Sunday, December 29, 2013

Purging Doubts of Affection: To My Sister, Corrine

“It’s not like your life is over, Danae. You can still do fun things when you’re married…” My sister, Corrine, was in the passenger seat next to me, sipping tea through a thermos. Sighing, I turned off the engine in my Honda minivan. Somehow the conversation always turned back to marriage. Corrine loved weddings and the planning process, down to choosing the brand of nail polish for the bridesmaids’ toes. 

It was after ten o’clock at night; we were sitting in Target’s new parking lot. Silently, we watched a young group of kids pile into a rusted van parked across from us and drive away.

“I actually enjoy it…” 

I nodded and listened to her break it down for me. For some reason, I was gripping the steering wheel and continued staring out the windshield. A couple days before, Corrine had flown in from Texas with her three children. I loved those kids, I really did. But from the moment they landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my head hadn’t stopped spinning. 

Maelyn, her middle child, was two years old. The precious synapses in her little brain were incapable of drawing certain rational conclusions at such an age. I thought of that morning when I found her standing on the couch downstairs. A movie was playing. Her older brother Brayden was drawn in, completely blocking out the noise of his sister exhausting her lung capacity and destroying her vocal cords in sincere, adamant vexation. Cautiously, I had approached her. 

“Mae Mae, what’s wrong?”

The crying stopped and her head turned around sharply; her tear smeared face looked up at me and instantly contorted in disappointment. Two seconds later, without breaking eye contact, she tilted her head back, filled her lungs, and in a single, drawn out breath, wailed, “Ma-a-a-a-a-a-ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-a!”

There was no arguing with this vocal powerhouse. The closer I moved in, the louder she demanded for “Mama.” Her steady eye contact in the midst of her screaming began to unsettle my conscience. Those little blue eyes were burning through me; I began feeling at fault for not being her mother. Corrine, unfortunately, was in the shower. Feeling uncomfortable and half-consciously ashamed of myself, I looked down at the floor, avoiding my niece's raging scrutiny. Rejected, embarrassed (and embarrassed for being embarrassed), and not knowing what else to do, I had slipped back upstairs and left her bawling.      

“You’re cut out for marriage, Danae, really, you are. You might not think so, but I think you’d love it.” Corrine said, taking another sip of tea. I nodded slowly. 

“Yeah…yeah, I hope so.” 

Like most things, I didn’t exactly agree with her. For me, marriage was in direct correlation with children; I knew I couldn’t expect to get married and not have kids. It puzzled me that I had such trouble with them; not just my sister’s children, but kids in general. I thought of my own childhood. I clearly remembered what it was like to be little. Sitting in the minivan brought back specific memories; namely, my severe motion sickness. I was incredibly self-conscious and ashamed of puking as a child, so I’d deny I needed to until the last possible moment. By that time, it would be too late and I’d end up vomiting all over the car. 

On one trip when I actually told Mom I wasn’t feeling well, I was put in the front passenger seat next to Dad. I hadn’t experienced sitting in the front before, and, despite my stomach, I relished the grownup feeling. I didn’t want to admit I was going to vomit though, and I certainly wasn’t about to ask Dad to pull over. In a last ditch effort, I thrust my head out the open window and let the chunks fly. Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered the rules of centripetal force (the reality of what happens to puke when it is hurled out of a vehicle going seventy miles per hour). My dad smiled and waved to the slack-jawed locals at the closest gas station when we pulled in with evidence of my breakfast literally encompassing the entire right side of our van. 

No matter how many times Mom told me to give her a heads up, it just came up spewing so devastatingly that I’d forget all about the empty Cool-Whip dish I was supposed to use. Naturally, both of my siblings were appalled by the milky chunks of my lunch dripping down the back of Mom’s seat, but the memories scarred Corrine the deepest. Once, when we pulled into a rest stop after I lost a particularly large lunch, she flung herself out of the van and took off down the parking lot for several yards. She huddled down on a parking curb and pulled the drawstrings of her hood so tightly around her head I couldn’t see her face, only one tiny black hole. She was crying, rocking back and forth, and refused to get back in the car for hours. 

“Marriage is worth it.” Corrine finally added, picking at a crusty, dried up stain on her jeans. “It’s nice always having someone there, no matter where you are, to just be with.” 

“It’s such a commitment though, people grow and change…weren’t you scared?” 

“Of getting married, you mean?”

“Yeah, wasn’t it kind of daunting knowing you’d be with Drew forever?” 

