Without Numbers

Second day in a row, I went for a run without my watch. I have no idea if this will be a trend. I kept turning my left hand over to look at my wrist during the run. At the end of today's I almost pushed my right index finger to my left wrist but felt foolish enough to stop. Old habits. The watch keeps track of heart rate too and I've long run in a low heart-rate range. Going without the watch, I don't know what my heart rate was. I just ran by feel and felt good.

A guy this week ran a marathon in under two hours. First time that's been done, so far as we know. It's nice to know we have almost limitless potential. I just hope he didn't do better running through chemicals. That sort of thing happens when we get too caught up with numbers.

I'm listening to a record on the turntable. I don't know how many times I've played it and lack any way to tell mathematically, algorithmically which record, song, or artist I've heard most. Instead, I scan the spines and see what strikes my fancy. Right now it's Steely Dan's Greatest Hits and "Here At The Western World." How did that song not make it onto a regular album? I mean, really.

This month I've stayed off the scale. I know about what I weigh. No matter the number, I'm heavier than is healthy. The daily weigh in became, as it often does, a drag, so I stopped. Sitting here, I feel my belly over my belt. That's all the data I need at the moment.

This week I started a new writing notebook. It lacks page numbers and I haven't written any in. I begin notebooks wondering how long I'll take to finish them. Maybe there's a better way of thinking.

Our older daughter is home from college this weekend. I could count hours and minutes until I take her back (and we resume missing her daily presence), but I'll skip that.

Numbers are my habit and often my friend. Sometimes they get in the way and every relationship needs a break at least for a little while. I would tell you how long this break will last, but I've decided not to count.


Lately, even with all the writing I've been doing, I find that I'm not making much time for solitude. My job teaching at-risk kids doesn't allow for much solitude at school and at home my wife and I are raising two girls, but there are pockets of time at school and the girls are both in high school and move through the world with us but not needing our constant presence. It's not the commitments to other things that have kept me from solitude so much as the things I use to keep myself away from myself. Even reading lately I find my mind wandering to this or that thing I thing I ought to be doing.

Leo Babauta writes about "Why We Struggle To Make Time For Solitude" and it comes down to this feeling that we need to stay busy whatever that might mean. One level could be the busyness of our jobs. I know people who bring email home and work on presentations after dinner. I gave up bringing my job home but spend that time writing, so I'm not here to judge. I also had to quit my personal Twitter and all of Facebook because I too easily lost myself in the busyness there, hitting refresh and waiting for someone to start something. I've got the Washington Post and New York Times on my phone and flip to them all too often in order to burn about the latest insanity out in the world. I've lost hours at a time to YouTube watching videos I've seen before. All of this feels busy and necessary. Of course it's not.

Babauta asks: "How often do you take time to go out for an hourlong walk? To just sit out in nature doing nothing but contemplating and enjoying the silence?" In the margin (I print the articles and read with a pen) I wrote: Not often. I haven't listened to a record in ages. I've been playing records most every night as I write or look at nonsense online, but I haven't listened to one in at least a month. To listen requires sitting still and attending to the music. I've played records in the background, but every time I consider really listening to a record I instead get busy clearing my desk, answering email, or do some other thing that seems more important. I'm too afraid to sit and just listen.

Uncertainty and fear of the unknown lead us to keep busy according to Babauta. Sitting still, being in solitude, focusing only on one thing, meditating, or even just zoning out all seem vaguely dangerous. What if something goes undone? What if we forget something important? and, God forbid, What if someone sees us doing nothing? How will we explain that? Solitude can feel like a selfish indulgence, a guilty pleasure, or maybe just a strange and frightening notion, but it is none of these things. It is as necessary as the air we breathe.

That doesn't go only for writers like me or artists, photographers, actors, dancers, and so on. Solitude is necessary (and probably lacking) for every person walking this Earth. I'm equally sure that we are trained not to let ourselves get attached to solitude, to fear it, and to suspect that there is danger in being alone.

"And yet, this constant busyness and distraction is draining us. We are always on, always connected, always stimulated, always using energy." Babauta hits the mark again. Burnout, according to my dictionary, is "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength" and that's what the world offers if we buy into it. My teaching job begins at 7:40 and I work with kids straight through until at least 1:00 most days (sometimes longer) before I see a break, before I can have time alone to do nothing. That level of busyness and lack of solitude is toxic. That's why I can't continue in the job. But If I do the same thing to myself after leaving school, what kind of fool am I?

