Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mirabile dictu: there is knowledge in failure (with a literary flair)

As I work my way through one of the most inspirational athletic narratives I’ve read (In a Single Bound by Sarah Reinertsen, the first female amputee to complete the Kona Ironman, among many other amazing athletic distinctions), I’ve started thinking about my personal history with literature and athletics. Or more precisely, literature and competition. After all, the “spark” which got me running again was entirely “literary”: 12 rejections from MFA programs around the country. But before I delve into the meaning of that, I’ll take you back to my childhood, to a memory that seems relevant.

In the fourth grade, I was the “second smartest” in class. The first was a boy named Mike, a name I’ll never forget because we knew each other since the first grade and kept in touch through college. He was a smart kid through-and-through: he was a part of the GT program at school (the gifted and talented), and I was not. He played chess and found science-- and science fiction-- fun. He was the one, years later, that took me to my first Star Trek convention, where I met James Doohan (a.k.a. “Scotty”) in person,( which I have to say, was awesome.) Me, on the other hand, always had good grades, but would put aside homework for a good game of dodgeball or soccer, even in my frilly dresses and faux black patent leather Mary Janes I insisted on wearing.

Yet, when the entire class was challenged to read as many pages as possible by our teacher, I thought: “now maybe I can be the ‘smartest’ one.” You see, finally it seemed as though I was challenged to do something I love (and would do anyway) but would be rewarded for it.

I ran the entire way home and began to read.

And read.

And read.

I read so much that even on our regular trips to the bookstore, my mom began to reprimand me for reading books she'd just bought for me. “You’re not allowed to open that book until we get home, young lady!” she’d say.

I read everything I could get my hands on. Books that had been given to me that I hadn’t yet touched (Beverly Cleary novels), Judy Blume books, Anne of Green Gables and the four which followed it, and the entirety of The Babysitter’s Club series. I also read shorter classics like The Secret Garden and A Wrinkle in Time. The one, however, that sticks out in my mind is the crowning glory of them all: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I not only wanted to “win” the challenge, but also challenge myself.

For those who don’t know, Little Women is a novel written in (and about) the Victorian period in England that traces one family’s attempt to survive poverty and hardship. Specifically, the book follows four sisters: Meg, Josephine, Beth and Amy as they grow up and out of their poverty-stricken lifestyle. It’s a wonderful story-- but let me mention that it’s over 800-pages long. For a 10-year old girl, it was a sizable challenge. I’d never read something that long before, and so I set myself down to do it in the final week of the reading challenge.

And so, I read. And read. The story engulfed me. I felt like I lived alongside those girls as they grew up, supported each other, and as they rebelled. I recall the afternoon I read the passage in which Beth dies-- I had to stop reading because I was crying too hard to continue. But I did, somehow, and I finished in time for the deadline (reading late the night before.)

When I turned in my page count, I was proud of myself. Beaming, in fact, because I’d done my best and with the number before me, I thought my victory was a sure thing. After all, hadn’t I worked hard? And doesn’t hard work guarantee success?

But you know, I didn’t win.

Once again, I came in second.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed that I hadn’t won (I wish I’d known then that in all things literary, one usually does come in second, if not dead last. The secret to success is not to give up. But-- that’s another digression.) But what kept me from getting too upset was my conversation with the person who did read the most pages. If you didn’t guess, it was Mike.

For Christmas, his parents had given him a collection of “Abridged Classics”-- each counting no more (or less) than 100 pages in length. I know this because I boasted to him that I had read Little Women.

“I did, too,” he said.

“No way, really?”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t a very good story, though.”

“I thought it was great.”

And then he reached down into his bag and pulled out a small (not even an inch-wide) paperback and handed it to me.

Little Women, the title read. And then, below it: The Abridged Classic.

So I didn’t count my loss so heavily. I actually though Mike lost-- he missed out on a wonderfully written story that had moved me to tears.

This memory came to mind today, when, after a 2-hour and five minute run on the treadmill, I wondered about my training and what sort of accomplishment it is to want to run in the Olympic Trials. What does it mean that I’m OK with just running the trials, even if I come in dead last? Or that I would be satisfied if I didn’t make it to the trials at all, knowing I’d put in runs like today’s which are a little like the experience of reading Little Women at the age of 10?

A “former me” might have said I’ve let myself go soft; that I’ve lost that "spark," that fighting spirit. But I don’t think that’s it at all. I think writer/poet Natalie Goldman states it best in her book, Writing Down the Bones (a book about the craft of writing.) She counsels:

“Understanding [the] process [of having great determination] cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren’t running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. it is not an excuse to not write and sit on the couch eating bonbons. We must continue to work the compost pile [Goldberg’s term for practice-writing that is not necessarily publishable], enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us. This understanding also helps us to accept someone else’s success and not to be too greedy. It is simply that person’s time. Ours will come in this lifetime or the next. No matter. Continue to practice” (16-17).

So, with writing, running -- and with life -- I’ve come to believe it’s vitally important to give your dreams everything you have: your effort, your time, and your passion. In other words, to work hard for them. But the measure of success isn’t in how many medals line your wall or how many figures your salary contains. Rather, success resides in the practice of a thing: the daily life you breathe into it. I’m proud of myself for having the courage to read such a long text as a young girl. I’m proud of myself for acknowledging my love of words and literature so much that I’m, everyday, attempting to make a life out of it. And, I’m proud that I run each and every day toward a goal that I hold very close and very tightly.

In a way, I’m grateful those MFA programs didn’t admit me in 2006. If they had, I would never have known the depth of my passion and love for running, writing and life.

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