“Well…” Corrine looked out the passenger window at a Target employee gathering up the grocery carts and watched as he sent them rattling down the pavement. “I didn’t think about it too much. I knew I loved Drew, I loved spending time with him. I guess I lucked out. He’s great and I think I love him a little more every year.” It wasn’t the first time she had shared this, and every time it still amazed me. 


Corrine was a perpetual mystery. When we were children, I knew she wasn’t my mother, she lacked that warm, nurturing security mothers often instill; and, being six years older, she wasn’t my friend either. Or rather, I wasn’t hers. I was the child who had a history of throwing up in the car, crying too often, demanding our mother’s attention, and taking precious objects without asking. I was very aware of the fact that I annoyed her. As a result, Corrine and I kept to the periphery of each other’s lives. In an email last spring, Corrine expressed some remorse over this: 
I…often regret I wasn't a more supportive, involved older sister to you. That is honestly one of my life's greatest regrets. Why I didn't spend more time playing with you or was more invested in our sisterhood is something I often lament over. 
I can’t remember life without my sister; her presence and influence were constant whether I liked it or not; often, I didn’t. My earliest memory of her was in the dining room of our old house. I was being chased around the dining room table, filled with genuine terror. Corrine’s heavy footsteps made the plates in the china cabinet rattle. She was somewhere behind me (I couldn’t quite see over the tabletop), I’d glance over my shoulder and imagine her eyes gleaming wildly; she really did have a safety pin in hand as she beckoned, “Come here, Danae! Come here! I’m going to pierce your ears…!” 

Even recently, I was aware I still had trouble relating to her and the things she talked about  and she could say the same about me. She was a mother living with her husband in Texas, I was single and still in college. We’d talk, but I often felt inadequate to further the conversation. I didn’t have three kids or a mother-in-law. Nevertheless, somewhere in the everyday monotony of our shared lives, within the different stages, terse actions, passive aggressive comments, and the small talk, something had changed us, together, at the same time.  

A few years ago, for the week of Brayden’s first birthday, Corrine brought him to visit the family in Michigan. Incidentally, he caught the flu. One morning when I was home with her and Brayden, I heard a lot of commotion downstairs. I was well aware Brayden felt sick; in fact, I knew exactly what had happened. I went to survey the damage. Brayden was in his highchair, crying adamantly. His big round eyes were stretched even wider than usual, as if in amazement. Confirming my suspicions, coated over his face, his arms, his hands, his clothes, and flowing out onto the floor several feet in front of him, was the aftermath of a curdled, powerfully projected breakfast. Stunned into silence, I looked around for his mother. I found her sitting on the floor behind the counter, leaning up against the stove, her head between her knees. She had been crying. 

“It’s just…too much.” She said, wiping her eyes.

Not knowing what else to do, a crouched down next to her. 

“I can take dirty diapers, I can take snotty noses and sleepless nights, I can take just about anything, but this...this is too much.” 

I wasn’t sure what to say. I suspected I was the cause of this; I had an ironic sensation of indirectly fulfilling a childhood fantasy. After years of dormancy, my long forgotten endeavor to bring my sister to her wit’s end had come to fruition vicariously through her own son. Those long trips and my motion sickness had stuck with her all this time. I might have found the situation legitimately funny if she didn’t look so defeated. I felt I didn’t have the right to pat her on the back and say, “Aw, it could be worse…” I resorted to offering to take care of the mess. I assured her that no, really, it was fine, I didn’t mind. In reality I didn’t. I half-consciously felt responsible anyway. I might not fully grasp the realities of parenthood, but I knew how much getting sick devastated Corrine; in fact, I took full credit for it. As I knelt down, meticulously wiping up my nephew’s detonation of blueberries and oatmeal, I wondered in what other ways I had affected my older sister. 

