When Things Feel Bad, Look for What’s Good

The mounting angst behind the election + TEDxDirigo

Lately I’ve been feeling worried about what the day and month and year after this election will look like. I’m anxious about who will win, but I’m more afraid that we all won’t find a way to reasonably get along or agree to disagree without needing to disparage one another.

This fear could simply be part of growing up, but it could also be the nature of this election and how precarious things feel. It could be the way segregation and racism and all the isms are still holding back all of us and killing some, or the way we make assumptions and don’t communicate honestly and substantively. It could be the way we choose adopting the idea of something over actually seeing one another. In dialogue on inequalities, safe spaces, political predictions, etc., it’s begun to feel like we’d rather be right, and stay right, than pursue any more complicated alternative.

In an MFA seminar this summer, Ada Limón, a faculty poet, told us to consider writing as a way of honoring. She’d assigned a book of poetry by Ross Gay, his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and she asked us to examine his tender scrutiny of hurt and happiness, and the way he navigates between gratitude and sadness. It’s a hard way to write and thus an important thing to practice. So although this is only a blog post, I thought I’d honor something that’s been a remarkably provocative and positive part of my days this election season: TEDxDirigo.

The theme for this Saturday’s TEDx is Dissonance, and many talks will emphasize perspectives that are uncomfortable to hear. Many speakers will take the stage this Saturday not to placate but to challenge the ideas we take for granted.

TED requires that every speaker must have a coach, and in the requisite hours a coach and speaker spend going over the talk together, there are, inevitably, *kapow* moments. Moments when a speaker says something to you as a coach that simply plows right through whatever polite wall you generally have up when talking to strangers, and you just think, well, fuck, what am I to do with this new perspective? Because I can’t possibly just keep living my life the same exact way, the way I did before this conversation. That would be impossible.

With Dissonance, that scenario has happened again and again. As a coach it’s happened quietly and loudly, in shared spaces of preparation and alone at night in restless moments of deliberation. This fall’s speakers have carried me far beyond the confines of a “speaker coach” and pushed me to think harder and actually do better. It hasn’t been easy, this isn’t a simple thanks for the memories, and that’s the point. Each speaker knows there’s still a lot of work to be done, and they’re asking us to join them in doing it.

Perhaps the kapows have happened so often because this theme is more personal and less comfortable than others, and it’ll probably reveal an anxiety a lot of us are feeling about the ways our differences are being politicized, scrutinized, and penalized. Perhaps it’s because every speaker has a brave freaking rockstar soul and is not the least bit interested in being silenced.

Whatever it is, I’m thankful. Back in June, we joked about how the event would be just a few days before Election Day, and wouldn’t that be interesting. I don’t think we realized how keenly some of the talks would help contextualize the election angst and its mounting, complex backgrounds. In the last weeks when I’ve needed some place to look for something different, for something life-affirming without being mollifying, or simple, or at all reductive, it’s been the people and ideas of TEDxDirigo. Thank you all for being there, and especially thank you speakers for taking the stage this Saturday.

 

 

 

A piece of Portland

I mentioned posting some writing about Santiago, but here’s a short ditty I wrote to welcome myself back to my imperfect hometown, Portland, Maine. Apologies for any odd formatting.

 

What Floor Were You On? Did You Have a Good View?

Last week I left work

to tackle some spirits

of the tequila sort.

I went to a place where the West meets the East,

up there at the Top

They wouldn’t serve me a shot.

It caught me off guard.

Up next, Portland’s Oldest Pub

with some now fellow thugs.

By then I’d learned

to enact a more adult code:

I asked for tequila and soda,

but this time

they told me,

they could only do a shot.

Which portland is more Portland?

That’s what I thought

as I sipped my tequila

last week after work.

A New Era

A NEW ERA!

Welcome to a new era for Zoe Goes Running, in which the next big adventure is a labor of mind rather than body. For the next two years I’ll be an MFA student, writer, and Rotary Global Scholar. I’ll spend two years writing, reading, and teaching, including six months teaching in South America.

