Monday, July 23, 2012

Getting in shape, Part I

When I first started running as an adult, in earnest, it was early 1994.  I was being chased by some of the worst demons of my life.   I was running away from them and toward a kind of freedom--of thought, of emotion, of soul--that I had not experienced for most of the previous decade.

Marriages fall apart. People's belief systems alter. Appearances begin to crumble,  revealing an incomplete, imperfect frame.  These things happen with such regularity that I cringe, even now, to think that I didn't accept it then.  Or, more accurately, I didn't accept it for myself: "Those things don't happen to me," I would have said.
I struggle to describe what must have been behind that stubborn insistence that I was different from the rest of the world. Vanity?  Arrogance?  Ignorance?  A kind of innocence?
The truth is, my parents had divorced. The truth is, my belief system had already shifted once, when I made a startling move from the strict Catholic faith I grew up in to an even stricter evangelical Protestant faith,  which I floundered in without acknowledging it. The truth is, the appearance of my life wasn't so perfect.  Once, in a poem about my parents, I had written, "their life unraveled only at the edges, where it looked like ornament."
But in the Fall of 1993, I entered a graduate program in English, and every hairline crack in the foundation of my marriage crept upward with force, threatening the integrity of the structure.  I loved the academic life; what I had tolerated as plain misunderstanding when my husband had made fun of my love of books I now had to reckon for what it was: disapproval and judgment.  When I needed to read and study, when I brought books along on car trips, when I had to leave for class as he was coming home from work, my husband railed that I wasn't doing my job as his wife and the mother of our children. Then, I had to face the fully-developed roar of his fear and desire for control, which had seemed a whiny child until that point.  When the first inklings of a growing literary consciousness came to bear on me, when I felt the sheer joy that exposure to ideas brought to me, when I saw the way those ideas conflicted with my conservative life, I  critiqued those ideas to my husband, so he wouldn't see and begin to mistrust me. And I felt ashamed of myself.
The past four years of our 8-year marriage had been a struggle, since the time my husband confessed that he had been involved with a co-worker.  It had never fully developed into an affair; did it matter?  At that time, I had given birth to our second child; he was nine months old.   His older brother was just two.  Shaken to the core--who was she? what had happened? why had I not been enough?--I tried to get some details and start the slow crawl toward forgiveness.  I also kept one part of my brain separate, alert:  don't act hysterical. Don't get too angry.  Remain calm so he will keep talking.
However, once he had unburdened himself, he refused to talk more. I found out who she was, a woman who had come by our house with a gift for my infant.  He would say no more.  It's over, it's in the past. There's nothing more to say.
But larvae must wriggle and struggle, underground or water where they are buried, in order to move to the next stage.  A metamorphosis is not complete until the new creature can be exposed, its ultimate identity revealed.
For the next four years, this creature, the knowledge of this dalliance (could I call it an affair? was it an affair? I didn't even know how long it had gone on) would not rest. It writhed and squirmed, made the terrestrial surface of our marriage undulate and wave; it became hard to walk the straight path I thought I was on. It grew and swelled and the undulations became hills (I agreed to have another child).  It would not die or remain buried; I did not understand what it was or that I had helped engender it (when I was seven months pregnant with my third child, I asked my husband to kill it for good:  please, just promise me it will never happen again.  He said, I can't promise you that).  It bucked and twisted and I was lost in a landscape I thought I knew.  It rested--let me rest--only when my husband traveled for work. And when he came home, it heard his voice say I don't think you even missed me, and it commenced to thrash again.
And then it was born into its final stage.  One night, at a Bible study meeting, my husband obeyed some urge to confess himself to our group of friends. Perhaps he felt the underground tension, too, perhaps it's easier to confess to relative strangers, perhaps I will never understand why that night, that setting. He gathered the group and began talking about the woman and the attraction and the details came pouring out finally, things I had only guessed at: they had lunch together, they held hands, they acted like high school kids with their arms thrown around each other.
He had asked her if she would run away with him.
There it was, complete.  In all its ugly fullness.  Not just a few days' worth of lust.  A plan had formed, been discussed, been proposed.  She had said no. That's why it ended.
I can't remember whether we talked on the way home that night or when exactly it was in relation to my first semester of grad school, to his moving out around Christmas 1993.  I do remember something kept me weirdly subdued, unsure what to do with this information. And I remember that when I said, in desperation, in an attempt to speak the truth of the nameless pain I had borne for four years, Sometimes I just want to be free of you, he responded, How can you say that to me? I'm your husband.  And I knew then that freedom was what I needed.
I wouldn't have said freedom from the marriage. That came  over a year later, and very sadly.  I wanted time to mend the bones of my fractured identity.  When he moved out, though, the demons came rushing in:  no one from church called, or if they did, it was only to warn me not to do anything stupid.  No pastors called me.  I had few friends outside church; I was alone. Even my sister scolded me that the Bible says not to divorce.  I was on the verge of breaking down.
So, I took up running, to keep a few steps ahead of the powerful negative messages that were trying to keep me locked in a set of beliefs I could no longer openly assent to.  I took up running because of its rhythm, something I could count on and feel, that steadied me when I began to think of divorce and panic because I was not supposed to be a divorced person. And, I took up running because my life as an athlete had ended when my husband insisted I couldn't play sports because it took me away from my family.  I took up running to feel the powerful, automatic contraction and expansion of muscles, the miracle of the body stretching itself to its limits. I took up running so I could breathe even through exhaustion and so I could conquer fear at night and sleep.
I was driven to running, impelled by a need to survive, propelled by the release of constraints that had made me a strained, and strange, version of myself.
But when I was out there, I wasn't pursued. I was pursuing health and strength, stamina and flexibility.  I left behind my doubts for the concentration required by pacing, footfall, breath.  I relaxed into a routine and a route.  And when I was done with each run, I reminded myself of the beauty of the body and the body's capabilities by laying my hand on my hip to feel the muscle that pulsed there. I offered my gratitude to the universe.  And I knew the joy that comes when something belongs to you that no one can take away.

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