Corrine and I have made sincere efforts to develop a relationship. We went out for frozen yogurt and Target shopping sprees during our short visits. Once, we even took the kids with us; but only once. We opted not to try again for a couple of years. Also, that past spring when I left the country for five months, we occasionally corresponded through emails. While I loved her emails, I found communicating so formally difficult. This was something we had never done before. Still, she was very honest; more honest, perhaps, than she’d ever been. When I asked her about life, she shared:
The truth of the matter is life is hard. You hear me talk about my kids so much because they are my life. They take up all of my energy, time, and attention. Often I think I get into "mom mode" when I don't think too much about what's going on with me and just how I can meet the kids needs…I just wonder how to enjoy this time of the kids lives when it feels like every day we're in survival mode.   
I thought I understood what she meant. Memories such as Brayden puking across the kitchen floor came to mind, and the last time we all went to Target together. And after Brayden and Maelyn, Trennan had arrived, too. I barely knew these little ones. Every time we visited they’d shamelessly stare at my face, as if beholding it for the first time. Brayden was four, Maelyn was two, and Trennan hadn’t celebrated a birthday yet. Maybe I didn’t know exactly what Corrine felt, but I had witnessed the absorbing momentum of all three that very morning in the course of ten minutes. I had a pretty good idea. And while I had never experienced motherhood personally, I did have a mother. What I knew of mothering was also directly correlated to her. During our childhood, our mother’s words written in her journal weren’t so different from my sister’s: 
I feel like I am treading water--vigorously--and just able to keep my nose out of the water. I feel like just one hesitation will cause me to go under and I wonder if I would ever surface again. 
Corrine knew what that felt like on any given day; and she wasn’t the only one. My grandma had raised not three, but four children. My mom talked about her often. Apparently, our Aunt Dana suffered from car sickness, too; even worse than I did. When Aunt Dana was a little girl, she got sick in the car almost every time she rode. 

Pure Italian blood coursed through my grandma’s veins, and with it, her Catholic faith. Consequently, my mom’s older siblings attended a Catholic school throughout their childhood. Once, while my grandma was driving with Dana in the back seat, she observed two nuns walking along the side of the road; they were dressed head to toe in their brilliantly white habits. My grandma felt convicted to offer them a ride. With no small amount of apprehension, she pulled the car over and invited the the nuns in. The women obliged and oohed and awed over Dana, complimenting grandma as they squeezed into the car. My grandma smiled nervously, almost painfully, and shifted the car into drive. One of the nuns had taken Dana on her lap and was bouncing her up and down, swing her little arms, and chatting animatedly. Horror stricken, eyes bulging, my grandma leaned over, clutched the steering wheel with both hands, and prayed desperately. She all but lost hope in Dana; it was one thing to ride in a car, and quite another the ride in a car and bounce around like a bobblehead. Grandma could already hear her daughter’s inevitable heaving and coughing, could already smell the aftermath; she had already imagined the horrified expressions as the nuns looked down at their white gowns stained in the coagulated gleam of warm, half-digested nosh. The catastrophe never happened, though. Much to my grandmother’s relief (and my shrewd disappointment), the nuns arrived at their destination, thanked grandma for the ride, bade Dana goodbye, and left unscathed. My grandmother remembered the story fondly, my mom said she would share it often. 

As a kid, I always liked my Aunt Dana (I also remember throwing up several times on the ride to her house in Springfield, Illinois). She looked and sounded too much like my mom, though; it troubled me. Their bone structure was so similar it was uncanny, especially in their hands. I remember I once followed Aunt Dana around for nearly five minutes with my hand in hers before I realized she wasn’t actually who I thought she was. I was a bit more consciously aware around her after that. More recently, I found a journal entry my mom wrote years ago: 
Perhaps someday you will wonder why I called you Danae. I thought it was a pretty name--but more than that it had DANA in it--my sister’s name. She was a special influence on my life. She taught me so many things...May you too be an encouragement to others my precious one. 
Although Maelyn hadn’t taken my namesake, I wondered if Corrine could say such a thing to her about me. Or, if I did ever have a daughter, would I write that about Corrine?  


“Maybe I could just elope,” I suggested, “that way, I wouldn’t have to worry about a wedding and spending so much money.” By this time, Corrine and I had rolled the windows down in the minivan. The evening summer air was still warm and sticky. I tugged at the collar of my shirt, trying to cool down. We had gone from talking about marriage, to husbands, to men in general, to our dad, brother, mother, her children, our childhood, and now we were back on marriage. I had brought up eloping before, mainly because I knew how much it bothered her. Corrine was more excited about my wedding than I was. She had been collecting images and links to wedding sites online for the past year despite my apprehension towards weddings and practical reasons not to want one. Nevertheless, I suppose the occasion is worth celebrating. Before Mom’s wedding day, my grandma wrote in a letter: 
Another phase is in store for you…plans and dreams for the future...where did the time go…I guess I have done alright but I sometimes wonder if I didn’t miss out on something… You are all so very important to Dad and I but we know we have to let go and there is a big new life before you that we know you will experience.
I could relate to my grandmother. When Corrine asked me to stand as the maid of honor in her wedding, she asked so matter-of-factly, it was hardly a question. Naturally, I would be the maid of honor even though I wasn’t yet sixteen and lacked the desire to become particularly involved. During the bachelorette party and rehearsal dinner (which she planned), and while getting our hair done and putting on our dresses, I was mechanical; none of it felt real. When the time finally came, I could only step back and observe. 

