A few weeks ago a friend posted an article on Facebook: Simple Tips for Running Bliss. The article shared tips for helping you run more naturally and efficiently. As I read through the list I found one tip that stood out to me more than the others. The article suggested that you should “look ahead with confidence” while running. I thought that this was an easy enough goal to set for myself (far easier than figuring out how to get my run cadence to 180 steps per minute). The next morning when I headed out for my daily run I focused on keeping my eyes up.
“Looking up” turned out to be much harder than I expected. I had to really think about keeping my eyes off the ground, unaware that before that moment that I’d been heading out every morning and running five or six miles while staring at the road and my feet the whole time.
Then I forced myself to look up during every run.
So much changed with that one shift in focus. Looking up from the endless tromp of my sneakered feet made me realize how much I’d been missing. I run through this beautiful savanna right at dawn every morning and every morning I’ve missed the sun creeping over the horizon. Can you believe I squandered the stunning beauty of a summer sunrise because I watching my feet and an asphalt path instead? How tragic.
It got me thinking—how often do I keep my head down in my life? How often do I miss opportunities to notice beauty, enjoy the world around me, actually experience my life rather than get through the moment? Sadly, the answer is—more than I should.
A few mornings ago I was on an airplane flying in from a long, tiring weekend. The day before I’d attended a memorial service for a family member who recently passed. At that moment I’d been traveling since 2:30 am. We were landing soon and I knew my day was really just beginning when I exited the plane, not ending. I was exhausted and emotionally worn out and definitely in a “keep your head down and dream of the finish line” kind of moment. Then we broke through the cloud cover during our decent. I could see into the crystal clear water of Lake Michigan, the sun just rising up over the water and reflecting off the clouds above us. That instant of beauty was just what I needed. I stopped thinking about how tired I was, how much still lay ahead of me, and instead I just enjoyed my breathtaking perspective. I filed that moment away—not just the image but also the emotion it induced.
Recently I had a conversation with another writer about recognizing beauty in our world and the role it plays in a writer’s life. Our conversation reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s play, OUR TOWN. In this play protagonist Emily Webb grows up in Act I, falls in love and gets married in Act II, and then leaves this world in Act III. In Emily’s final speech, she says goodbye to the world she used to live in. I had the opportunity to play Emily Webb in my high school’s production of OUR TOWN and I’ve found myself reflecting on this speech time and time again as I’ve grown up and acquired more experience. It means something deeper and different to me every time I read it.
Just prior to this scene Emily tried to experience a childhood memory with her family but no one would listen to her. Now she has to return to her quiet spot where she is buried in the cemetery. These are her final words:
Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
When I finished my final performance of OUR TOWN my parents gave me a bouquet of flowers and a card that read: To a saint and a poet. That might be a tad bit much to live up to. I’m certainly not a saint and I’m only a shaky poet but I definitely hope one day I can be considered someone who “realizes life while they live it”—not just for my benefit for but for my readers’ benefit as well. As writers it is our job to be storytellers and to help our readers not just read the words we write but experience them. To help me in that goal I’ve been trying to take in every bit of the world around me so I can accurately represent it on the page. Sharing theses thoughts and emotions as realistically as possible is one of the most interesting challenges I face as an author.
Unfortunately, life isn’t just beauty and sunrises. Like running, life is also a lot of hard work. When I “look up” at all the good things I have—my family, my writing, my education—they all are wonderful and rewarding but come at the price of persistence and dedication. I often wonder why so many good things are also hard things. When you really consider it most good things ARE hard things. Like at the end of the run when you think back on the hills, or if you’ve gone an extra mile or even just stepped out the door even though you wish you were still sleeping—that’s a satisfaction you can carry with you throughout your day. It is in the earning of these accomplishments that we find their value.
But it can be exhausting keeping up with all the good things in our lives, not to mention the bad ones. We can get injured because we’re not taking care of ourselves. We can get run over by taking on too much. We can get lost by not watching where we are going. We can run into some pretty shady characters waiting in the bushes that mean us harm. But the only way to identify these stumbling blocks before they trip us it to keep your head up, even when that simple tip of your chin feels like it might break you.
Connecting With Others
My favorite benefit of “looking up” is the opportunity it provides to connect with other people. There is a bit of a social code for running. It is unspoken (and there is a least a 60% chance I’m only imagining it) but in general when you cross paths with another runner you give a wave or some kind of acknowledgment. When I was less aware of the world around me my wave wasn’t much more than a flinch and a flick of my gaze to make sure the person approaching was not a serial killer. But when I started “looking up” during my runs I found that I was waving to many of the same people every day. Some of them were people I recognized from my kids’ school or the pool or the supermarket. I marvel at their skill and dedication. I now wave, smile AND say “hi” knowing that under all our differences that at least we have sunrises and gym shoes in common.
By far the most enriching thing about life is living it with all of you. I know people can be awful, believe me—I know. But the good ones out number the bad ones and those connections with family, friends and coworkers are what make the blur of our daily lives sharper, more enjoyable. I find my clearest memories are not of car rides or computer programs but of conversations peppered with tears or laughter. Yet how often are we “too busy” to find time for the people in our lives? How often does keeping our head down and digging in take us away from the beauty of friendship?
As a working writer, life can be solitary. If my kids wouldn’t starve or run off with the circus I could stay in my “writing cave” all day. But I’m not happy when I’m cut off from the world. In the past two years, the connections I’ve made with other writers are invaluable. Their support, advice, and well-timed YouTube video suggestions bring a sense of camaraderie I didn’t know you could get via a computer screen.
Equally as supportive and important are the “real life” writers I meet out in the wild. They are my kind of people. They understand the call of the empty Word doc and how a story grows in your mind until it is so heavy you have to harvest it onto the page. They are life long friends who I could’ve passed right by if I’d been watching the ground instead of searching the metaphoric road in front of me.
The newest type of connection I’ve made recently is with readers. From emails to tweets to Facebook messages–I love connecting with all of you. One of the greatest parts of my job are those surprise messages that just show up in my inbox. I try to write back to each genuine message I receive—but not that prince from Nigeria who seems to always be losing his wallet and passport and needing MY help. He’s going to have to find someone else to bug for that money…
Now it is your turn to try it out. Look up. See if your perspective change increases your appreciation of the beauty of the world, increases your ability to share your experiences with others, allows you to acknowledge your accomplishments and maybe even assists you in making lasting connections that will enrich you far more than the cracks in the sidewalk ever have.
I plan to keep this “looking up” thing going in my life and out on the road. Now I can tell a new day is beginning by the sun peeking over the horizon instead of watching the light hit the asphalt under my feet.