When I was in college and the piles of deadlines became too much to handle, I’d finish what I absolutely had to for the day, grab my keys and head out to start walking.
It always began as an aimless stroll, one day moving through the residential areas to the west of my campus one day, heading east to Lake Michigan on the next day. I’d cross busy streets, double back, go down a road I’d headed down in the opposite direction a few days before. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it.
One thing was always constant, though. Somewhere along the way, I’d stop by a place with books.
If it was the middle of the day, I would head to a used bookstore that sold books by weight. As with any used bookstore, the findings could be hit or miss, but I got several cheap copies of classics and one of my all-time favorites, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, there. If I was in the mood for bright covers and overpriced coffee, the Barnes & Noble was a stone’s throw away from the used bookstore. And if my impulse to ramble struck me late at night, I could head to my university’s library and spend my time walking quietly among the stacks.
For me, books and moving have always been intertwined.
One of the pictures of me at my youngest is of me reading. But for most of my life, I’ve also been an athlete. I started taking gymnastics lessons at about age six or seven and began competing in that sport when I was nine. When my family moved several states away on my eleventh birthday, I joined the field hockey team at my new school and remained in that until my graduation. I also played basketball, lacrosse, and soccer in the intervening years. School happened throughout, obviously, and in my last two high school years I was working. In college, I kept the tradition up, that time with ice hockey. Where there was nothing but the act of moving and how well you could do it as the situation demanded, I could let out some of the turmoil gathered mentally in my few spare hours.
The saying goes that a sound mind and a sound body are connected. In my case, my mental restlessness found an outlet in my physical pursuits. My life was divided between work, home, and school, and while I triangulated between those three points, there were two avenues that took me out of that endless triangle. The first were the sporting events. The second were my books. The books were the playing field when I was hit with the urge to go, to do, to act- and the rush of action was impossible. Reading was sometimes the only path I could take to make paths other than those points of triangulation feel tangible, even if I couldn’t take them. In each work I read, people’s lives were uprooted, the worlds in which they were confined were shattered- and they acted.
I craved that. The motion I knew from the field gave me a taste of the concrete reality of action when the words on a page were no more than nouns. The words, in their turn, were the possibility of action beyond the current possibilities of my reality.
Last June, I graduated college, settled into my new city, and began a new job. Everything was in upheaval for multiple months, and for a while, my greatest concern was work and paying the rent. As a result, I lost the habit of action. There were no goal posts to reach, no one to fight for a piece of volcanized rubber or access to an elevated hoop. The back and forth of work was my only constant motion, and though I would venture out to new places every so often, I no longer had a habit of acting.
And my joy in words began to suffer for it.
The corroding started slowly enough with books themselves; I started setting them aside more readily than I used to. Then came long stretches where I would leave a book I’d begun untouched. When I visited bookstores or the library in my neighborhood, I’d wander the bookshelves without looking them or paying attention to where I was going. There was no direction to the way I interacted with words anymore, and that loss of guidance showed in my writing. Apart from the words I composed for paychecks, I couldn’t find any way of stringing words together that didn’t feel tired, inane, or useless.
I didn’t ever really stop writing though, as lackadaisical as I became about my schedule, and that let me trick myself into believing there wasn’t a problem. It didn’t matter that I was writing to no purpose, I remember telling myself. What mattered was that I was doing the writing.
In one sense, that was true- I never stopped putting words together in some form, whether it was for work or to satisfy the nagging urge that kept driving me to do something with language beyond functional use. But there was no aim, no target to what I was doing. It was the equivalent of dithering on the edge of a swimming pool without diving in.
It took running a half-marathon to wake me up to what I was doing.
On May 17th, I ran 13.1 miles in two hours and thirteen minutes. It was the first thing I’d undertaken in months for no reason other than that to say I had done it. I had a goal time of finishing below 2.5 hours and a stretch goal of two hours and fifteen minutes, but I hadn’t done the race to win, to be healthy, or because of an outside commitment or incentive. I had done it because it was worth making the attempt to do.
I can’t remember the last time I approached writing that way. But ultimately, I think it’s the only way I can approach this craft. I crave recognition for the things I do, and I want to be noted for my achievements. But the recognition only means so much unless those achievements are meaningful in and of themselves. In other words, they have to be worth the undertaking without any hope of being honored for that achievement.
I think I’ve found how to find that worth in my action. It’s time to find a way to do the same with my words.