The ceremony was in our grandparents’ church. The photographer was there, overt, snapping shots with noticeable poise. Mom had already been led into the sanctuary. She joined Drew’s mother at the altar and finally managed to light the union candles with a dubious lighter. The bridesmaids and groomsmen were paired and lined up, ready to walk in. Daylight filtered through the stained glass windows, contouring the bodies of the people--friends and family from all over the country. Music was playing, a flute and piano rang out the same Pachelbel Canon in D my mother walked to. Two by two, the party made its way down the aisle in long, rhythmic steps. Drew waited. His hands were clasped firmly behind his back and both eyes were locked on those back doors. For two seconds, everything went silent. Then, the organ suddenly exploded into the first dramatic chords of “Here Comes the Bride.” Like a single tidal wave, everyone stood up in the pews and turned to look. She appeared, arm in arm with Dad.   
Where did the time go…
Drew wasn’t smiling. His lips were pressed, the corners of his mouth turned up just slightly. His eyes were soft and so intent on hers. He stood incredibly still as he watched her approach. Subtle hints of deep understanding reflected in his face. He was carrying her down the aisle with his eyes. Corrine hadn’t stopped smiling since she walked in. Tucking her chin down just slightly, she looked up at him, childlike excitement dancing in her eyes. She was flawless, down to the last bobby pin placed in her hair. As he took her hand, the impact of this new reality finally hit me. As she repeat her wedding vows to him, suddenly, without warning, I felt like crying. It wasn’t because she was the saint of my childhood or my savior and role model. She was anything but perfect. But we had shared a lifetime.
I sometimes wonder if I didn’t miss out on something…
 My existence up to that point had been a communal one, largely involving her. We would always be sisters, but now in a different way. We wouldn’t struggle through reality anymore. We would have windows…short visits, sweet emails. Corrine and I had shared a collective life. At the time it was just life; those were merely days of the monotony I never knew would end. Yet, somehow…they had. 
we know we have to let go and there is a big new life before you.

Maybe I would get married some day; maybe I still couldn’t possibly wrap my head around the idea. As I turned the key in the ignition and listened to the hum of the minivan, I took one more good look at my sister. She seemed so timeless, no different than that first day she ran down the aisle as Mrs. Helder. Even after three kids, her body retained its small, strong shape. Her blonde hair was longer, thinner, maybe; but her blue eyes never lost that undeniable childlikeness. 

“Funny story,” she said, “the other night I had a dream I wasn’t even your maid of honor...or, matron, or whatever.” 

I laughed. 

“No, really! I seriously dreamed about it.” 

I wanted to say something witty and reassuring, but the words wouldn’t come. “No,” I mumbled good-naturedly, “of course you’ll be the matron of honor.” It had struck me to know such a concern was in her subconscious. I thought about all the planning she had already been doing, and how legitimately excited she was talking about it.

“By that time, Maelyn will probably even get to be a bridesmaid.” I added. She chuckled, not finding it very funny. 

It was getting late. I turned on the headlights, backed the van out of the parking lot, and drove us down the familiar roads leading home. Incidentally, we began talking about her children. 


The other day, in the journal Mom wrote to me, I found these entries: 
May 8, 1993 - Today you clung to your sister Corrine when I tried to take you from her arms and you cried. It warms my heart to see that you love her already. My prayer is that you’ll always be close. My dear sister Dana and I have a special friendship, this is what I hope for you…  

June 14, 2000 - Your sister…loves you…and though you get into squabbles I can tell you are precious to each other. 


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Running: Why You Should Love It

Dedicated to Faith Gunderson, a teammate and friend

Faith stretched her legs restlessly, doing a few last-minute stride outs. At the starting line, she joined the other runners wearing their tiny colorful spandex uniforms. They were just as jittery and anxious to get started as she was, but they all tried to look intimidating, pretending to be oblivious to each other, and acting as runners do by shaking, bouncing, stretching, and swinging their arms and legs around. Finally, an anonymous man holding a megaphone announced something, stepped in the side of the track about twenty-five meters ahead of them, raised both arms, and fired the gun. The clock started. She needed to shave off less than a second to reach a qualifying time for the NAIA Championships that year. Two laps around the track, just over two minutes, was all she had. The 800 meter race is brutal punishment on the body, arguably the brutalest. It is just long enough to be considered middle distance, but only just. The distance is more like a sprint: a long, drawn out sprint refined only by raw, gritty endurance.

