I’d like to laugh, but I’m about to die. Laugh about the word “deciduous” to be more precise. It sounds made-up, a word your buddy from grad school would use to display his Latinate declension skills. Dying gets in the way of humor, though.
I’m running around Lake Nokomis (world famous, at least in Minneapolis) and its 2.7-mile trail for the second time. I gallop past my starting point, where the sculpture of a bronze dog sits atop a stone pedestal (titled Baying at the Moon, by Deb Zeller of Victoria, MN). The sun (sun, Mr. Golden Sun) is lashing my back with smiley, happy rays of flamethrowing HellSatan. Headphones force-feed my skull the glorious grindcore of Nasum and their ground-glass guitar. Mile three (of [approx.] six) of my run has just been completed and I’m noticing the abundance of deciduous trees versus the paucity of their prickly cousin, coniferous. I’m in the early stages of exercise suffering, when my body begins to gently question the motives of what my brain has undertaken (“Come on dude, just stop. Please. Stop and go home. Where the couches are.), so I try to transcend the situation. How do deciduous and coniferous trees interact?
Deciduous Tree: (curt nod, walking in the hallway of a marbled office building) Coniferous.
Coniferous Tree: (passing Deciduous Tree, replicating his curt nod): Deciduous.
Nose dripping, chest feels like an industrial wasteland of rust and acid and crumpled steel, etc. Weak body, stupid body. The mind of a writer is so hyperbolic; I’m not about to die! Bur oak, bur oak, green ash, weeping willow (non-native)…watercolor-smear of green and brown. Nice, a pine! What kind, I have no idea. Wish I had Trees of Minnesota. I’ve been reading a copy of Stan Tekiela’s (pronounced “tequila”?) pocket-sized and accessibly informative book for two distinct and divergent reasons: (1) to become more informed of my natural surroundings and (2) to take my mind off the horrifying, chainsaw-covered-in-Tabasco intensity of running. It works. For the moment.
Breathe stride breathe stride and my hand brushes the dangling tendrils of a weeping willow (non-native) and I search the database that is my memory for the last time I touched a tree prior to now. Got it. I chopped down an invasive white ash growing from the side of my house. “Chopped” is an awful verb for what I did while using an axe made of dull corrosion. More like “bludgeoned.” The ash endured such a blunted beating as I struck it again and again and again. My hands turned to blisters and I felt like Jim Carey’s cop character in Me, Myself, and Irene when he tried to put the dying cow out of its misery with (checking YouTube) nine clumsy gunshots and a headlock. Indented to the point of collapse, the sapling’s verdant and wet body was dislocated from its bottom. The ash, that willful, baby white ash, ended up in my garbage can. The last time I touched a tree prior? Searching. Breathe stride breathe stride, a lake the color of varnished slate and its ring of trees bounce with me. Searching. Don’t remember.
I keep running, surrounded by nature, but the only tactile interactions I have with it are businesslike. Eat food. Mow grass. Chop down tree. Our ability to transcend the physical, natural world also estranges us from it. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s words in The Last American Man, about the distance our modern civilization creates from nature:
“We have fallen out of rhythm. It’s this simple. If we don’t cultivate our own food supply anymore, do we need to pay attention to the idea of, say, seasons? Is there a difference between winter and summer if we can eat strawberries every day? If we can keep the temperature of our house 70 degrees all year, do we need to notice that fall is coming? Do we have to prepare for that? Respect that? Much less contemplate what it means for our own mortality that things die in nature every autumn? And when spring does come around again, do we need to notice that rebirth?”
So I’ll try to close the gap. Climb a tree, pick a flower, roll down a grassy hill. I touched a tree today. Running brought me to it. I’ll remember that.
Mile four (of six) and five (of six) are pretty similar, in that the totality of bodily suffering begins to consume every nook and cranny of organic fiber. My body’s pleas for cessation have turned form gentle to urgent and unkind (Stop. STOP! This is stupid and you are stupid to continue. An internet full of crotch-assaults is, what, a few minutes away? STOP RUNNING, ASSHOLE!). It starts to become painfully obvious that my body is not designed for this pace (which is, I estimate, about 75-80% of a dead sprint). I am broad of shoulder, thick of calf, and stubby of limb, built like a wrestler or a running back (i.e. I’m no marathon-devouring Kenyan). I’m clocking a five-minute, fifty-seven-second per-mile pace through four-plus miles, which is pretty solid for someone of my stature, but it’s taking a toll. Mining my lungs for some trace of oxygen. BREATHE stride BREATHE stride.
