A fantastic guest post by Greta Goetz!

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Not just fun and games

My last favorite running game I played during gnat season, when I would hum under my breath as I inevitably inhaled them: I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, I guess she’ll die. My new game is equally as absurd: I try to come up with insane and random things that can be compared to running. Like, how randomly deciding to double up mileage on a run is like trying to crochet with rags: it can be done, but with a little finagling.

As I write that, I hear the sirens of coaching services approach, as such games of exertion are said to be diametrical to smart training, which involves planned mileage loads. Personally, I pay little heed to such guidelines except to keep them at the back of my mind, as spice to throw in, without exacting, precise measurement, as much as I feel up to them. Just like that style of cooking known as “rustic”, which is the fancy way of saying “eyeballing it”.

There are many things I don’t eyeball. Like, the words I choose when I translate. But maybe this is my point: that in our lives, there is more than one aspect of ourselves that needs exercising. Even great minds have found this to be true.

Once upon a time in Cambridge – if you’ll humor me for a moment as I digress, the exams set for mathematics students (the Tripos) were so difficult that many of them suffered nervous breakdowns, or lost their health. Even the great scientist James Clerk Maxwell felt a blank dizziness when taking them. This led them to practice sports, as summed up in Leadership and Creativity: A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1871-1919:

To alleviate the inevitable stress of daily studies, most Cambridge students took some regular physical exercise in the afternoon by rowing, swimming, walking… “This exercise,” Andrew Warwick pointed out, “became the recognized complement of hard study, and students experimented with different regimes of working, exercising, and sleeping until they found what they believed to be the most productive combination.”

That’s a great passage because it acknowledges the importance of physical hobbies, and suggests experimenting to find a fruitful symbiosis with tasks that can otherwise run us down.

There’s more to physical activity than just fun and games. Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn popularized Plato’s idea of training through the body, not training of the body, and building physical fitness for the sake of the soul. In the iteration that Hahn promoted, physical fitness was to focus less on developing innate strength and more on overcoming innate weakness.

Overcoming weakness is a measurement a Strava stat can’t always give us. It’s true that for some, lack of speed is a weakness; but for others, weakness is also a lack of tenacity in pursuit, a want of an undefeatable spirit (I take those phrases, too, from Hahn). The point here is that not all weaknesses are defined by a faster time on a stop watch. In defense of the “selfish pursuit” of sports is the idea that athletic activity can make us better people, beyond a single speed or metric.

No cliché is needed to defend the fact that the soul needs stoking. And games are never a waste of time if we know why we play.

Trails for trials

After a difficult phone call and a restless night of sleep, I woke up the next morning with a weird kind of determination: I need to tell the forest about the phone call, I thought. I’d heard from my brother, who since serving in Iraq has suffered from PTSD, which is threatening to become physically terminal. (I say “threatening”, the doctors say “is”; I say it’s never over ‘til it’s over, there are always exceptions to rules.) I’d told some trees, along a different run before, about his and my childhood, and hid tears in sweat. Nobody’s life is easy, but some lives begin complicated. What are you going to do, sit down and cry over what people call destiny or free will? No. (Most of the time.) But going for a run and thinking about them brings them into a stretched out landscape, which can bring release.

I wanted an answer to the pain of the phone call, and even though the run I was determined to go on was too far away, it was not even difficult to chug uphill to reach the myriad leaves that sounded like an ocean in the wind. I took the steepest incline to the top, and halfway up spotted a jay staring at me. It was so poignant (as if birds have expressions, but they don’t!) that I stopped in my tracks and looked at it as it watched me, now turning one eye to me, then the other. Some days, the forest just opens up and all of the animals and birds spill out into view, not caring that you are running by.

I caught sight of the sky from between the trees. Everything seemed so big. Encompassing, even. So, I thought my brother into that landscape, and explained away his human fallibility, and brought into view all the good things he has done, and my heart justified his life to all those creatures and breathing trees, and I caught a glimpse of the victory of his life in persisting as he has, and all the friends he has gathered around him a testimony to a life well-lived even as it is threatened; I told this to the trees and they replied in moving air, or was it me breathing hard in the wind, not even noticing the uphill anymore.

