By Sarah S. Derer
I love to run. I am compelled to now, more than ever before.
I am a young woman, but my body is aging. My knees hurt sometimes. Occasionally, my lower back does too. My dark brown mane is becoming populated with shining silver strands.
I can do nothing to erase these new faults, the creeping fine lines on my face and sagging flesh between my upper thighs. I can’t pull up my skin like a pair of stubbornly earthbound pantyhose. I can for a moment. I can wrap my two hands around the meatiest part of my leg, just before my butt, grasp the skin, and drag it higher, but this is only a brief diversion, a slightly sad game of remember when. I let go and the flesh of my upper leg (because I can only do this with one leg at a time) retreats to its new home that much closer to my knee. This will go on for the rest of my life until all of my flesh reaches its destination, its home in the ground.
Something dawned on me recently, during a particularly long run. Through age, my body has become a better machine than it has ever been. It owes this improvement to my maturing brain.
I have never before been capable of the patience required to run a long distance. Of course, when I was seventeen years old I had the mechanics to do it, but I was not yet possessed of the wiring to commit the time and energy required to achieve any great (to me) physical feat. Ten years ago I was not capable of emptying my mind enough to simply and peacefully allow my body to do what it could have done, what it wanted to and was surely able to do.
I still lack patience, but I’m learning to operate on a level where it plays less of a role in how I operate my arms, torso, legs and feet. I’m learning to separate my physical act of running from any mental state of eagerness or hurriedness. I submit myself to my body’s desire to move from one point to another by foot. As it turns out, it can do this for quite a long time. It enjoys it, revels in it even, and I go along for the ride as a passenger would.
Ten years ago I was not propelled forward on my feet by the anxiety of what can sometimes feel like a directionless life. I have studied art, taken pictures, swelled bank accounts, diminished bank accounts, sold possessions, kissed boys, lied to myself, honored commitments, been laid off, gotten jobs, picked up and dropped myriad ideas and pursuits, picked them back up and dropped them again, all to discover that I have a strong tendency to start things but not finish them. Very little sticks. In this I am consistent. I am untethered and unmoored. This puts fear into me, and fear makes me run.
Today I feel guilt. I feel guilt over the ways in which I have abused my body since adolescence. It’s a feeling that is ever present, not often in the fore ground, but always there, just out of the image, but making its bitter presence felt, just the same. Generally speaking, I have been a good steward, but I have been far from perfect. I think of all the late nights in my early 20s spent smoking cigarettes and drinking into the darkest part of the morning. I think of having sex with someone who I didn’t know after a party in a neighborhood where I didn’t live. I think about how well I’ve known anyone I’ve had sex with. I run to absolve myself of all the sins I’ve committed against my body at one time or another. I don’t know if it will work, but I do it.
I seem to have the idea that if I hurt myself enough through the physical strain of running a great deal, something will remain with me when I’ve ditched weight by tossing all the unnecessary things over the side. I hope that my body—this efficient, patient machine—will prioritize for me, will hang on to whatever it is that my brain doesn’t know it should be keeping and shed everything else.
When I was a teenager, my body seemed to be for very little beyond appearing youthful but causing near-constant consternation at its forgivable imperfections. I now see that I was skulking around in an impressive vehicle with a powerful engine, with no knowledge of the fact or skills to use it.
As I age, I realize that my body must serve a different purpose from the shallow one that it once did. It must do more than merely appear. I am beginning to grasp the fact that it is for doing things, for moving, and for protecting others and myself. It is the house I will always live in and the car I will always drive. As I age I change from something soft and even to something with more nuance, something with more contrast between muscle hardened by the years and skin damaged by the experiences. I run to give meaning to this change that is happening, this gradual decrepitude.
I will not stave off age, or the effects of time by running, but I do think I can make the time more valuable. As someone very wise said, it’s not the minutes—it’s the miles.
February 20, 2013