“Reprimands will not bring the waves into line. Anger will not alter the winds. Sadness will not bring back the Gulf Stream. The greatest freedom allotted to any human being is the freedom to choose one’s attitude. Whatever the weather, it is my weather, and I must do my best to enjoy it.” Tori Murden McClure, during her original failed attempt to be the first woman to row across the Atlantic.
I’ve started work on a piece with the working title of “Urban Trial Running: A Manifesto of Joy.” It will be expanding on the ideas I wrote about a few weeks ago responding to Anthony Krupicka’s essay, “On Being Real,” and strongly ties into things I’ve been thinking about and writing about here and for the Run Smiley collective. Mainly I’m challenging the Manichean schism that divides “road running” from “trail running” and the philosophical superiority that seems to come with the latter, as if the only way to have and authentic, transcendent running experience is on a secluded alpine trail and that we urban runners are merely recording negative splits around the Central Park reservoir. I’m arguing that “trail running” is more of a paradigm than a geographical location, that the manner in which one approaches and experiences the run is far more important than where the run takes place.
Most of my “trail runs” are semantical, but Friday I managed to slip between the industrial cracks of this sprawling metropolis and get in a few miles on some honest-to-goodness, dirt and grass and rock and tree-branch trails, trails I doubt anyone else in this city of 8 million people ran this week.
Friday was one of those days where I needed a run. This year’s freshman class has been a thorn in my pedagogical side since September, and as the year winds down they manage to continuously set new record lows for achievement. Right now more than half of each of my 4 periods are failing English, with the average grade hovering around 59. Our last real assignment was to complete an in class Critical Lens Regents Essay. Yesterday we spent the period talking about it, brainstorming thesis statements and topic sentences, and last night’s homework was to bring in an outline. In first period, five students had an outline. Not that five students had completed outlines or good essays, but five students had outlines period – the rest had absolutely nothing. I sort of lost it, more than I have in quite some time. I did manage not to use any profanity (which was very hard, I must say), but there was some yelling, some throwing of papers, and even some pounding of my head against the black-board. So I was already in a bad mood with second period filed in . . . and six students had outlines.
The second third period was over, I was out the door, running, hoping I would have enough will-power to convince myself to come back. It was the perfect day for a the sort of joyful run that I desperately needed: 77 degrees, a cool breeze blowing off the river, cottony wisps of clouds sketched across an perfectly pale-blue sky. Despite the weather, it took me a few minutes to shake my morning frustrations.
Anyone who meditates knows the difficulty of quieting the mind, of not grasping at thought and emotion, and there is no trickier foe than justified indignation. Longing, desires, jealousy, fantasies, all can be turned aside with a touch of self-assured tranquility, but justified anger clings to us – or rather, we cling to it, because we are right to be angry, we deserve to be angry. It feels good to replay the source of the injury, to revisit the conversation or incident and relish our self-righteousness. There are the quips we could have said (if we were not so superior and self-controlled), the insults we withheld but allow ourselves to relish in fantasy. For the first three-quarters of a mile I struggled to pull myself from this tempting trap of mentally shouting at students, of fantasies that entailed storming out of class and telling the principal I quite, mid-lesson. I had to try to focus on my breath, my stride, the feeling of my feet on the ground, the jostling of my mala under my tank-top, the whisper of the breeze across my skin. Slowly, I was able to let go. Like easing one’s fingers from a set of Chinese-handcuffs, the trick is to relax and not struggle at all, to accept, to let go, to release. And then I could run.
I headed across the McComb’s Dam Bridge to Washington-Heights, and since on Friday my lunch period is followed by a prep period, I could run the risk of getting back a few minutes late, so I decided not to turn around but to keep running north and cross back to the Bronx at 181st street. As I was running along Edgecomb, however, I saw the start of the trail that cuts back through the woods of Highbridge Park, and decided to leave the pavement behind.
Within a few yards, I was transported outside of the city. The trees couldn’t fully muffle the dull road of the traffic on the FRD Drive below and the Major Degan across the river, but that was the only real sign I was in New York. I caught glimpses of the Polo Grounds Projects through the verdant foliage, but the undergrowth and leafage were so lush that they blocked out most of the world, and after a nodded greeting to a homeless woman and her shopping cart of belongings, I was all alone. Weather-smoothed shards of glass mingled with pebbles to give the trail a not-quite-all-natural surface, but for the most part it was as wild and untrammeled as any other swath of nature. I crossed muddy streams, bounded up rocky inclines, shortened my stride to slide down steep, leaf-strewn descents, and lost myself in the woods. I’d walked the path years before, back when we lived on 161st, and it was mostly unchanged and still unused (one of the benefits of running a trail that is used almost exclusively by transients is that you do see any other recreational runners). The trail did cross a newly paved stretch of the NYC Greenway bike-path, and I followed that to a dead end – or rather, a dead end if you didn’t want to force your way through the overgrowth and back into the untamed fringes of Manhattan.
I followed the path for a few more minutes, but then construction under the FRD on-ramps forced me to climb back up into civilization. Once again a “road runner,” I took Amsterdam up to 181st, then crossed over the Washington Bridge back into the Bronx. Sedgewick Avenue took me back to 161st and towards my school, for a run of 4.5 miles.
And it was then that spring-fever, my terrible morning teaching, the intoxicating joy of running, and the cool breeze all conspired together to lead me astray. Instead of heading back to school to grade papers or lesson plan or whatever else I should have been doing, I just kept running. I didn’t have to teach again until 1:17, so I knew I had plenty of time, and I was reveling in the freedom and sanity of a run, and I wasn’t quite ready to let it go. So instead of turning left past Yankee Stadium toward my school, I turned right, and headed back over the McComb’s Dam bridge for the second time that day. Once over the bridge, I headed south into Harlem. I passed the 145th street bridge and kept running, and although I was tempted to stretch toward the 3rd Avenue Bridge, I crossed back into the Bronx at 138th street. From there on I was in routine territory, up Gerard, cutting through Franz Seigal park for one last taste of grass under my feet, then over Grand Concourse and 161st to Happy Deli for a post-run sandwich and my afternoon of work.
Oh, and my last two teaching periods? Nearly as disappointing as my first two, but with an 8 mile run still singing in my blood, not nearly as aggravating. My yelling and ranting hadn’t done anything productive in the morning, only ruined my mood and heightened my frustration. The memory of the sun on my skin and the breeze in my hair reminded me: Reprimands will not bring missing outlines to class. Anger will not alter my students. Sadness will not force them to work. The greatest freedom allotted to any human being is the freedom to choose one’s attitude. And I certainly was enjoying the weather.
(reposted @ the RunSmilye Collective)