The wild, free woods

So many associations can come to mind on the more scenic runs where there is more to see to think about. I thought of that today while passing horse manure on the trail: reminding me of my equestrian childhood: Pony Club prizes, riding bareback at camp... (Anyone ever used an Orange Mud quiver on a long ride?!) That in turn brought to mind Colonial America, and James Russell Lowell’s poem “The Pioneer”, which in 2018 would be more aptly named, Hymn of the Dirtbaggers. It begins (if you have the patience for it):

What man would live coffined with brick and stone,

Imprisoned from the healing touch of air,

And cramped with selfish landmarks everywhere,

When all before him stretches, furrowless and lone,

The unmapped prairie none can fence or own?

It’s not like one has to be permanently in the wild to make associative leaps in the mind, and feel boundless. Charles Dickens came to his great ideas by perambulating leisurely, and not always in nature (he practiced urban hiking before it became a thing!) Mihailo Petrović, known for his work on differential equations and phenomenology, and for inventing a prototype of the hydraulic analogue computer, came to his ideas while fishing. In fact, he took and passed a fishing master exam – which at that time was viewed as a serious craft that could be undertaken only by skilled artisans who had passed through requisite apprenticeships. Fishing masters not only had to field practical questions but to prepare fish well to earn that title (imagine a cook-off as a prerequisite for a fishing license!) Petrović, a great scientist, viewed the river as his second office. Outdoor activities stimulate the mind.

Among Petrović’s works – and not to dwell on the one with perhaps the most intriguing title, Novel of the Eel – is one called Metaphors and Analogies, in which he writes that true poetry and science both seek to discover and make use of similarities among disparate elements and facts.

If you’re looking for a challenge on your next foray outdoors: what can you observe; what similarities of the visible does it bring to mind; what can you discover? As Lowell writes in “The Pioneer” (or, Hymn of the Dirtbaggers!):

What man would read and read the self-same faces,

When there are woods and un-man-stifled places. (…)

Here, life the undiminished man demands;

New faculties stretch out to meet new wants;

What Nature asks, that Nature also grants (…)

Ideas will be found in the outdoors, it’s a fact. There’s no excuse to not get outside and discover when we can conveniently pack food and drink in one of the many hardy Orange Mud packs. Or just throw water and a few condiments into one of them and, like Petrović did, prepare and eat freshly-caught fish in our second office.

Tough and Tougher

One of those “spiritual tales” told in the country where I live is about a man who is complaining: his life is too hard; he’s had it; he sees no reprieve in the foreseeable future. Maybe you’ve heard this tale before.

His friend tells him to hold his arms straight up over his head. But the complainer argues at how ridiculous that sounds, though he eventually gives in, because, frankly, he’s fed himself up with all his whingeing. So, reluctantly, he raises both his arms, until his gradually heavier and heavier arms feel like lead, and he barks at his friend, “I can’t keep my arms up any longer!”

“So drop them,” his friend says. He does. His friend asks, “How do you feel?”

“Better, now that I’ve dropped my arms!”

“So, you’re better now than you were when you were ranting!”

I’m going to guess that all of us reading this blog who do some form of exercise can relate to this. As much as we (might!) love our exercise, the day will definitely come when even exercising seems too hard, but if we’re able to stick through it, relief does come afterwards, if for no other reason than for that extra task coming to an end.

Maybe by doing sports we know that on some level, by doing it, it becomes part of “what we’re made of”: endurance, fortitude, that kind of thing.

But if we’re having a tough day, we can grab our Orange Mud handheld or quiver, and take a jaunt around the neighborhood or paths or hills. Then we can ask ourselves, like the friend in the tale, how we feel, now that the extra agony is done with!

Blog post by, Greta Goetz, senior lecturer, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, Serbia

October 25, 2019 — Josh Sprague

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