I used to be a runner. I ran all through high school and college. In my early twenties I ran several half marathons and one marathon. During marathon training I injured my knee but ran the race anyway. Even after a year of physical therapy, my knee was never really the same and it bothers me whenever I try to get back into running.
Of course, I haven’t seriously tried to get back into running for almost four years, ever since I got pregnant with my daughter. I don’t have time to exercise and read books, and for now I choose reading. That’s not entirely true about time, though. Earlier this summer I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming and I could adopt the routine she had as a working mom: go to the gym at 4 in the morning. I guess I prioritize sleeping and reading over running.
Back when I ran, it was a pleasure and also a punishment. I’ve spent years hating my body, like most women, and many of those years were when I was in the best physical shape of my life. I wish I could calculate the amount of body hatred that was inculcated in me when, for instance, my high school track coach said, of my teammate who’d lost forty pounds that year and would later be hospitalized for anorexia, “There’s nothing wrong with being lean.”
There’s nothing wrong with being lean and there’s nothing unusual about a young woman wishing her body smaller and less visible, no matter what a high school coach says or doesn’t say. In my teens and early twenties, running was an uncomplicated answer to my complicated questions about health and taking up space and doing something for myself, forever tied to measurable goals: longer, faster, thinner.
Also, the self-flagellation of long distance running always appealed. You can’t be raised in the Bible Belt without internalizing some things related to original sin and modesty culture and body shame. I was at a stoplight the other day and the personalized license plate on the car in front of me said REPENT and it took me a full minute, until the light turned green and the car pulled away, to think, “For what?”
Running until my muscles ached always felt like a kind of prayer for forgiveness, or a meditation on suffering. This makes it sound like I didn’t like running, but I very much did.
There are a lot of thing things I miss about running: the thrill of race day, getting better at something through hard work and perseverance, the way my legs looked. Mostly, though, I miss the feeling, rare even in those days but better for its rareness, of settling in.
Back when I ran daily, I’d occasionally find myself two miles into a run feeling like I could run forever. The pace would feel natural, my gait would be just right, and it would seem suddenly like I was made to do only this: run, and run, and run.
I could never know, going into a run, whether I’d settle in. Most runs felt like struggles the whole way through, but the possibility of settling in kept me going through many of them. I distinctly remember settling in at mile seven of the marathon I ran. The sun was just rising, my breath was slow and steady. I felt truly euphoric and would for most of the next thirteen miles, until I hit the wall at mile 20 and spent the last six miles all but dragging myself to the finish.
That feeling of settling in seems so elusive to me now, and not just because I no longer run. The rules of late stage capitalism dictate a lack of settling in at all times. I have my day job, and my side hustle, and my house that my husband and I can build equity in if we just renovate the entire kitchen, sometime when our daughter is sleeping. The lie we tell ourselves is the same one that I used to tell myself during a hard run: settling in is just around the corner. It will happen when we pay off the next student loan in the series, when our daughter starts kindergarten and we stop paying for daycare, when we win the lottery.
I just finished Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, which helped me see that it may not stop, that in a system which allows a handful of multinational corporations to gobble up everything in sight—money, natural resources, personal information—settling in may be as quaint as a landline telephone. Jeff Bezos might just keep profiting off of our cheap labor and lack of free time, trapping us in a never-ending cycle that robs us of our agency and goodwill and freedom.
Three years ago I went back to work after my daughter was born. We had found a daycare that was better than some, though still awful in a way that seems particular to infant daycare centers and nursing homes. I was incredibly anxious about leaving my infant anywhere, including with my own husband who I trust implicitly and who has always demonstrated himself to be a better parent than me.
The most common piece of advice I heard, related to anxiety, was to sleep when the baby sleeps. This is the answer for almost every ailment related to new motherhood: low milk supply, anxiety, postpartum bleeding, etc. Sleep when the baby sleeps, the entire internet crows, while patting the new mother’s head. My daughter didn’t sleep well as an infant, so this advice was useless.
Anxiety-producing factors came in threes back then. I took three months off after having my daughter, during which time I used all my vacation and sick hours so I could still receive a partial paycheck. To maintain milk supply, I had to pump three times a day at my desk and not take a lunch break. A good stretch of sleep, for my daughter in those days, was three hours at a time.
My inability to stop being anxious registered to me, in that hormonal and sleep-deprived time, as a personal failure. In hindsight, though, the only failures I see are systemic. It would have helped my anxiety if I had had paid maternity leave. It would have helped if my husband had paid paternity leave. It would have helped to have sick and vacation days to come back to, so that I wouldn’t have had to take more unpaid time off the first time my daughter got sick from daycare. It would have helped to have a longer maternity leave, so I could have pumped less at work and actually slept when my daughter did, mostly in the afternoons. It would have helped if the daycare options were higher quality and less expensive.
Several months ago I was in the line at Walmart at 10pm. I was there to buy candy for my office retreat the next day. The Walmart cashier wouldn’t take the sales tax off my purchase even though I showed him the tax exempt card for my employer, and I can’t turn in a receipt with sales tax on it to be reimbursed. I was so tired and the fluorescent lights were so bright and I didn’t want to argue with the poor cashier. I’d spent all day working and then come home to put my daughter to bed. All I want is more time with her and less time at Walmart on my work’s behalf.
I bought the candy with my own money and while I was picking up the bag I read the headline on a magazine, maybe Prevention, which was something like “Walking Off Anxiety: How a Walking Routine Can Help You Manage Stress.” I was suddenly filled with rage for myself and for all of us who are trapped in a culture that tell us our anxiety is a personal problem rather than a systemic one. I could walk for 10,000 miles and never feel less anxious and that doesn’t mean I’m not walking enough, or trying enough, it means that all of this—the big box store with its artificially low prices that drive local stores out of business and destroy the environment, the cashier working for too little money under the thumb of a company that routinely breaks up any effort to organize for better working conditions, my own exhaustion and lack of time that has brought me here against my personal misgivings because it’s close and cheap—is broken.
This spring there was an active shooter drill at my work. My colleagues and I watched a graphic instructional video and were asked to describe what we would do, should an active shooter enter our building. We planned what furniture we would hide behind in our offices to avoid the bullets, what windows we would escape from out of the shooter’s sightline, where we would attempt to meet up so that we would could account for the dead or wounded.
This is a good exercise, valuable even, if you can focus your mind only on the fantasy at hand. Let your mind wander for even a second as to why this drill is necessary, to what it would feel like to actually be shot at with an assault weapon, to what it means that this is the Homeland Security-recommended response to mass shootings, and the hopeless, existential dread that is so familiar to this cultural moment quickly becomes unbearable.
I described my escape path and agreed to meet at the public library just like everyone else, but it’s all a lie. If I could really envision some ideal fantasy response to a mass shooting it would be this: I would be in excellent running shape. I would run for all the right reasons and none of the wrong ones. On the day of the shooting, I would run away from my office, all the way to my daughter’s daycare, where I would pick her up and carry her to my husband’s office. From there we would run together, as fast as we could and as far as we could, away from civilization. The running would not feel difficult, we would settle in and run for as long as necessary.