You might not understand how people can consider running more than merely keeping the body in continual motion for miles (or laps) on end. Yet since the dawn of its popularity in the 1970s, running has inspired a movement that hasn’t stopped sweeping across America. Some seem to truly love going out and abusing their bodies. As you watch them facing the elements from the comfort of your living room window or from behind your windshield wipers, you write them off as clinically insane. In all honesty, you’re right; the art of running (because truly, it is an art) requires a certain level of insanity.

Sometimes waking up is difficult. It was Monday morning; I was groggy and reluctant to peel the sheets off myself, even though my whole body felt incredibly warm from the summer heat wave engulfing my room and the entire west side of Michigan. There was only one driving force that brought me to my feet: hunger. I found my way to the kitchen and began preparing my breakfast. Someone had left two teaspoons of milk in the carton; I sadly watched it drip onto my cereal. Grumbling, I added lukewarm water from the tap. When breakfast was over, I knew what was coming: the two hour countdown began. I sighed, dwelling on how clean I felt and how ridiculously hot it was outside. I seriously considered not going, reminding myself of all the other things I wanted to do. Still, unless I died or severed my limbs before 9:00 am, I knew I would be running.

“You have a gift, I believe in you, you can do this.” Coach Hoffer looked into Faith’s eyes with kind, unshaken confidence. This was her senior year in high school; she was at the UP finals and getting ready to break the record in the 800. Mandy Long, the current record holder, had gone on to the Olympic trials. Faith wondered, What would it feel like to break the record of someone who tried out for the Olympics? She held onto his words. At the starting line, his voice seemed to defend her mind against the barrage of mental weakness and doubt. She didn’t beat the record that day, but she won the race. That race showed her how far she had come from where she had started. After the race was over, she ran and threw her arms around Coach Hoffer. He had believed in her, he had seen her potential.

Originally, running was primarily a competitive sport practiced only on the collegiate or professional level. Non-competitive running didn’t boom in the U.S. until after athletic celebrities like Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit broke through the media’s national consciousness. Groups like “Road Runner’s Club of America” were organized, magazines like Sports Illustrated began publishing studies vouching for the physical and psychological benefits of jogging, and runners like William Bowerman and James Fixx began writing and publishing on their own experiences with the rediscovered form of physical recreation. Part of the beauty of running is in its simplicity and accessibility; some would claim you don’t even need shoes.

My body naturally prefers the minimal amount of discomfort and exertion yet my mind is always going, constantly reeling thoughts around in my head, and never sleeping; therefore, when I run, two worldsmy body and mindclash. Running is actually a lot like sleeping. Often, especially as a child, I was resistant to sleep; I thought there were so many better, more exciting or useful things to be done. Yet every night I am forced to submit myself to physical rest; my body demands it and there are brutal consequences if I don’t. While I do not need daily intentional physical excursion to survive, the same mentality holds true with my body and running. It’s why running is growing in popularity; being active is the great equalizer to an otherwise quite sedentary life. Sleeping is commonly connected to the predominant paradox of “death” and “rebirth” and so should running since, fundamentally, no one actually loves to run, yet it does transform the body, like sleep. When I go out and run, I forget about what I think I want.

Faith felt a burst of excitement rush through her as she looked up into the woman’s face. “Feed the horses?” She repeated, “You’re going to let me feed the horses?” She had just finished her first lesson at Tree Vine’s Equestrian Stables.
Vicki nodded her head. “Yeah, come on, I’ll introduce you to everyone.” Trying to hide her excitement, Faith followed the woman into the stable and observed her take armfuls of hay and pile them into the feeding troughs. “Your turn! You can feed Bruce.” Vicki indicated to the bale of hay by the door. Faith gathered the biggest stack she could hold and followed Vicki into the next stall, being mindful of the enormous horse, and got on tip-toe to throw the hay in the feeder. After the pile landed successfully, Faith reminded herself to stop tip-toeing and walk out of the stall on her heels. It was hard to remember to walk on her heels.  
She had been introduced to therapeutic horseback riding as a means to loosen her calves. Riding appropriately would force Faith to push all of her weight down on the bottoms of her feet. This, along with her mother’s constant reminders to “walk flat-footed,” eventually would moderate her stride. Faith was born with cerebral palsy, a condition caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain at birth, resulting in disabilitated muscle coordination known as spastic paralysis. There are different levels of severity within cerebral palsy; some are completely unable to walk, while others may have subtly reduced range of motion at various joints in their bodies due to muscle stiffness, or minor challenges in muscle coordination in specific areas. Faith’s disorder affected her legs. As a child, her tight calves forced her onto her toes. The doctors told her parents she would be able to walk, but would never run well. For Faith, a lifetime walking on her tip-toes wasn’t a death sentence. Running didn’t have to be a monumental aspect of her life; nevertheless, since she was young, her parents constantly reinforced that her “disability” should never define her. As a result, she wasn’t afraid to pursue running. She loved being able to do something so many people told her she couldn’t.

