Life in the Body of a Runner
Kyoko Mori on the Meditative State of a Human Being in Motion
My first run ever was in Ashiya, a bedroom community situated between Mount Rokko and Osaka Bay in southwestern Japan. Our elementary school sat halfway up the last long hill on the city’s north side. One fall afternoon for a combined physical education class for grades four to six, our teachers walked us up the hill to where the paved road ended at the entrance to a large cemetery and told us to run back to the schoolyard. Beyond the cemetery loomed the mountain range, dark green with conifers. The route back to our school was a straight shot through the new residential area where some big houses were being built. The distance couldn’t have been much more than a mile, but at least for us fourth graders, there had been no lead-up to this athletic challenge. In the lower grades, we had only practiced sprints: ten meters, twenty meters, fifty meters—not even full circle around the schoolyard.
There were over a hundred of us, so we’d start in three groups according to grade level, the sixth graders first. My classmates and I must have been nervous, or maybe incredulous, as we waited our turn but I don’t remember. Soon we were lining up in front of the cemetery gate, my homeroom teacher clapped his hands once, hard, and we poured down the hill. The group of nearly forty thinned out quickly and before I knew it, I was in the tight cluster of runners at its head, eight or nine of us going as fast as we could and passing the older kids who had started earlier. To my surprise, many were walking, or even sitting by the side of the road red-faced and panting.
In the vacant lots, wildflowers had dried up standing and turned into straw-colored stars the size of fingernails. There were constellations of them. That’s all I remember seeing, though the view of the city below, down to the bay, must have been spectacular. By the time we neared the school gate, one kid—a boy who excelled at every sport—was way ahead, others had fallen behind, and I was running in step with another girl and two boys. We sprinted past the sixth-grade teacher who stood holding a red flag, slowed down, and staggered forward a few steps, stopped, and bent over with our hands on our knees. There was a moment when I thought I might throw up, but it passed quickly. As soon as I straightened my back and lifted my head, air rushed into my mouth and into my lungs. On the wall of our science room, a life-sized map of the human body showed half the arteries in blue and the other in red, one strand going into the heart and the other coming out like two halves of a train route switching directions at the main terminal. As I stood watching my classmates trickling into the schoolyard, I pictured my breaths turning the tired blue blood into clean red blood and circulating it through my body.
Fifty years later, on my morning routes through the parks, monuments, and neighborhoods in Washington, DC, I’m still amazed by the way running translates breath into motion and makes my body feel at once powerful and weightless. With every step, I’m deep inside the body and floating outside of it. Running activates the miracle of breath, the simplest, purest experience the body can have on its own. Every other sport I played was, ultimately, about the mind. Being a good athlete required paying attention and thinking ahead in order to do the right thing at exactly the right moment: swing the bat or wait for the next pitch, drive to the basket or pass, rush the net or play the baseline, dive for the ball or hope it goes out of bounds. There was an unmistakable thrill in making the correct split-second decision, knowing what to do and being able to do it, but running down the hill toward the schoolyard at nine years old, I was experiencing an entirely new kind of exhilaration. My mind—ever since I’d become aware of having a mind at around age three—had never been so unoccupied: all I had to do was keep on breathing and moving. In the middle of a run, the mind doesn’t have to tell the body to do anything it isn’t already doing; in fact, slowing down or stopping would require a conscious effort, an intervention of the mind, that continuing doesn’t. I’m still not certain whether it’s the mind or the body that goes free during a run. Both, I suppose.
The run from the cemetery gate to the schoolyard became a weekly event my friends dreaded and I looked forward to every fall for the rest of elementary school, but the private all-girls’ school I attended from seventh to twelfth grade didn’t have cross-country. In track, the shorter sprints now required starting off the blocks, which caused me to faint. Between having extremely low blood pressure and not growing taller than five feet two, I was beginning to understand the body’s veto power over the mind. I passed out regularly just from standing up too fast, so there was no way I could propel myself from a crouching position upward and forward into a sprint. I could still run the thousand meters, which had a standing start. Against my coach’s advice, my strategy was simply to run as fast as I could and hope not to die halfway through. It usually worked.
The running I enjoyed the most, though, was the daily training for the other sports I played, a dozen easy laps around the track with my teammates. In basketball and volleyball, running was also used as punishment. If you were playing particularly poorly during practice, the coach would make you go outside to do laps. To me, this was a huge relief though I tried not to let on. I could leave the noisy, crowded gym where I’d been missing my free throws or spiking the ball into the net and be alone to breathe, move, and be quiet. My body could stop doing all the wrong things and just be. Off the court and around the track, I didn’t have to be extrasmart to make up for being short.