 

MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING

A couple weeks after returning from Santiago, Chile, I’m now finally settling into a blog post. I went to Santiago to start an MFA program in creative writing with Queens University of Charlotte, NC. Most of the program is done remotely, except for every year, we meet for several weeks in one of three different South American cities, in late summer. This summer it was Santiago, next will be Buenos Aires, and my third and graduating residency will likely be in Rio. During the residency in each city, we attend seminars by award-winning faculty, readings, field trips, cultural lectures, and daily tutorials where we have the chance to line edit with our faculty mentor.

 

ROTARY SCHOLARSHIP.

I’ve also received a Rotary Global Scholars Grant for this program, which will allow me to spend two of four semesters volunteer-teaching in Argentina and/or Chile. This MFA program would not have been possible without Rotary’s support and I cannot thank them enough. I worked specifically with the Rotary Club of South Richmond (VA) in the application process, and their district, district 7600, will be my American host club during the program, joined by Rotary La Lucila in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who will be my international host club. The objective of the scholarship is, broadly, to enable graduate students to use their education and qualifications to serve others. I will be continuing Rotary’s mission in basic education and literacy by volunteering at community schools in Argentina and/or Chile. I begin in February ’17, teaching in Buenos Aires, but more to come on that!

 

SANTIAGO AT UNFILTERED FIRST GLANCE.

Santiago was, in a word, vivid. Everything about it. I was at first overwhelmed by how physically present the city is – there’s heavy smog, street dogs, once-a-week student protests, in answer to which the riot police regularly inundate the student crowds gathered in the main plaza with pepper spray, spray you feel in your chest for a long time afterward. You can buy anything you’ve ever wanted in the streets, people perform elaborate dances in the sidewalks between green lights, and every night in my neighborhood there were booming drum circles put on by the university students – who had been out of school for over a month in protest against rising tuition prices. Graffiti covers already-graffiti-covered surfaces. When I arrived at six in the morning, the sky was gray, spitting cold raindrops from too-close, overbearing clouds.

It was a lot to take in.

The first thing I did in my new city was to go for a run. A quarter-mile through my neighborhood brought me to the base of a very tall hill (Cerro San Cristobal) with an incredible view of Santiago and the mountains; I ended up running it almost every day. They call it a hill, I later discovered it’s taller than some of the mountains I used to train on in Virginia. Ha. What makes a mountain on the east coast of the US is referred to as a hill in Santiago. This was probably the moment the city began to endear itself to me.

 

SETTLING IN: EARTHQUAKES, WALKS, URBAN PITS.

There were twelve other students in the group, a couple coordinators, and four faculty – intelligent, provocative and courageous writers. From my apartment each morning I walked twenty minutes to the Catholic University where we had our seminars. The walk brought me past a construction site in and around a 70-yard-deep square ditch that covered an entire city block. I don’t know what they were building but I loved looking in that giant urban absence every morning. After that it was across the river, through the park, five minutes winding through a cobblestoned arts neighborhood, shortcut through the Gabriela Mistral museum, across the street to cut through the leafy, spacious courtyard of the University, down earthquake-proof stairs that bounced when you stepped on them, and into our classroom.

On our third day there was a small earthquake in the morning, the next day our afternoon walk was canceled because of the student protests, and in the second week my walk home took me straight across the long parade of protesters, past the huddles of riot police, and past broken glass bottles filled with paint, which some students throw at the police. Walking was my favorite thing, there was always something to think about. (Pic below from one such walk, taken outside a school not currently in session)

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I ran every day and sometime around the fourth or fifth day I realized I really liked Santiago. After several days of clouds and rain, the sun came out and the Andes appeared as mystical backdrops to the skyscrapers of the city. I stopped bringing maps with me everywhere, I discovered a huge park four miles outside of town where I swear the air felt cleaner and I could practically touch the mountains, I went and watched the drummers perform at night, I shared tequila with the program director and our famously talented faculty, I made friends.

