Seeking a Void for the Start of A New World

My last full day in London is a holiday Monday in North America, so my brother is back at work. The day stretches out before me. I reach out to grab it with a deep breath of someone who knows my own return to the grind is imminent.

IMG_4910I set out for Hyde Park, ready to run. The weather is crisp and the sky is a smoldering grey. But I’m determined to run through the rain if I need to. Once I’m through the gates, I push off, my new stride carrying me forward at a steady yet energetic pace.

The greens around me are vibrant. I make my way past the pedestrians, slow and strolling, then watch as leash-less dogs bound through the grass like this is the best day of their lives. It isn’t long until I’m lost in the steps, forging a route with no known destination. I choose paths at random until I’m lost not just figuratively but geographically as well.

I suppose that’s the point of running. At least, it is for me. But I’m not alone. While away, I’ve been reading a memoir by the bestselling novelist Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He’s completed 23 marathons at the time of writing this book (one per year) and written more than a dozen novels. Directly and indirectly, Murakami explores his writing process by discussing his running journey.

Although I found running only two and a half years ago, I’ve felt its strong connection to my writing ever since. When people ask me why I run, I find myself talking about it being the only effective way to give my mind a break. Rather than whirring through its random firings of character dialogue, plot points, hypothetical scenarios, word combinations and more, my mind is quiet. Something about the steady rhythm of my steps lulls its overactivity into a kind of trance. It’s a peace I never get with sleep, so haunted by vivid dreams that I remember long after I wake.

IMG_4746“I’m often asked what I think about as I run,” Murakami writes. “Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.”

He describes a “homemade void” that encompasses his mind when he runs. Murakami can’t answer the question of what he thinks about during his runs, especially the long ones, because the point is to allow himself not to. “I just run. I run in a void,” he says. “Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”

The void isn’t just a break from all the inner turmoil a creative person experiences as a byproduct of their art. The mind void is a necessary part of creating. How do you paint a masterpiece without a blank canvas? You have to get rid of the noise in order to begin.

I find this particularly difficult. I tend to charge at things that fill up my calendar. I use time blocking to plan out my day at work but also at home.

On top of this natural tendency, I think our world is set up to plug every moment of time with something. When bored in transit, you pull out your phone to scroll through social media. When preparing dinner, you turn on Netflix for company. When walking down the screen, you listen to a podcast. Every moment is accounted for, swallowed up by activities that keep your mind busy. Distractions: they collect like steam on your glasses, preventing you from having those moments of clarity that exist outside the daily tasks it takes to live a life. There is no room to stretch. Before you know it, a year has gone by and that dream you have, the dial on it hasn’t moved any closer to reality.

So when I get the opportunity to run, or spend a day by myself just wandering around, I jump at it. And I need to start jumping more.

Solitude is not uncomfortable to me. It feels like a rush of air after holding your breath for a very long time. I revel in the roomy sensation that wraps around my lungs. The joys of being a secret introvert.

Time alone, with no particular task at hand, it may seem like a waste of time to some. But I know it’s quietly moving the dial by launching me into the void. I hope to bring a good helping of that home with me from this trip—along with the souvenir tea, biscuits and Turkish delight—so it can swallow me whole in the coming months. Everything is about to change.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Stories

On my fourth day overseas, we fly to Dublin, Ireland for a little euro-exploration. My brother’s been in the UK for two years and travelled extensively but never here.

After settling into our Airbnb, we hit the streets to start investigating. We discover quickly that we’re staying in the Jameson Distillery district. They moved the whiskey production out to the countryside to be closer to the barley suppliers, but have kept a tour and tasting house on the original grounds off Bow Street.

The Irish tour guide inside is friendly and generous, cracking jokes and pouring us comparison shots of Scotch Whisky, American Whiskey and Irish Whiskey: different spellings, different flavours, all with the same burning feeling down my throat. I am no connoisseur but appreciate the tasting lesson all the same.

After another glass of whiskey, this time sweetened with ginger ale, we head out again in high spirits—pun intended. We walk along the River Liffey, pass through gardens by the Dublin Castle and finish on the grounds of Trinity College. It’s beautiful, all of it, but flat. Despite the ornate surfaces, I know nothing about the people, places or plots that lurk behind the historical buildings around us.

We sleep late the next day, tired from a day of travelling, but scramble out to meet our walking tour on the steps of the Bank of Ireland. We’re a few minutes behind and grab the tail end of the group. I miss the tour guide’s name but not his warning that swear words will be used throughout the tour for comedic effect. In his mind, he says, the English brought this language to Ireland so they’re all bad words.