I must have known that running restored me to a state of grace, but I didn’t pick it up again until the first semester of graduate school in Milwaukee. The guy I was dating, another graduate student, decided to train for a ten-kilometer race held to commemorate the Armenian martyrs of the 1915 Turkish genocide. Who knew why? He wasn’t even remotely Armenian. “Ten kilometers,” I marveled. “The longest distance I ever ran in a race was one kilometer, back in high school. It was basically a long sprint.” The following week, the two of us met at the gym and ran a mile around the indoor track at a pace that made us nearly throw up at the end. Once we realized we had to slow down, though, it wasn’t difficult to build up to three miles around the track and then go outside to add more distance on the trails along Lake Michigan. We started training in early fall and the race was in the spring, so there was plenty of time. At the gym, we fell in with experienced runners who gave us tips about shoes, training schedules, stretching exercises, and cross-training with weights.
The most memorable thing about the race, on a cold day in April on the south side of Milwaukee, was that at the halfway mark, I felt so good that I left my boyfriend behind and finished third among about fifty women. It wasn’t as though we’d made a pact to run together for all of the ten kilometers. When I suggested picking up the pace, he’d said, “I can’t, but don’t let me hold you back. Go.” Still, in retrospect, it’s no surprise we broke up soon after.
I entered a dozen races every year and collected medals and trophies until, in my early thirties, teaching in a small town in northern Wisconsin and trying to publish my first novel, I was finally ready to admit that racing was the only part of running I didn’t enjoy. I found no joy in passing another runner and hearing her breathing harder behind me as she tried to keep up. It was utterly distressing that I wanted to beat her when it was, clearly, the last thing she wanted me to do. Life was already full of competition we couldn’t avoid, such as getting our books chosen for publication over someone else’s, so it seemed perverse to add to the list. Besides, running was fundamentally a solitary activity. Although I ran with a couple of guys now and then—trusted colleagues with whom I could complain about work in the privacy of a deserted country road—I wasn’t keen on meeting a bunch of strangers at races in other small towns all over the state, where runners arrived early and stood around waiting for the event to commence. Competition turned running into a mental sport like everything else: how to pace yourself, when to make a move to pass another runner, whether to stop at the next water station or skip it. I needed one activity in life that was free from strategies and logistics, one discipline dedicated to the body.
The question I ask most often about my own body, whether I wake up with a sore throat or a stiff neck, or my eye doctor suggests a cataract surgery in the near future, is simple: will I be able to run through this? I’ve learned to take a long view if the answer is no. The physical therapist I worked with in my forties, when I had a recurring soft-tissue injury in my left calf, assured me that with proper stretching, strengthening, cross-training, and time off, anyone at any age can run a couple of miles a few times every week, and most people can do much more. Just as he predicted, my calf injury went away after three years of nagging recurrences, each time a little less serious. I expect the same from the hamstring pull suffered a year ago, though it’s come back twice since.
An aging amateur athlete at sixty, I accept that I’m not running as fast as I used to—people actually pass me on the trail now—and I need to spend more time stretching and strengthening. I can no longer run ten miles every day without even a warm-up. But I can still do five to eight miles every other day and add a twelve-miler a couple of times a month, and when I get injured, cycling is a close enough substitute for the few weeks of recovery. Long ago, I overcame the disappointment of not growing taller. In basketball and volleyball, I was considered a very good player for my size; had I been a few inches taller, I might have been, simply, a very good player. I still stand up slowly so as not to keel over headfirst onto the floor. I’ve learned to adjust to and work with my body even as it develops new and growing imperfections. My own body doesn’t trouble my mind.
The human body in general is another story. There is so much I don’t understand about the body in the abstract, and the confusion worries me.
For example, what is the opposite of the body—the mind, the soul, or the spirit? Where does the “heart” belong in this dichotomy? The heart is more than the ability to feel, just as the mind is more than the capacity to think, so why are there at least four names for the one—mind, intellect, brain, head—and only one for the other? “Heart” isn’t even an accurate metaphor: the organ that circulates blood through the body registers the love, joy, excitement, fear, or anger we feel by beating faster, but it doesn’t generate those feelings. Maybe some of our feelings actually come from the neurons firing through the brain? But what about the “gut feeling,” the instinctive or intuitive understanding of a complex situation that hits us lower and deeper in the body? If our language, or our “tongue,” is any indication, we are incapable of thinking of ourselves as more than or separate from our bodies without using the body as the main point of reference.