The running movement in the U.S. moved Americans to more than merely a new recreational activity. The movement granted the average individual the ability to run for the sheer enjoyment of it. Running is a daily reminder of how undeniably human we are, stuck in the blunt reality of each inauspicious moment, connected to the earth and its seasons, and responsive to (albeit resistant of) self-induced suffering. Running is in fact a gift that is not equally distributed. The psychological demand is just as ominous as the physical, which is why running takes skill (no matter what other athletes will tell you) and a lot of practice. If you've ever heard the phrase "I just love to run" you might’ve felt dismayed. In reality, there doesn’t seem to be anything magical, exhilarating, or life-changing about going out on the road, especially at first. Actually, it has great potential to bore, exhaust, and/or frustrate you, which is why it is understandable that you might have given up on it a long time ago. Beyond boredom and frustration, there could be other reasons you stopped; running is time consuming and it requires access to safe routes and a healthy body. Yet, if you don’t see the value in commitmenting to it daily, if you can’t see past the act of running and realize what running has the potential to become, and without an outside obligation to keep you going, you will undeniably always find a reason not to lace up your shoes.

Two hours later, after much more deliberation, I double-knotted my Mizunos and walked out the front door, embracing the sun’s overbearing, ever-present radiation. I squinted from the sudden brightness and crossed my arms over my chest as I walked down the driveway, resisting the urge to turn on my heels and go back inside. My bitter resistance dissolved moments after my first strides. Despite the soaring temperatures, this was glorious. I could smell freshly cut grass and heard the drone of a lawnmower, provoking moments from my memory I could only equate with summertime and childhood. The neighbor’s horses were in the front yard and looked up from their grazing, studying me curiously. Dogs barked in the distance and the birds were calling to each other and flying overhead. The further I went into my run, the more vivid my surroundings became, and the more responsive and aware I was of my body.
The landscape evened out into hundreds of corn rows, broken up by occasional driveways leading to small farmhouses planted on wide open yards. I was sweating and began to feel the burn in my legs and lungs, but it was good to be a part of the sweeping panorama of bright sky and the dusty ground around me. When I checked my watch after mile two, I reminded myself it was supposed to be an easy run, yet couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed by my pace (it was a bit slow). I felt myself picking up speed, focusing on the horizon. I imagined I was already there, somewhere in the distance; now I was just waiting for my body to catch up. As I ran, I created my own opposition. Essentially, I was the opposition, the competition, which fundamentally distinguishes running from other sports. I had to know when to compete, when to challenge myself, and when to hold back.

Everything experienced in the non-competitive running is magnified to overwhelming proportions in collegiate competition. As Faith come around the bend to the straight away, color fringed her face; she was determined, fixed on the line as her arms and legs propelled her forward in long, smooth strides. She crossed the line just a hair’s breadth behind the runner from Azusa Pacific. She had smoked the qualifying time by four seconds. Giddy excitement stirred up tears in her eyes as her whole team ran to embrace her. She felt the warm breath and bodies of her teammates all around, forgetting everyone else in on the track. With tears brimming, she hugged everyone at once. Coach Bippes put on his sunglasses, hiding the fact he was also moved to tears. Before the high had completely settled down, she threw off her spikes and ran into the stands towards her parents. When she reached them, she looked into their faces, tears still flooding her face. She hugged her mom and continued crying. After a moment, her mom pulled back and asked, “Are you upset because you came in second?” Faith shook her head, “No, I’m crying because I ran so well!”

At seven years old, she ran her first race. It was 5k memorial run; Faith placed first and set the record in her age group. From that time on, running became a driving force in her life. She ran cross country in middle school and discovered track in high school. Initially, Faith wasn’t planning on running in college. She was looking into Michigan State to become a veterinarian, but a change in heart and circumstances brought her to Spring Arbor University, where she competed on the track and cross country course. Currently, Faith is ranked second in the top ten list of fastest girls to race the 800 in Spring Arbor University’s history. Over her collegiate career, she has qualified in multiple events in every indoor and outdoor NAIA Championship since her freshman year.

