made for how to do it or make it. If I had tried to record that album in June it wouldn't have been right: at least two of the four songs I've written in the past two months belong on there, and having them in the mix changes the album. I think they'll make it fuller, deeper.
Frankly, there has been something profound and beautiful about falling out of shape physically over the past year. It has given me a very meaningful challenge to embrace and accept myself in spite of no longer fitting a certain image of who I thought I was. I have literally fallen out of the shape I am used to inhabiting, the shape I worked to maintain for so long. I don't fit inside it anymore. I'm larger. I'm a bit more sedentary. But I'm far more present, and far more contented to be on this path, wherever it takes me, than to abandon it for a known destination. I have a feeling if I stick with it, it's going to take me exactly where I need to go. Thanks for sticking it out with me!
Till next season,
Below are a few things I've read this month about art and the economy that I found insightful.
1. "The Economics of Black Pop Culture," Bertrand Cooper, Current Affairs: I don't have a link to this because it's a print magazine that's doing it's best to sell real magazines. You should subscribe or if you're desperate write to me and I'll lend you my copy. (Sorry, no PDFs cause I want these people to stay in business!) But Cooper gives a very clear-eyed, super sharp analysis of the ways in which Black poverty is peddled and circulated for popular consumption, and conflated with "the Black experience," despite the gross underrepresentation of Black creators who grow up in poverty working as creative professionals.
2. "Lose Yourself to Dance," Brit Steigler, The Baffler : An unflinching look at how little of the money that circulates through the world of dance (and ballet especially) reaches the dancers themselves.
3. The Death of the Artist, William Deresiewicz: I don't agree with every part of Deresiewicz's assessment, but he actually interviews a diverse range of professional artists and accurately identifies some of the prevailing economic trends that make today's professional artistic landscape different from those of prior generations.