At the bottom of Babauta's article I wrote this: What if I go for a run not to get in shape or an an obligation to do miles but in order to invest in one hour (or even just half an hour) of solitude? I wrote that and then got dressed in cold weather running gear, took myself outside, left the phone in the kitchen, and jogged down the driveway. Almost an hour later I returned home feeling something I haven't in weeks. It wasn't just the way my body felt having run four miles, though that too was good. It was the relief of having been by myself and in no need to do anything but run. I didn't work on any problems, make any plans, or do anything but run and be alone. It wasn't scary either. In fact, I want more.

I'm going to go put an album. First, I'll tear up my to-do list then I'll switch off this computer. The furnace just came on, the dog is asleep on her bed, and there's nothing to do now but listen to what solitude and the album sing to me.

Sunday Morning, Outside

Reading about how to be healthy, a consistent theme is to get outside. The mind is healthier out in the world, balance comes easier among trees than inside four walls, and we make better choices breathing fresh air. That's part of why I went for a run though I wasn't feeling like it. I put on the tights, shorts, socks, sandals, wool shirt, vest, hat, and gloves (it's a whole rigamarole, running in Syracuse's January) and went outside. Intending a short run I fell into a rhythm and went just over five. Being outside felt lovely, but there is more to being truly outside than just leaving the house for a run.

While running, I got thinking how much of my writing is about the inside of my head. I spend a lot of time and ink exploring the narrow confines of my thinking. Shouldn't I get outside my skull? I wondered.

My friend photographs the natural world without any sign of man's intrusion. The best thing about his work is that he withholds what so many of us cling to. There are no boathouses or docks on the river in his photographs, no church steeples rising through the bare trees, no runners through the forest. Instead there is the natural world captured as if we don't exist at all. I know Chris is behind the tripod but he's not the subject.

More often than not I'm the subject of my writing. Thoreau said — "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” — but he was also one of the greatest observers of the outside world. He wrote of his experience, but no one so carefully saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted the world as did Thoreau. And he wrote those things down.

This morning's temperature hovered around freezing. The occasional light flurry of giant snowflakes fell and melted immediately. The sky was a special Syracuse grey that is both normal and oppressive. The streets were slick and puddles stretched from the curb to the middle of Meadowbrook Drive. There was no accumulated snow left and hasn't been for weeks. Something about the jet stream. My feet made slight slapping noises on the wet pavement and squished whenever I ran on the grass.

The brook moved fast but was not full. Used to be that it overflowed regularly but the city opened things up. There hasn't been a flood in a decade. Today it was all cliche, babbling and whispering. Out by the high school I ran close enough to watch and really listen. No ducks or muskrats today and not too much garbage. Just water that would be frozen were it not moving too fast to become still.

In the cemetery I passed two above-ground crypts and wondered why we resist returning to dust. It makes sense while we're living, but once we're dead? I shrugged both failing to understand the logic but knowing the feeling of wanting to remain no matter how grey the sky seems.

Down the hill back near the high school a bird circled without moving its wings. "Something on the thermals yanked his chain." It seemed like a hawk. A friend I teach with could tell me all about it and I almost wished he was there, but no, I was outside to be alone.

Three girls ran in the other direction back on Meadowbrook. Two were out front together while the third was well behind. They were across a lane of traffic, the brook, and another lane of traffic and my eyes are no longer so good that I could make out their expressions, but I pasted one on that girl at the back and it looked like me. Did she wish she was running by herself instead of chasing something she might not want? A car drove by and splashed a puddle on me.

On our street the house of a friend had a SOLD sign in the yard. She's moving out. I don't know when or where she's going. I have no idea who bought the house. Her table and chairs remained near the front stoop. Four bags of garbage waited at the road for pickup two days away.

The grey sky let go a few more snow flakes, a nod toward winter, a postcard, or a shaken globe. The hole in our driveway was filled with brown water and a few crystals. The garage door paint was peeling and cracked. I tapped in the code, waited for the door to open, and went inside where it was warm. I stood inside the dark basement, still breathing hard, wondering where it is I'm supposed to be going.