We walk in a huddle of twenty or so, trying to stay together through traffic lights and intersections where I’m not sure which way to look for cars. Our first stop is Dublin Castle where the guide launches into the history of the structures around us, all built in different centuries: a fortification first for the Vikings in 930, due to the ground’s high elevation; a stronghold for the Normans when they invaded Dublin in 1169, who then built more ditches and walls around the compound; an English high-security prison for Irish hostages in the twelfth century, who were kept in the Record Tower which is the only surviving structure from the original medieval castle and has walls more than three metres thick; an attraction for tourists who stare at the top trim without realizing it wasn’t added until centuries later, presumably to make the tower look more “castle-y.”

During the 1500s, Red Hugh O’Donnell, a 15-year-old Irish Chieftain, was locked in this tower to keep his clan and another from forming an alliance against the English crown. But Red escaped the prison in true Shank Shank Redemption style by crawling through the sewer.

Because of the castle’s tie to English rule, when the Irish won their independence in 1922 they decided it would no longer be used as a house of parliament. Inaugurations, ceremonies and state visits still take place here (Obama was hosted in the castle during his visit), but parliament uses a different location. “Essentially, it’s the largest, most expensive tea room in all of Ireland,” says our guide.

As he continues his monologue, what was a beautiful building yesterday transforms into the scene of several stories—Red’s and many more. Listening, I’m reminded of the reason for my storytelling passion, both for absorbing the words and creating them. Stories reveal what’s hidden beneath the exterior—of a building, a country, a person—of something maybe you always wondered about. Or maybe you never thought to beyond the first glance of assumptions. How much harder is it to judge/stereotype/ignore a person once you know their story?

Though storytelling has played a crucial role throughout human history, these days we sometimes think of the word “story” as referring to a thing you make up. Or something important only to children.

We forget that stories are about people, real or imagined, about the time and the place that forged their character and drove the path of their stars. Stories are how we learn about ourselves, both past and present. They turn a flat landscape into something teeming with life and history and meaning. Stories are what connect us all.

Connecting stones of the past, I’m lost to the present. I have to run quickly over tourist-worn streets to catch up to the group.

A New Way to Run the Race

Day three in London, I coax my brother into a morning run. Two of my siblings are regular runners, but we’ve never gone together. He’s faster, by a solid minute per kilometer or more, so I’m nervous. I’m injured, he says. I have to be careful about the impact on my legs. 

So now if trail behind, too far to even see the dust he kicks up, I can rest assured that an injured runner is trouncing me. I remind myself this was my idea.

FullSizeRender 2We walk to Regent’s Park where we’ll run. There are plenty of parks in Toronto, but I’ve never done this, walk to the start line. Unless, of course, it’s a race day.

Once surrounded by the vibrant greens produced by daily rain, we set our pace. It’s slow, steady. I know he’s holding back. But a slower gait allows for easy conversation. We start talking about running clinics. He mentions one he knows of in the city. My city. They record you on a treadmill and then correct your form with red ink.

The price tag makes me stumble, so I inquire further, seeing what tips I can pick up from someone who’s already shelled out the cash. Well, for starters, he says, your foot strikes the wrong spot on every step.

For starters? The wind leaves my lungs.

He explains further. When your heel hits the ground first, you’re forcing two to three times your weight onto a bone that’s not designed to take that much impact. It also often leads to over-striding. Striking on the mid- or forefoot helps you take smaller steps, leaning forward to increase speed rather than the temptation to widen your gait.

But that’s not all. Running toe-first keeps your knees bent, which enhances the storage and use of energy.

I make the switch and quickly feel ridiculous, like I’m prancing through the park. I watch people around us as we run, but no one is staring at the deer-in-training. I sink into our pace with my new stride, feeling energy rising from my feet and up through my legs like the red of a thermometer.

And, because this is how my mind works, I throw a fishing line out to catch the deeper meaning. Most people instinctually run heel-first (later research reveals this stat to be 95%). We get the job done but maximize the negative impact and minimize our energy for the next step. We unnecessarily risk injury, our wide strides reducing how far and how fast we can go. We choose the hard way, without even realizing it.

I’ve been running for two and half years, never once thinking there was a gentler, more efficient way to do it. What else am I approaching with the same force, thinking it’s a sign of strength but, in reality, it makes me weaker?

And there it is: catch of the day. I tend to charge at things I want or believe in with full force, sometimes with no thought to how each step should be taken. I argue easily. I don’t back down. I can be wickedly stubborn. I’m not usually a detail-oriented person. I’m a runner. I see an end goal and take off. It’s a race. And I’m in it to win it.

But, if Baz Luhrmann is right, then the race is long. And in the end, it’s only with yourself. If I could run beside a mirror, study each step and learn a kinder but faster stride, imagine how much further I could go before my body cries enough.

After a loop around the park, we race to the lights. I lose, but in so many ways, I also win.