 

FRIENDS AND MENTORS.

In our little group of writers, there were several who I naturally gravitated to and who became familiar almost instantly, in the way that happens when a bunch of semi-strangers are thrown into a foreign city together with no real obligations other than to attend activities in the presence of one another each day. This experience of friendship was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The new friends – a group of two poets and two fiction-writers – were all veterans to this program. Collectively they were goofy and deadpan, perceptive, up-for-whatever, and made me feel like I belonged right where I’ve always wanted to belong – in a group of weird, mostly-introverted writers.

My mentor in Santiago was Francisco Goldman. Look him up if you have a chance, he is a wonderful writer and a warm human being. I’ll continue working with him on one story a month this year. In Santiago we had to submit four stories, and nearly every afternoon Francisco and I met to go over the different submissions, the content, technique, narrative, voice, line-editing, etc. This was a heart-breaking, soul-crushing, and ultimately encouraging activity. Francisco was always honest and never unkind, and there’s no better sort of editor.

I could go on, and on, and on. I’m working on a short, comedic piece about Santiago, which I’m intending to share here in excerpts over the next few posts.

 

Under Armour Video

A couple weeks ago I had the awesome opportunity to head up to Maine and take part in a video shoot for Under Armour. The morning we headed out to shoot just happened to be the morning a 14 inch snow storm decided to roll through – no big deal. It kinda perfectly represented how tough Mainers are, not only in that we have to learn to love to train through the snow and be prepared for any kind of weather, but the fact that dozens of local people came out to help (which involved a lot of standing outside and shivering). One of the men who helped, a former Marine medic, got to check my feet for frostbite after we reached our 9th hour out in the storm. I feel for him – my feet are not pretty.

So without further ado, here’s the video, just released!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyLFbblnVQY&feature=youtu.be  I’m still cold.

Running PRs and Learning to Become an Adult Ballerina

I’m so glad I wrote that last post and went ahead with putting it out there, because I got so much feedback indicating that I wasn’t the only one feeling how I felt. For everyone who sent me a note or response, thank you for your honesty – it ain’t always an easy thing to do.

Two fantastic things have happened in the past week or two – I started ballet class and I ran an eight-minute PR in the half marathon!! 1:35:40, and I have my eye on another PR in the Shamrock Marathon in a few weeks. The race was in Williamsburg this past Sunday and it was a really fun weekend, Alex and I went down on Saturday and had dinner with my coach and his wife in one of the cozy restaurants along the outdoor downtown area. The race has an unusually late start, 1:10 pm, and it happened to be one of those freak 70 degree February days, so it was a super hot race. About four miles in I found a guy to hang with and when I asked him what time he was shooting for, he told me he was just “out for a training run to prepare for a spring IronMan”  To all the triathletes that read this blog, ya’ll are crazy. Just so you know.

In the last three miles I picked off a couple girls who looked to be in my age group and then in the last mile I caught up to two more. There’s something that doesn’t feel right about passing someone in your AG in the last quarter mile of a half marathon, but if you’ve got strength left in your legs I’m sure it would feel worse to not give it everything. I finished 2nd in my AG and 12th woman overall and I went home happy as pie. I can’t say enough how much my running has improved by working with a coach and having dedicated speed and LT workouts every week.

My friend and I also started taking ballet classes, which, so far, have proved to be the complete opposite of running. Movements are refined, constrained, and there are clear rules of etiquette for class time. Our teacher gave us a handout during the first class which described these rules, the list included coming to class freshly showered and smelling nicely, hair neatly tied back into a bun, and no wearing red nail polish because it looks creepy on stage. Nonetheless, the class has been a lot of fun.

