After yesterday's Boston Marathon bombings, the BBC News quoted Dr. Peter Fagenholz, of Massachusetts General Hospital: “The injuries are not otherworldly,” he said. “But it’s just depressing,” he kept repeating. “We see injuries all the time, but this…this was intentional.”
I spent the weekend thinking and writing about what it might mean to be intentional. To be intentional seems to mean taking distinct action based upon definitive promises made to oneself. To start with the word and then to move beyond it into activity. To make our words mean. To say what we mean and mean what we say. No meandering. But what about an act like terrorism? It might be called the most intentional act of all.
I’ve heard frequent comparisons of novelists to marathoners. The idea is that, as a novelist, your work is long and arduous and, in some sense, otherworldly. Especially for the aspiring novelist, who has no guarantee that her years of words will ever be read. Running 26.2 miles might, similarly, be called an otherworldly feat. Unnatural, even. Where resides the desire to push one’s body to such an extreme? What is the reward? Though I have never managed to run the length of a marathon myself, I have known others who have; I imagine the intention to run, the mental act, driving the painful first fifteen miles. Soon thereafter, a euphoria akin to Zen is achieved, where it is no longer about why one began running in the first place, but simply that one is still running. I’ve heard my father describe experiencing a transcendent sense of joy and pure being around mile eighteen, falling out of his workaday worries, his sole intention to take each, next step.
Such ideas about running are what led me to take it up last month, March, when I turned 30. Many lifelong runners have to hang it up around age 50 or so, or far younger, due to the grating effects upon knees. Though I have inherited my father’s sturdy, indomitable legs, the act of flinging oneself into the elements the way running requires could easily be called sadistic. Unnatural. Otherwordly. That first week, my upper back ached, a small fist formed just below my left breastbone, to punch me repeatedly from within. Though I ride my bicycle up and down the unforgiving hills of Southern Indiana on the regular, running made my chest heave manically; breath fled my body the way a locomotive loses steam. Eventually, drenched in sweat, my arms swinging painfully, my intentions failed. I ground to a breathless halt.
But then, the next week, out of town in Northern Indiana, I stopped off at a wooded area near the Dunes National Lakeshore, an expanse of clustered woods and winding paths called Coffee Creek Watershed Conservancy. I decided to try running again.
It was a cold, blustery day in early March; the sky was letting fall little stinging swords of rain. Most of the dirt and clay paths had turned to slush; I took them. Frigid wind made my face a mess of water and snot. I wore a pair of old, gunked-up shoes, with about as much back support as a piece of plastic. I knew I would ache; I didn’t care. The silence and expansiveness of the park, usually filled with couples and babies and dogs, demanded reverence. It was the sort of day that opened itself like a fresh wound—requiring care and time and to be addressed with exactitude. Even if it hurt, I would try to run.
Without anyone around to watch me, with the weather so dreary and pocked with the scars of late winter, with the sky hanging low and grey, it was easy to let myself go. I churned over the red clay the rain turned dark and hard, buried my feet in cold puddles of water. I forced myself up hills as the music in my ears melded with the rhythm of my steps. I began to feel in tandem with some universal order. I discovered I could steady my usually jaunty shoulders and chest and stabilize my hips to let my legs do most of the work. Letting my arms hang slack at my sides, I stacked my posture, pushed my chest forward at a slight angle. The pain in my back released. I felt that sensation of being able to run forever. I must have taken those pocked hollows and ravines for two hours. More.
Yesterday, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, I learned I hadn’t received a trip to a writers’ seminar in Bulgaria. Traveling to Eastern Europe has been a perpetual dream of mine: my grandfather came from Macedonia; the novel I’m writing is set in Eastern Europe. I worked very hard on the application. I did the best I could. And yet, as is typically the case with writing, I received another rejection. “Is it that you’re just applying for things that are too competitive?” my mother asked me over the phone. “Everything in this field is too competitive,” I answered. “That’s this field.”
Which is perhaps why running provides such a sweet reward. There is an ending; there is, always, the sense of completion. Regardless of how well a runner performs, there is the inevitable moment of having to return to the other-world, to unlace one’s shoes and step into the shower.
Which might be why, despite the global repercussions and insidious, looming horror at the fact that someone would intentionally harm strangers, this was the first thought I had upon hearing of the bombings: what about the reward of having finished a marathon? Those people who died or lost limbs or sustained other injuries at the finish line—what happened to their sweet sense of completion? We perceive in others’ pain the breadths of our own. I yearn for completion. Such a pure, simple reward was stolen from those runners yesterday.
As a writer, though I have been at it for more than a decade, I feel I have completed very little. I have rarely experienced the sense of happily unlacing my shoes or stepping into the shower. The computer is always on; the notebook is never closed. Writing is a constant state of agitation and fret: you’re not working hard enough, you’re not sending your work to enough journals, you’re not cultivating enough opportunities. You need to read more. Write less. Often I feel that this decision to write is an interminable marathon, the finish line facetious. One of my teachers in my MFA program told us: “Let writing be its own reward.” I’m beginning to think, if there is any joy to be gotten from this, he must be right.
Whatever intentions we make: let them be far from explosive and cruel. Let us will ourselves to be pure and simple: like footsteps, like words.