Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rock Bottom

Like most of us, I'm not immune to a bad day... but is it me or are there more bad days than there used to be? (I'd hate to say that there are more bad days than good ones especially considering I rode my bike outside for 91 miles in aerobars for the first time this past weekend, or that I ran for 17 miles the next morning feeling like a million dollars. No, there are still more good days than bad.) But today was not a bad day. It was the worst day I've had in a long, long while.


A bit of background: I am a writer. This means that I have to work a lot of different jobs to support the thing I do which, so far, pays me nothing.  Maybe this is why I'm an athlete: I understand what it means to put a lot of love and time into something intangible that may (will?) never give me anything back.  Since August, I have been what is called "adjunct faculty" at a University. This means I only hired on a semester-to-semester, and on an as-needed basis. In August, the university had a spike in enrollment and I found myself facing over 80 English 101 students. Considering the hours, the pay wasn't great-- but I was able to afford rent and groceries-- luxuries, I've come to find. And, really, I didn't mind too much. I like teaching-- especially when I can teach writing in a workshop setting, which is what I ended up doing for the latter half of the semester.

This semester, however. times have become extremely -- or, ridiculously-- lean. Enrollment dropped (as it tends to do in the spring) and I've been shuffled off to another department and so found myself teaching at a community college to help make ends meet-- which means more students, but I'm paid less for each class I teach. Granted, I love my students there, honestly: the folk who work and go to school in order to make their lives better. But the salary is much, much less. So much less that I've cut back from three to two to 1.5 meals a day; so much so that items like soap, deodorant and shaving cream, bread, chicken breasts and salads are no longer on the shopping list nor in my cupboards. And I guess it's been a good thing, learning to live without. I don't mind it, mostly.... who needs heat when you have blankets and two cats? A television when you have a book? Lights when there are stars?

I am like the Epicurean philosophers of the Hellenistic period perhaps, who practiced a denial of desires as a way to temper the disappointments of life. Only, I'm not sure I chose this path. Or, I did, not knowing the consequences of what it meant to be a writer and an athlete.


But today: today I woke up and listened to the wind through the branches of tree outside in the dark of pre-dawn ready to run my 2-mile repeats-- the thing I do on Wednesday mornings. I can't run with my team anymore because, for some reason, my body can't stand the cold (or, I'm always cold. But running in the cold is a sure way to get injured so I try and wait until the sun rises.) My running shoes-- long overdue for a replacement-- sat by the door.  As I sipped my coffee, I considered putting them on and trying to use them for just one more workout-- but instead, I decided that my racing flats would be better... although much less supportive, the wear pattern on them is more even. (Besides, that's what I wore on my 17-miler this weekend.)

So on go the Brooks "Green Silence" with the slim lime-green soles and I'm out pacing myself around Virginia Lake. My leg starts to hurt around mile 3.5 of my hard efforts. By mile 5 it feels like there's the devil's hand in my quad, raking fingernails through the muscle fibers in the wrong direction. I don't want to stop (clouds hanging low over the Sierra Nevada range in the distance and the silent-stillness of the lake was a scene I wanted my body to run through.) But it was the kind of pain you don't run through, if you're smart. The sharp-pain of "STOP" and for once in my life, I listened.

It's no mystery why this happened: it was cold out and (sigh) my shoes are worn out. And there's an easy enough fix: buy new shoes. But on my salary, I can't. And even with my new, third job (creating technical documentation for a software company) I can't until the first of the month. I hate to say it: but I cried. I've never felt so pathetic in my life; because even the simplest things (food! heat! shoes!) are beyond my reach.

I cried again later in the day when I returned from lecture en route to my "new job" to find I'd run over a nail and I had a flat tire on my car. Not usually a big deal (these things are fixable, you know?) the cost to repair the tire has left me with $5 until April 1st.

Needless to say, I cried this afternoon, too. The two rejection letters from literary journals-- stating my work is unsuitable for public consumption-- didn't help, either.

And I cried when I received the news of my positive review-- that I am a "talented" and "innovative" teacher. I cried at the pool after a 2-mile swim when I saw my coach and I had to explain to him that I can't possibly pay my remaining balance today (I have $5 to keep me alive) and he told me to buy new shoes.

And then, I had to explain that I can't even do that, now.

And I'm crying now because I feel so embarrassed and ashamed that my life has come to this. All because I wanted to write. To run and swim and bike and to be a positive force in the world. And, honestly, I probably should just cry and not taken the time to write a blog about how awful things are right now. But if I'm honest about my writing, these are the moments I have to write about and that I have to share.

Training is about making yourself better each and every day in order to, one day, do something extraordinary. But athletes are not our only heroes: with the anxiety and fear of each day, I've come to a new appreciation and understanding of other, more muted, heroes. The single parents, the unemployed, those who have disabilities which limit them in physical ways, perhaps, but never in the capacity to feel happiness or sorrow.

I read once (in a work by an 18th century French philosopher) that the human qualities we consider "essential" like "love" or "justice" or even, really, "faith" are dependent upon the more base needs (shelter, food, clothing) being met. In other words, you can't experience romantic love if you're starving; you can't contemplate the nature of the universe if your body is not capable of functioning in a more or less "comfortable" state. I never appreciated this, quite, until now.

I can't be an elite anything like this.

I can't write like this. I can't (literally) run like this.


But I am writing. And I know I'll run again. If anything time does, it moves on at a steady pace. And, according to another ancient philosopher (Heraclitus) change is the only constant in these lives of ours. I can't stop, I know.

I love my students too much to. And I love writing and training. And I want to be the best I can be in the Boise Half-Ironman, my first race of that distance. I can't stop trying.

But it was a hard day, admittedly. I cried a lot. I'm still crying. I feel so pathetic and awful.

I can't wait for this to pass.

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