Off Piste: Jogging the memory

For Bob Blaisdell, running sharpens the senses and allows him to be perfectly in the moment. It is also a physical mnemonic, redolent of previous routes the world over

June 4, 2009

Jogging brings me to a place where my senses and thoughts neither cancel out nor overwhelm the other. Within that rhythm, there is room for both and they seem content with their space. Here I am, jogging! I am aware of my body, the creakiness, the loosening up, the fit of my shoes, my achy left side, the wind in my right ear, the sweat on my arm, a hair prickling my temple. I am completely conscious of what I see, hear and smell. Without a trace of self-consciousness, I am aware of myself as a fleeting presence to others.

It doesn't matter where I'm jogging, here in New York or in another familiar setting: for once in my life I am awake to it all. My senses are alive, dependent on one another to notice details that at walking pace would be less visible because my thoughts would be more focused: for instance, the way the thaw has squeezed the spongy earth and saturated the grassy dent on the hillock; the way in dry, sunny, coastal California the heat packs the earth tight and draws the snakes and lizards to the trail edges; the way the shadows contain flip-of-a-switch rabbits that zigzag across and away from my bouncy, bounding steps.

Such elements of surprise make me notice more. The ground is alive and, even if I am forced to keep to the streets and sidewalks, so varied. Running on a track is monotonous and makes me think I am only doing it for the exercise: on a track my thoughts aren't stirred up; they are not alive in the way they are when I am running down trails and on the street. How pleasing it is, for these 35-45 minutes, to notice my environment, to feel my thoughts bud, bloom and fade away. How rarely do I feel this animal delight in my own sensations, my own consciousness of my surroundings.

Jogging, unlike my other passions - writing, reading, basketball - doesn't induce forgetfulness of the day, the life, the world.

In basketball, soccer or other aggressive and intense sports, the pain comes later. You wonder: where did that cut come from? When did I sprain my finger? There may be physical denial before the mental or emotional denial. But when I am jogging, the hurt keeps calling, keeps reminding me: you can't do this, you can't. You have to stop. But unless I am actually sick or lame, I never stop.

I guess that one of the reasons I respond so positively to running is that from earliest childhood it relieved me from the nearly continuous congestion I suffered as a result of allergies. Although I still occasionally have asthma attacks, they are better than the allergies.

I told a friend recently about trying as a college sophomore to run away from the mononucleosis that had me. I thought if I could run, it would prove I was not sick. I got back from the run, crawled into bed and woke up two days later.

Jogging is like a movie, because how else could I remember that early-morning run, somewhere in the middle of America, on the family drive from California to New York three summers ago? I remember those streets leading away from our motel past an auto-parts store, a rug store and a U-Store-It facility into a quiet, not-yet-rush-hour neighbourhood. The dark mountains over there, the deep purple sky lightening behind them. But where was I? That detail comes back to me as if I'm searching for it through a stack of index cards: a suburb just southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

And what about the barren lots on the hills of Nebraska, nearly 22 years ago? I was driving my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend east from California to her new teaching job in Iowa. We stopped after 12 hours of driving, just a few hours short of her new life (and mine). Rather than arrive at the campus in the dark, we decided to stop. I needed to run and escape the thoughts that were locked up in the car with us. On that run, for the first time in several days, I was free to daydream, to be myself in all-time rather than in zero-time. The memory of the misery of the impending break-up is less vivid than the early evening jog I took on the outskirts of ho-hum Omaha.

Why is it that jogging, not walking, brings it all back? Why does jogging jog the memory? Returning to California every summer, how familiar, like an old lover, is my run along the bluffs and over the rutted sandstone trails, the ice plant fingering the edges. The shadows, the rows of the eucalyptus, the tippy acorns and fragrant leaves, the eerie cool of that dip near the golf course, the stillness and sudden heat at the turning from the grove into the meadow, the sound of my feet on the road after the silence of the trail.

How the memories of myself at 17, 21, , 32, so far away as to seem lost, return! They return, but never depressingly or regretfully so, as if my life could be reviewed for a little while as simple facts: is this what an animal's memory is like? Useful but not rueful? What is it? Why am I so conscious as I jog?

Nowadays, the few times a month when I jog, I shut the apartment door, hop and skip down three flights of stairs to the lobby of the building, out of the heavy glass door, through the vestibule, into the air. It's summer or spring or autumn or winter. Within 30 seconds the inevitable rhythm arrives. Like stepping on to an escalator, I catch it and ride it. I jog to and through the parks of what I will remember as my middle age, if I live long enough: Morningside, Riverside and Central.