As a runner, I have found there are psychological stages runners go through, including the apathy and/or resentment toward it that you can probably relate with. The fundamental question to ask is why you wanted to run in the first place. Did you want to lose weight or get back in shape? These reasons are valid, but perhaps limited. You will reach a point when physical fitness or appearance just aren’t enough to get you out the door anymore; too often it feels much more preferable to remain still and comfortable inside than face the physical excursion that comes with running outside in the elements. You’ll reach a point when you’ll have to be honest with yourself: do you really even want to start running or is it a popular idea you felt drawn to? Running cannot be a fashionable trend; trends die too quickly. A love for running begins with the hope of improving not only the body, but the mind…for the mystical “runner’s high” we all hear rumors of.

As I was moving, it felt like there was kinetic energy in my brain propelling me forward. I didn't have to think about moving forward as much as I had to think about stopping. My body accepted the motion and continued to be in motion until I decided to stop. It was my mind, not my body, that was carrying me; not merely my mind, but a subconscious part of my mind I had stopped controlling. During every run like this, I was reminded that I was not in absolute control; I was forced to acknowledge not only my body’s power and weakness, but my rudimentary connection with it. Eventually, as the “kinetic energy” in my brain continued moving my body, my mind was freed up and entered into a dream-like state where I forgot where I was and what I was doing.

The secret to staying motivated to run, and maybe even loving it, actually has very little to do with the act of running. In essence, it is the perception of yourself in relation to running that must change. Running cannot be about you. It cannot be about how fast you can go, or how long, or what it makes you feel. Running must be about daily practice, about understanding the value of self-denial before and during each run, which is similar to the nightly submission of sleep: from “death” to “rebirth.” The value of running is in its consistency. When you consistently practice running, it becomes an art. This is why you should love running: you should love it precisely because, in all rationality, you should not love it. You should want to run because everyone (including yourself) tells you that you can’t. It is insanity, it is self-inflicted suffering, and this is what makes it so rewarding. There is a voice inside your head that will get in your way (that already has gotten in your way) even before you take your first step out the door, saying, "I'm too tired," or "I don’t want to," or "I can’t." That’s good. Recognize that voice, then go ahead and run anyway. During the run your brain begins demanding that you stop, that you give up, that truly you just can’t do it. This is your great disabler, your very real disability: you are afraid to see past your love for comfort; you are intimidated by the true meaning of bodily discipline. Yet if you’re honest with yourself, you love that you can making that voice squeal. It gives you no small sense of satisfaction to see that you in fact revel in the submission, that it frees you rather than binds you, into a higher state of being. You would begin to see that that voice is a lower, baseless shadow of who you really are, who you actually have the potential to become.

In the distance, I could see my little white and yellow mailboxes poking out of the side of the road. As I closed in the space, I gradually continued gaining speed, reaching the driveway in nearly an all-out sprint. Passing the mailboxes, I stopped immediately, experiencing an infiltration of calmness and clarity as I slowly walked back up my driveway; the Zen-like “one with the body” and “one with nature” awareness was coursing steadily through my brain. The name for this feeling was prescribed in the 1970s: endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals released from the brain after exercise, connected to positive mood change. The more endorphins released by the brain, the more euphoric the experience, known as the “runner’s high.” For the majority of running history, the “high” remained only a hypothesis based on runners’ claims. Finally, in 2008, advancements in neuroscience enabled researchers in Germany to report that the hypothesis is true. Their publication in the journal Cerebral Cortex confirms that a flood of endorphins is triggered in the brain after a run. Yet somehow, even getting high (or the propensity to get high) on running is often not enough motivation to keep me going out and doing it. After I graduate from college, without an obligation to a team or sponsor, as a non-competitive runner, I will soon face questions: why continue running? For what purpose am I dedicating so much time and to what end?

Faith sat down on a bale of hay next to the little girl’s wheelchair. The stable had been swept clean and the familiar smell of hay and horse manure hung over them. Savannah’s eyes averted Faith’s, yet she couldn’t hold back the admiration in her voice, “Some day I will run, just like you.” Savannah eyes glanced at Faith for a moment, then quickly back at the floor. “I want to be just like you.”
Faith nodded. She studied Savannah a moment, who had turned her head disjointedly to face the door, waiting for her mother to arrive. The girl’s body remained motionless, buckled in her wheelchair. Her head rested on the cushioned back of the seat; the rubber and metal wheels and black leather seat contrasted sharply with the old, weathered wood and bits of straw surrounding her. In between college semesters, Faith had returned to work at the therapeutic horseback riding camp she had taken lessons from when she was young. She had just finished helping Savanna with a riding lesson. The little eight-year-old’s cerebral palsy affect her muscle coordination from her neck down, and getting on and off the horse proved difficult.
“Savanna,” Faith waited until the little girl unsteadily turned her head back and made eye contact, “I enjoyed my lessons just as much as you did. Keep up the hard work, you’re doing so well.” The girl looked at Faith with her large, brown eyes and timidly returned a smile.
Savannah's mom arrived to take her home. As Faith watched the girl being pushed out of the stable in her wheelchair, the realization struck her: that could’ve been me. The image of the girl’s tiny uncoordinated body burned into her mind. I’m not supposed to be here. She thought. I’m not supposed to be able to run.