And yet in sentences like “Two bodies were found early this morning by a woman running on a suburban bike trail” or “The body count was high,” body, used without an adjective, means “a dead person,” implying, on some level, that being dead is the body’s default mode. Religion confuses the matter further. I grew up attending the Japanese version of the mainstream American Protestant church—its founders back in the 19th century were Methodists and Congregationalists—where I was taught that God created Adam from clay and breathed life into him. Also, our bodies were temples for our spirits, just as the church was the body for the spirit of God and Jesus was God who took on a human body. This caused me to picture our bodies as humble stucco buildings, more like community centers than grand “temples.” I didn’t understand how the church could be the body of God when God already had Jesus’s body.
The physical torment that Jesus endured was not emphasized in our Bible studies or Sunday services, where Communion was a once-a-month ritual with a pile of cubed white bread (the crust removed, why I don’t know) and thimble-sized glasses of grape juice to honor and commemorate—not to reenact—the Last Supper. No one believed that the bread was the body of Christ. The Communion was one of my first lessons in ritual and symbolism. So I was not prepared for the Catholic services of my adulthood that always ended with the priest sticking the round disk the size, though not the shape, of a guitar pick in each parishioner’s mouth and intoning, “Body of Christ,” “Body of Christ.” Catholics believed they were literally eating the broken body of Christ and drinking his shed blood. By my early twenties I only went to church, Catholic or Protestant, for weddings and funerals. Especially at the latter, hearing the phrase and thinking about Christ’s or anyone else’s body was disturbing.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Christianity makes the body seem at once insignificant and ominous. So does Shintoism, which considers birth and death unclean. The residents of Miyajima, the tiny Japanese island famous for its floating vermilion gate, include not only the priests and the acolytes but also the secular caretakers of the property and their families. When one of them is about to give birth or die, he or she must be ferried back to the mainland so no human can defile the holy site with the ultimate bodily act of entering or exiting the physical realm.
The most unsettling comment I heard about the body came from my friend Diane, a classics professor I taught with in Wisconsin. The two of us were having coffee a few days after a group of our women friends had gotten together to exchange clothes we seldom wore. While the rest of us dressed and undressed in the same big room, one woman had sat in the corner looking uncomfortable. When the hostess offered her another room for more privacy, she just shook her head. Diane and I agreed it was too bad that the woman hadn’t felt comfortable enough with us to at least accept the alternative.
“I wish she could have trusted us,” Diane said. “Of course we all hate our bodies.”
Her tone was completely matter-of-fact. She wasn’t angry, disappointed, or even resigned. As far as she was concerned, she was merely stating an unpleasant truth on the level of “Life isn’t fair” or “We all grow old and die eventually.”
I had met plenty of women who were angry about the objectification of the female body, the mass media’s portrayal of women, or the unhealthy standard of beauty promoted by everything from perfume ads to little girls’ toys. I was against these social and cultural injustices too, but it had never occurred to me that we all, personally, hated our bodies. The dozen of us gathered at the clothes exchange were in our thirties. Small and plain, I was the least attractive of the bunch. The adjective most often used to describe me was “tiny,” though I thought of myself privately as a giant of strength. On the other end of the spectrum was a woman from Wales who was so beautiful that strangers—every man and most women—turned around to stare. The others, Diane included, were very attractive though not in a flashy way. I didn’t understand how any of us could or should categorically hate our bodies. Even by the beauty standards we objected to, we didn’t look so bad. I tried to explain this to Diane, but it was clear she thought I was trying to console her, or us, unnecessarily and uselessly, so I gave up.
That was nearly thirty years ago. I now understand how crippling the social message about the female body can be. Many of my women friends talk about their bodies as though their bodies prevented them from being their best selves. They feel helpless about the weight they gained and can’t shed, or get depressed about the size or the shape of their hips, thighs, breasts, or arms. My otherwise intelligent and reasonable friends lose their sense of proportion, as it were, when they contemplate their bodies. They can’t seem to distinguish real problems that affect health and safety from minor dissatisfactions that are neither life-threatening nor, ultimately, changeable. They complain about how hard it is to exercise and eat right, then alternately berate themselves and rail against the sexist society that expects women’s bodies to bear children and remain unblemished and nubile.
I still don’t know what to say when my friends fall into this mood. Comments like, “Oh, don’t worry; you look great,” no matter how sincere, are never believed. Commiseration may be the sole antidote, but I only obsess about my body when something goes obviously wrong, like a running injury, a dental emergency involving a cracked tooth, or a bout of shingles that could have resulted in permanent nerve damage. Then the injury or illness and the affected areas of the body are all I can think about for a few days, but that’s different. Being a runner—and a small person—has spared me from thinking of my body as an impediment. Maybe I too would have felt hindered by my physical self if I had gained or lost a tremendous amount of weight or had a womanly figure that drew public attention. I might not always have thought of my body as only mine if I’d had children.
