Before we had phones, we just had stuff. Before that, we still had stuff, but less of it, and more rituals tied to each thing. The world around us was quiet, and the world beyond us was largely unreachable. We made things to pass the time. We counted every one of those 108 mala beads and prayed. Without knowing what other people in other worlds were doing, we all ended up doing very similar things (you need only look at the origin stories of the major religions to see that). What we needed out of life was not all that different. We needed ritual, much of it involving other people, and to be able to rely on something bigger than ourselves. Life must have felt long. Now, it is long, and so it doesn’t seem so bad to spend years of it looking at a screen. Maybe I’ll find something that will surprise me. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for.
Right now, and for the rest of time, I want to look less at a screen and more at a purple mat beneath my feet that smells of rubber and has dusty footprints all over it. At least, after running my first 50K in March, my body wants to. It wants me to twist and reach an arm to the ceiling, see how close to vertical that arm can get (not very, it turns out).
My mind hasn’t exactly been asking for yoga. My mind enjoys the long, slack rope of nothingness that running provides. The distraction from mental pain that five hours of physical pain provides. When a physical therapist was doing some active release work on me before the ultra, he said, It seems to me that most people who want to run that far are running away from something. I scoffed into the pillow. Or running toward something, I said. But there is something trippy and non-linear, and therefore avoidant, about the mental journey of running long distances. Things come up for me, all the time, when I’m running, but I don’t know that I work through them. They pass on through like thoughts during meditation. Running is like going out dancing. Your senses ebb and flow, you lose track of time, you feel great to be moving, a little frantic ball of energy flying through space, and you’re happy you did it. Yoga is more like dancing in the mirror, and that is exactly why my relationship to it has been so fraught. I long to embrace the discomfort of it and get to the other side of that discomfort. But for awhile now, longing to has been enough.
Recently I’ve been leaning in to this idea of there being something bigger than myself, searching for the exact nature of what that thing is (if it even needs to be exact—I’m probably missing the point). I hang with other people who don’t drink, and feel something like God around us when I do. I hang around with other runners. I watch online sermons by progressive churches who have invested in their YouTube presence. I soak up the lessons of people like Rich Roll, whose podcast has been a cornerstone of my life for the past three years. And there are the foundational things, like practicing meditation, listening to the Pele Report religiously, and going to therapy. Therapy is certainly a mirror, in the form of an amazing woman whom at this point I practically consider family. And there are newer rituals, like pulling a card out of Rebecca Campbell’s gorgeous oracle deck. And all signs point to this: I need to do more for other people.
A card from Kennedy’s deck called ‘The Great Gathering’ comes up all the time. “You are being called to gather groups of people,” is how she describes it, “either by leading them or becoming part of a group that can support you and your soul’s personal mission.” All I can think is: This is about yoga, isn’t it?
Not now, I keep saying. There is so much other work for me to do. Work work, which is its own lovely gathering of people and also, in many respects, supports my ‘soul’s mission.’ I get to ride, run and breathe Peloton every day, and work to make it better for the people who have chosen to be a part of what we’re doing. Then there’s the work I really live for. Writing allows me to stay relatively on the surface of my feelings, to pick and choose between those feelings, and plop them into fictional stories about strangers. I’m about to start writing the second draft of my novel, and writing this book has been a process that my editor friend, a sort of oracle himself, warns me will be long—longer even than you think. To his point, today I saw the debut novel of one of my favorite short story writers on a bookstore shelf, and realized that between this book and her last, nine years have gone by. Between being fast and being great, the editor friend wrote to me this week, always choose great, because I think you can be. An encouraging chaser at the end of a very stiff drink of real talk.
Indeed, what the hell is the rush? Rushes and yoga do not coexist, though certainly rushes and running do. So maybe running is running away, and the chatty chiropractor is more of a soothsayer than I care to admit. Writing is certainly running away. I am almost militant about my morning routine around writing now, and it involves ignoring every app, page and ping between the hours of 6:30 and 9:30. I disappear most weekends, thrilling at the chance to write for more than two hours at a stretch. I am basically Nell from Nell. I tell my partner it won’t always be this way. But when, I wonder, will it not be this way, if I don’t make some change soon?
The discomfort I’m facing now has appeared many other times in my life, of course, in different disguises. For years, I detested everything I wrote and made no effort, either in front of the computer or amongst other writers, to make it better. The only voices I heard in my head at that time were the ones telling me I would fail. And so, instead of the discomfort of trying to prove them wrong, I chose the discomfort of waiting, wishing and hoping. It was a very similar feeling, I’ve realized, to scrolling through Instagram: a wonderfully forgivable form of procrastination designed very carefully by engineers in Silicon Valley or, in the case of my not-writing, designed by my destructive and frightened mind. One leads to the purchase of cute athleisure wear. The other leads to utter despair.
I got over the discomfort of writing by quitting drinking, though that had not been my intention. Initially, I was only doing it to save my health. But right away, I found myself springing out of bed with the same curiosity I had felt as a kid and teenager. As an adult, that curiosity had gradually faded, or else had just been channeled wholly into my day job. Ideas did flit around my mind like glow-in-the-dark creatures in the deep of the ocean, but it was usually only when I was drunk, speed-walking home from a bar listening to music on my headphones and loving life. To be sure, when I got home, and when I got up the next morning, I didn’t go anywhere near a Word document. When I quit drinking, I started writing and couldn’t stop.
The fear only went away because facing it became a ritual. I still don’t really know why the fear never came back, but I think it’s just because writing did something for me. I was surprised to find that I didn’t actually care whether anything I was writing was ready to be published. I took the striving, the need for acceptance and approval, the self-consciousness, and the vantage point of years or even decades of suffering through bad writing to get to good, out of the equation. I narrowed my focus to the day. To the morning. Now, for the sake of my own sanity, I am narrowing it to a rubber rectangle a little wider and longer than my body, and trying to see that rectangle as less of a prison, and more of a raft.
A yoga workshop I took today ended with a twenty-minute body scan meditation. During these minutes, I was visited by all kinds of people in my mind. They were like passengers coming in and out of shared Lyft rides, speaking nonsensical pleasantries to each other and sometimes to me. Near the end of the meditation, just before we were asked to start wiggling our extremities again, I had a very distinct vision of my dad, shuffling across a lawn, off to take care of something or someone at our cottage in Nova Scotia. At the beginning of class, the only two other people in class had been talking to each other about the loss of their fathers. Before leaving the big, bright room under the mansard roof of a building that used to be a Masonic Temple, I thanked the teacher for the class and told her, in so many words, that I’d seen everything I’d needed to.
—Cold Spring, NY, April 13, 2019
photo (of a painting) by andy maguire