Faith Gunderson 

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I missed the bus that day and he offered to buy another ticket at the platform; when I thanked him for his generosity he said it was just a couple bucks. His face was young but long, deep lines crossed his forehead as he smiled, handing me the stub. I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that I was avoiding something, couldn’t think through the noise and the Thai phrases I didn’t understand. All I knew was that I needed that ticket to keep me traveling keep my body ambling on unfamiliar land.

The bus came; every vehicle I rode like that carried me further away from my responsibilities, the bills to pay, the goals that seemed to beat my will; offering up some vagabond existence with a backpack and clearer thoughts to fill. I sat next to the window and that man. After a while he turned in his seat and started sharing stories with me. He talked about his daughter, Janine: a genetic disorder had made her right side weak. At three months old she had a stroke from the tumor in her brain.    

He said soon after he developed the same disorder and almost never woke up from his hospital bed. Three months of rehab released him but Janine’s tumor was still growing in her head. At two years old she went into a coma on Christmas Eve; they predicted the hemorrhaging would cause a lot of pain. On Christmas day she woke up and the doctors removed the left side of her brain. I listened to his stories quietly as he wiped his eyes, suffering in his memories. His voice shook.

With palms raised skyward he explained she was thirteen when the driver lost control of the van and rolled it six times off the highway, ending her life hardly after it began and killing her with four other members of his family. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said sadly he sure missed her smile. The tumors came back for me, he went on, and now I live not knowing when they’ll take my life. I hope to die doing what makes me happy. I nodded my head trying my best to offer him my empathy.

He said something about simply suffering without an obligation to praise the cause of it. He trusted God once but he couldn’t warrant the nonsense anymore, couldn’t understand why the nonsense was permitted. Who wanted to know the fatal good and evil with such a high cost to it? I felt the weight of his question drying up like concrete in my soul. He said the whole world of knowledge was not worth the tears of his baby girl, her maimed walk, or the cruel impact killing his family. If God loved us, then how could he let it happen?

I could only shrug, remain quiet, and look away. I felt ashamed I couldn’t think of anything more significant to say. There we were framed in awkward silence and I wished my silence sounded a lot more like God. I could feel his eyes questioning me sadly. My suffering was not the same but I was human too and could easily have that tumor in my brain. If it was compassion that saved us, then I shared the suffering of every person in the world: and the world was right there inside that bus. He smelled a lot like sweat and we sat there a long time.

Finally the bus pulled to a stop and I made my escape, cringing at my own incompetence. He stepped off to light a cigarette. His hands couldn’t stop trembling and he broke into a sweat. I didn’t have an answer for him, it was more than my words could say; I vaguely wished that somehow I could pay for his ticket if not all the suffering he’d never forget. But I could see my bus was leaving and travel was on my mind. I was thinking of new locations away from my own obligations; I planned to leave them all behind. Like a lot of people now, I hoped to change my place.

That was almost a year ago and now I stand here sharing his story and I still can’t state my response. Because it’s my words that make my answers weak. I could say I hear you brother and I’m sorry, but words don’t mean so much. I still don’t feel my body’s mortality; I think I have a long life to live, but in reality…I see her tiny broken body leaning sideways as she tilts her shaven head to look up into his face; I see her soft eyes, the smile he misses so much. And I left hoping someone would be more than my empty words to him; I hoped he’d accept a ticket at a different platform.

A special thanks to you, Tobias, for sharing your story


I read the poem out loud in chapel:
to watch go to 42:40

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Photographs From China

At this time last year I was getting ready to head out on the semester of my life! It's so good to reflect on the memories... 

Hong Kong
Xiamen University

Botanical Gardens in Xiamen

Gu Lang Yu Island

Orphanage in the Fujian Province 

Goose Pagoda, Xi'an 

The Great Wall

The Temple of Heaven

The Summer Palace