Or maybe none of that would have mattered because I had grown up in Japan, where the word for body, karada, is synonymous with health and doesn’t have the connotations of guilt or sin. Shintoism didn’t pervade everyday life in Japan. I was raised in a secular culture with a very pragmatic attitude toward the body.
Although there is a separate word for “health” (kenko) in Japanese, the correct idiomatic expression for “beneficial to one’s health” is karada ni yoi or “good for the body.” Karada ni Ki o Tsukete (“Attend to the body”) is a common greeting, equivalent to “Take care of yourself” or “Be well.” Karada wa Daijobu? (“Your body is OK?”) people ask each other casually, meaning “How’ve you been?” Unlike in English, making references to the body wasn’t considered rudely intimate. The upbringing that went with this language assumed rather than stressed modesty. The most daring outfits my friends and I ever wore as teenagers consisted of old sweaters or rumpled flannel shirts with jeans that looked dirty even when they were clean. Looking frumpy was how we hoped to stand out among our peers in their pretty linen dresses and crisp blouses with long skirts. We wouldn’t have known what to do if anyone came to school in a miniskirt or a figure-revealing dress. Of course we watched American movies and read Japanese versions of the American and European fashion magazines, but we assumed that all the images we saw were pure fantasy. Our bodies were not for display; there was no reason to feel inadequate. Spending my adolescence in Japan must have given me immunity from worrying about the minute details of my body’s appearance and feeling bad that I didn’t measure up to some impossible standard. Among my American-born friends, I’m like a lucky traveler who escaped a deadly plague by having been away at the height of the epidemic.
Women’s physical insecurity is a pandemic. A few summers ago, I picked up a copy of The Village Voice that had an informal survey. Ten randomly selected New Yorkers, five men and five women, were asked, “Is your body ready for the beach?” All five women in one way or another said they were not quite ready to put on a swimsuit though they’d been trying to watch their weight and exercise more. All five men said they were ready enough. No one is perfect, one man opined, but he looked as presentable in a Speedo as the next guy and that was enough. The photographs of the respondents, though they were only head shots, made it clear that the women, as a group, looked better—better groomed, better dressed, better everything—than the men, but this was New York and the respondents were in their twenties and thirties. Of course they all looked good enough. The guy who sounded stupid and arrogant—no one was perfect but he was good enough, rah rah—was, actually, right. I understand intellectually why the survey came out the way it did, but I still want to say, “I don’t understand,” as in, This is outrageous. WTF!
Being taught to regard the body as a sexless vehicle of healthful living was, of course, a trap. My friends and I, all of us born into economically privileged families, were being trained to become quiet Japanese wives who stayed home and raised well-behaved children while our husbands had affairs with women who came from a less-moneyed class, women who could be exploited to become sex objects. My father’s favorite girlfriend, for example, was a bar hostess, and his choice was not unusual. In Japan, some women’s bodies were nearly sexless and other women’s bodies were all about sex. What I was taught as a child was no more liberating than the stereotypes and expectations my American friends grew up with. If I had stayed in Japan and married, my peaceful home life would have been founded on my own lack of sexuality (except insofar as it produced a couple of children) and the exploitation of other women as objects of male desire.
After leaving at twenty, I had to learn to acknowledge my sexuality and live accordingly. Still, the politics of sexuality interest me more than personal narratives about sex. The poet Maria Gillan once told me, “I like sex just fine in person, but to read and write about it is utterly boring.” I agree, though for me, writing about my own body’s association with sex would be at once boring and embarrassing, the worst-ever combination.
The last time I saw Maria Gillan was in Paterson, New Jersey, where she was coordinating the writers-in-the-schools program. She met me at the Newark airport, took me to dinner, and dropped me off at the motel she had reserved for me, which was on a major highway with several busy roads intersecting all around. I didn’t know the area at all; I had just moved to Boston from Wisconsin a few months prior. When I asked the desk clerk where I could run in the morning, he said the only place where I wouldn’t get lost, hit by a car, mugged, or worse was the cemetery behind the motel’s rear parking lot.
To be ready at eight for my ride to school, I had to start before six. The sun hadn’t risen yet and the sky was an inky gray. The desk clerk had warned me to stay in the cemetery and not come out except through the gate I’d entered from. Although my sense of direction is not great, it was easy to identify the main paved road that wound around the clusters of gravestones, monuments, and towers. As I expected, the road eventually looped back to the gate, so I decided to go around again. The cemetery was completely deserted, just a bunch of dead people and me inside the fence. I wouldn’t get lost or wander out through the wrong gate if I stayed on the same main road instead of veering off onto the smaller paths that intersected it.