Thoughts become more clipped, more staccato. I call this “Pure Thought,” a realm of thinking that is (mostly) stripped of fat and finery and verbosity and wordplay and irony and puns and self-aware, post-modern tropes. Prose is gristle, bone. German shepherd’s not on a leash. Woman in a bikini, rollerblading. People still rollerblade? Children on the beach, happy fucking children with normal heart-rates and unencumbered cardiovascular function. Fuck the children. A 747 flies low over the lake. Spit is iron on the tongue. Rotting fish. Fuck everyone. I’m going to die.
That’s bullshit, of course. I’m not going to die. I have one more trick. I look down, look inward. Ignore the distance, the sprawling distance left, so big and open and bleeding. The running path is a sidewalk, then blacktop. The yawning scar that begins at the top of my kneecap and melts to the end of my patella tendon pops into view with every other stride, the ugly aftermath of full-reconstructive knee surgery. I’m reminded of some clichéd lyrics (I won’t validate the band with mention here) about scars being a vessel in which the past lives (my words, not theirs). Sure, they tell a story, but that seems easy. It doesn’t give them enough credit. Scars let us know that the world is, first and foremost, a tactile, physically invasive place and that the body can’t always escape its primal and savage host. This is a good thing. Regardless of how many cars we drive, how long we stay indoors, or how often we are planted safely in front of glowing boxes, scars remind us that there are consequences for our sensorial dalliances. They aren’t so much about the past as about the present, a blinking road-sign that declares, “The world is right here, right now so PAY ATTENTION! EXPEREINCE IT! LIVE, YOU BASTARD!” One step less. One step less.
Mile six (of six) is six-odd minutes (see what I did there? 666!) of Abyss-sanctioned torture-shit devised by Dick Cheney. Existence is a cascade of curses spewing from my body (STOP! FUCKER! STOP, COCKSUCKER! YOU’RE DYING, YOU DUMB ASSHOLE! FUUUUUUCCCKKKK! You’re going to die. you will die…). My last cogent thoughts usually narrow to the words of Muhammad Ali at such times, as filtered through the pen of George Plimpton in Shadow Box:
“…a foreboding, a vision of opening a door and stepping across the sill into a terrifying place, a Bedlam, not unlike what years later Muhammad Ali described so brilliantly as the “Near Room,” a place to which, when he got into trouble in the ring, he imagined the door swung half open and inside he could see neon, orange and green lights blinking, and bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones, and where he could hear snakes screaming. Weird masks and actors’ clothes hung on the wall, and if he stepped across the sill and reached for them, he knew that he was committing himself to his own destruction.”
BREATHE STRIDE BREATHE STRIDE and I stay out of the “Near Room.” But there are no tricks left; no diversions or transcendence. Just suffering. Sweat, napalm breaths, suffering. My defunct ears translate the gurgles and burps from my headphones into a mass of incoherent syllables and buzzing feedback. So I take them off, and all my senses are now engaged in a unified system failure. What’s more thrilling than this? I’m on the precipice of physical limitation, a foot on the ledge of mortality, of humanity, of nature, of death! Why would you want to step outside this, get away from this, transcend this? The pain forces me into a singularized state, a total body experience, and it is here that I realize how foolish it is to uproot oneself from a visceral, physical world. I say something and I think it sounds like this:
“Fuck transcendence! Fuck tricks!”
Yes! This is the highest state of being! When there is ZERO distance between the mind and body! Why do we try to separate the two so much, like the physical form is somehow beneath the almighty human consciousness? When we divide our being into two different camps, we run the risk of designating those that lack a definable “consciousness” as inferior. This creates an unnecessary hierarchy and thus humanity becomes “us” and all else becomes “them.” Is it vanity, some biblical, “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” bullshit? The mind/body dichotomy grows wider with such notions. Humanity and its civilizations become further insulated so we develop an obligation to exist outside a naturalized realm, away from our perceived lessers. Away from the corporeal assets that got us here in the first place.
The finish. The bronze dog in sight. It could take ten minutes, could be ten feet away, maybe five miles, and numbers dissolve into a puddle of anti-logic and there, floating in the remnants, is a single, glorious obelisk: ONE. Mind, body, suffering, life, One. What’s more basic and pertinent than these questions: how far could you go before your heart shuddered and quit, before your hamstrings were unmoored form their tendons, before your lungs deflated and hissed and sagged and stopped? Last stride and touch the dog’s nose and shutdown and One.