I notice a woman as old or older than I am, walking a dog up the highest hill in Central Park, and after I skid and slide through a muddy patch and regain my footing, I take her in again, our eyes meet: I feel none of my habitual, ingrained shyness. I smile, appreciatively, one creature to another. I am aware of her grace, her physical existence. The awareness, the consciousness of connection is happiness, and I keep running. On the way back, how familiar the ruts and slopes are, how familiar they will always be, if I can always jog.

If jogging is a movie, it's unlike the farcical comedies I love, or the cloak-and-dagger of James Bond adventures. My jogging memories are not movies I would think of going to watch, of paying to watch, of pausing over while I flip through television channels. I see the road, the trees, the cow-path made not by cows, but by horses. I see and sense each human, each dog. The trees, the path, the sky, the jogger ahead of me, the jogger approaching, the jogger I can feel but can't see behind me. The skritch and skitter of squirrels, up a tree or desperately crossing my path.

A jogging movie is different from my driving movies. I assume everyone has those during long solo highway rides: the music system is on, the windshield is the movie screen; you are driving and you can see yourself doing so, and the moon is up, and you see the cars surge and flow and feel your surge and flow with them, and all the while the appreciative, loving camera is on you, and, oddly, your singing voice isn't that bad. In my jogging movies, the soundtrack, because it's completely within my own head, has no actual music and is less obtrusive than in the car. It comes from far away. It doesn't play along to or dictate the movie, as in the car.

As I jog I remember a phrase from my favourite Roma band, a measure from Mozart or a jingly radio commercial. I remember it and handle it. It does not invade my run. I didn't buy the arm-strap for my iPod because I realised years ago, by trying to recite my tutor-assigned Russian monologues or stanzas from Aleksandr Pushkin while jogging, that I didn't want anybody's company or creations. Actual songs or words were invasive, and deliberately using that time to practise Russian turned jogging into work. It left me irritated with myself, distracted, and cleared away no immediate and temporal anxieties. I realised that I needed jogging to think, to daydream, to figure out what it is I am at the moment.

How familiar the shift from the glass-impacted dirt to the cement to the 84 bluestone stairs from Morningside Park. How interesting that I can call to mind autumn and winter as I jog in early summer. The jog is continually fresh, because the way back, unlike on a walk, is completely unlike the way there, even on the same paths.

Why am I never so conscious of myself and where I am as when I jog? I am not so conscious of such things when I write, though there's something like it when I draw. I'm not a great runner or good at drawing. But I am completely there, in that place, as much as I can be anywhere, when I do those things. A drawing, just like a jogging memory, sends me back.

Henry David Thoreau put all of his consciousness into his wonderful journals, and yet when he reread them, what brought him back to those particular days were the workmanlike sketches he had made in the margins of a leaf or a nut. I know about myself when I see what I drew from life on a pad, or when a jogging thought surfaces - more than when I reread an old short story, a diary entry or poem I wrote, or glimpse a photograph of myself.

Writing, except for reportage and deliberate observation, does not take place as life happens. It is more like digging through wet laundry, shaking it out and hanging it up to dry. With writing I don't know where I am. I am conscious of something else as I write, perhaps. I am not aware of my surroundings, I am not looking without but within.

I know, too, that I am looking forward to jogging tomorrow. I want to jog. I want to see ... what I have seen many times before. I don't often hanker for a new route. It is not a particular landscape I crave, although I enjoy each new one, wherever it is (yet another oddity of engaged observation), just as I enjoy and take in as much no matter the time of day (as long as it is light) or the weather.

I want to run tomorrow in Central Park or Riverside Park, or to be airlifted across the country to the ocean bluffs of California, near the housing complex where we spent my sabbatical, where I could splash across the pavement-bottomed creek and up the path to the meadows; or, if I can't go there in reality, I can, with the clarity of physical memory, remember myself jogging into shady parks in Colima, Mexico, or up and down deer-crossed ravine trails in Hamilton, Ontario, or on that towpath near Kew Gardens, or the farm roads near the bogs of Bournemouth while visiting Thomas Hardy's Wessex. I want to jog.

The concerns and thoughts of today float up like bubbles to the surface - and pop! Having risen they disappear, and I am left for the next half-hour or so with dreams, hopes and wanderings. At the end of my jog I am always happier.

With no imagination required, jogging allows me to think, observe and be unto myself a living presence. Why is that?

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