My best friend was a ballerina all through our childhood and I went to her recitals every single year and never understood why anyone would want to do ballet. Fifteen years later and I’ve finally come around to it – it’s just such a beautiful way to move the body. And our teacher is great – funny, intense, talented, and full of ballet history. We start off the class with a discussion of dance culture, then we scatter to the barre for barre exercises and then to the middle to string a few movements together. Maybe in 25 more lessons I’ll be able to connect a full minute of actual ballet!

 

Look What This Body Can Do

I read a blog post last week that’s been stuck in my mind ever since. The post is written by Lauren Fleshman, a professional runner formerly with Nike, one USA’s top middle-distance runners. (if you’ve read the post, skip the next two paragraphs).

Lauren had recently participated in New York Fashion Week as a runner, cat-walking new sports bras and styles from Oiselle, a women’s running brand.  After the show, she found herself flipping through all the photos of that night to find the one perfect image that would be suitable to blast out on social media. She deletes many less-than-satisfactory photos before finding THE ONE (the photo has now been shared, posted, Tweeted, Instagrammed a hundred times over). In thinking this through, however, she admits that she’s only contributing to something she herself dislikes – our universal anxiety about how our bodies appear to other people. By always posting only the one perfect image she – and all of us, really – create a conception that we always looks amazing, fierce and toned, and perfectly postured.

Her point is that we can blame magazines and media and Photoshop all we want, but at some point we have to realize that it’s on us too – by deleting all unflattering photos of ourselves and only posting those rare perfect ones, it’s like we’re dressing the monster that Photoshop has created. It’s crazy to hear Lauren tell it, because here’s a person who makes her living based solely on her body’s ability to accomplish amazing feats, and she still frets over the public perception of her physical appearance. So next to her killer photo from Fashion Week, she bravely posts two very unflattering, candid photos taken at track practice later that same week. Her blog got over a million hits, so it’s no small thing she’s doing.

When I returned from France, nearly every single person I spoke to asked me a question about weight: How much did I lose? How much did I weigh before? Did I eat a zillion calories a day and never gain a pound? A few times, it was even more awkward: people close to me exclaimed that they just couldn’t believe it, they had thought I would’ve lost a ton of weight, but there I was, all done, and it didn’t look like I had changed at all!

Um, I’m sorry? I’ll try harder next time?

Those questions always made me feel so uncomfortable and I’ve wanted to write about it for a while but have never found the right reason. I never knew what my response to that observation was supposed to be, and I know those people were always well-intentioned, but still. Of course I had changed: I could run over thirty miles a day no problem, I had just run 90 miles in one go, 40 more than I’d ever run at once before. I was more flexible; stronger, leaner. I could now say I ran up one of the steepest mountains in the Alps, TWO DAYS IN A ROW. I was tougher. I was wiser. But the question was hardly ever “How have you gained fitness?”. It was, almost always, “How much weight did you lose?”

On the surface these conversations made me frustrated because I wanted people to ask more interesting questions, and I wanted them to understand that I couldn’t have lost too much weight, or I wouldn’t have been able to do the run. I wanted them to realize that running thirty miles a day isn’t what they might imagine, that after a few weeks your body gets used to it and even your hunger abates.

But lots of these people were just curious friends, and what really mattered was the feeling that lurked just below the surface irritation; something much worse: these conversations made me feel inadequate. Of course, I did lose some weight, (and I even got taller) but I sometimes felt like I should’ve come back even thinner, leaner, stronger. Without those questions, I felt so strong, and proud; but with them I somehow felt like running the Tour de France wasn’t enough; like I should’ve emerged from it looking more like what people expected me to look like. It was ridiculous.

It’s not the easiest thing to write about here – I feel a little bit like I’m peeling back a layer I’d rather leave on, but if Lauren can describe her insecurities on a blog for Runner’s World, I guess I haven’t got any excuse.

Most athletes are incredibly driven, and we’re often perfectionists – a combination which feeds our dedication to whip our bodies into incredible shape – into whatever shape we think is perfect.
And I won’t lie, I love being in shape. I like feeling my quad muscles as I walk, I like the tightness of my shoulders. I stand in front of the mirror and flex my ab muscles every single day. I don’t mind seeing a perfect picture of myself in action. But I think the issue here is that, even perfect shape doesn’t always look so perfect. We shouldn’t take the one ideal image of ourselves, or celebrities, or world class athletes to represent the whole, nor the constant.

I started training with a coach this past November. During our first workout, I ran four repeats of one mile. I averaged 7:04 for each mile and I had a three minute break between each one. Last week, my workout was eight repeats of one mile. I averaged 6:34 for each mile and had 85 seconds of rest between each one. In the space of just three months, I doubled the distance of that workout, dropped thirty seconds in speed/mile, and cut the rest period in half. Yesterday I ran my fastest 10k ever, in the middle of an 18 mile training run. As a runner, THAT is what I find most incredible about the body, the fact that it can improve so drastically in three months. I look at that and wonder, what else can it do?! Our body is capable of so much, it’s absurd to think that we let its mere appearance get all the attention.

As Lauren writes in her post: “”Why aren’t we walking around naked, like ‘Booyah! Look what this body can do, bitches!'”

Honestly, why are we not?

My last post was in August so I guess it’s time…

Time to get the blog kicking again! It has been a while, and although it seems like everything should come to a relaxing standstill after running the Tour de France, life has been busy! As February is slowly rolling around towards spring here in VA, I’m starting to get that familiar itch in my legs and reminisce about how last year at this time I was full into my first month of training. The thing I’m really grateful for is that after the US run life felt a little flat for a while because I was suddenly without this grand goal and intense focus. Luckily, this time around I’ve found a way to flow from the France intensity into some smaller adventures and goals which keep me excited and challenged.

So that I can get to actual writing in future blogs, I’m summarizing all life updates here. Since I’ve been back I’ve gotten to participate in many speaking events, which has been a very interesting and engaging experience – I think for a while I didn’t necessarily understand my own story and everything I went through in France until I had some distance from it and got to work on presenting it to an audience in a way that we all can relate to. It’s been very unique in that it’s given me a chance to look back at the experience and understand it on a deeper level besides the love/hate relationship I had with the French roads.

In December, I finished an 81 page book proposal and was intensely excited and enthusiastic about the prospects. I’ve been lucky to have a lit agent helping me, she sent the proposal out in Jan, and two weeks ago I got the final word that twenty five (twenty five!!) editors had passed. That was rough. Every single editor, however, gave me valuable, positive feedback and after taking some time to digest it all, I have to say I agree with most of what they said. I suspect I might’ve been overly eager to write the proposal and didn’t yet have enough time between finishing the run and writing to really understand it all (besides knowing that my legs were really sore and I was exhausted and constantly hungry but often happy). So it’s back to the blank Word Doc I go, hopefully with a little more wisdom this time ’round. And I know it would’ve been just too easy if I got the best deal from the best publishers right out of the gate. I’m stoked to say I did publish my first print article earlier this year, “Running in the Eye of the Tire: Chasing Summits on the Tour de France Course” in Marathon & Beyond, and am working on more with them.

Alex finished his first teaser/trailer for the TDF film and we premiered it at an art event in Richmond two weeks ago. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to share a film with the community! It was awesome, and I got to help on the trailer by writing the text for it, a poetic ode to why we run and why we go. The official final is still being tweaked but I will link it here when it’s ready.

Last but not least – running! I’m training with a coach now and I’m way faster than I thought I ever could be! I’m discovering another whole aspect to the sport – I’ve always been a dedicated, disciplined runner but have never trained this deliberately for specific times at specific races. Now I’ve learned how to hit paces and hang there and drop recovery time and it feels freaking awesome to look at notes from the past three months and see how my times have gotten faster while distance has gotten longer. Running is probably the simplest sport, but it’s so unique in that it evolves with you and can be different things to you at different points of your life. I like that.

Photos below from the final day on Corsica – 90 miles in 23 hours. It was 110 degrees. Just sayin’.

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