Halfway through my second loop around the cemetery, the sky began to lighten and the monuments came floating out of the near dark into the air that now looked milky gray. Among the clusters of graves were some small clearings planted with trees and shrubs, but no statues of Jesus, Mary, or Saint Francis overlooked the benches placed under the trees. In the forty minutes or so I had been running along the graves, it occurred to me, I hadn’t seen one single stone cross or angel, lamb, bunny, praying hands, shepherd’s crook, or any other decorative or devotional object I associated with cemeteries. At the next crossroad, I slowed down. It was now light enough to read the signs hanging from the posts, according to which I was running on Abraham Avenue and about to cross Judah Road. I was not in Wisconsin anymore. There had been no Mary and Jesus, lambs or bunnies, because this was a Jewish cemetery, the first I had ever seen.
Abraham Avenue brought me back to the gate again. On the other side, across the parking lot, was the motel where other travelers were sleeping or waking up or maybe even having sex. On this side were thousands of dead Jewish people—some of them, no doubt, born in Poland, Lithuania, Germany, or Russia—and me: another immigrant body. My steps connected several worlds. There was time for another lap.
I wouldn’t have run in that cemetery if the desk clerk hadn’t made it sound like I would get killed if I went anywhere else. Although the matter is up for debate, exercising among the graves is generally considered a breach of etiquette. Some cemeteries post explicit warnings—“no music, no alcohol, no barbecue, no sports”—forbidding any activity that is too gauchely physical. On the grounds where some bodies are at eternal rest, bodies that can still eat, drink, see, hear, and move should do so in a discreet manner that doesn’t flaunt the difference. The dead, and the family and friends who come to visit them, would not be offended if we were walking at a leisurely pace or bird-watching among the headstones, drinking water or maybe even eating a light sandwich under a monument.
Beginning with my first run in fourth grade, many of my routes over the years have skirted around cemeteries. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily symbolic. It’s almost impossible to go five or eight miles in any city without coming across a cemetery. On one of my routes now, I pass a small historic graveyard in Rock Creek Park, cross the Potomac on Memorial Bridge, and turn around at the entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery. The cemeteries and the word “memorial” aren’t signs exactly, but they are reminders of a task I haven’t completed.
Although I’m not generally given to procrastination, I haven’t updated my will with instructions about the final disposal of my body. I wrote the will at forty, after I got divorced and no longer had an automatically designated person in charge, a husband, if I died suddenly. I was hoping to find a new job and move to a larger city in the near future. When I balked at making my own funeral arrangements ahead of time, the lawyer suggested that I could add those details in a couple of years after I settled into a new place and needed to update my will anyway. It’s been two moves and a couple of decades instead of years. As far as I know through mutual friends, the lawyer—who is my age—still lives and practices in Wisconsin. I keep telling myself that I need to call him before he retires but something in me resists.
The hilltop cemetery in my hometown was famous for its view of the city and the bay. Even as a child I wondered why the view should matter to the dead. I knew already that looking was on the long list of things we wouldn’t be doing once our bodies were gone. My understanding of this list has improved since. I can’t deal with my will because I’m not ready to officially and legally admit the truth: the list of things I’ll lose along with my body encompasses all of me. I won’t be able to think or feel, or act on the results of my thoughts and feelings, once my body stops working to sustain itself. It isn’t bad luck to spell out what should be done with my body when the self that used the first-person pronoun to claim it no longer exists and the body becomes a body. Death will not come even a fraction of a second sooner because I planned for it. I know. But thinking—rather than imagining or speculating—beyond that moment has proven too daunting for me so far.
The head and the heart are firmly located in the body and will not survive its demise. The soul is just another name for every part of the self that is not, or doesn’t seem to be, the body: the “heart,” the mind, all the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, moral principles, and memories generated by our brain. The soul is the sum total of our non-physical selves, that constant voice we hear inside our heads even when our mouths are not speaking. I wish I could believe that this self-apart-from-the body is immortal, but I don’t. I don’t even think, ultimately, that the soul exists except as a useful concept or metaphor. That still leaves the spirit, though: a life force universally associated with the breath—God breathing life into Adam, our bodies animated by chi in Eastern philosophy. Unlike the soul, the spirit moves through us; it isn’t, really, us. The spirit is the part of us that isn’t completely attached to us, something we can never own. In folk stories, people sell their souls, not their spirits, to the devil; the spirit is too elusive to be traded as a commodity even to the Prince of Darkness.
In Japanese, the spirit is called ki and the word is written with the same character used for air. The spirit is partly us, partly everything else; it is constantly entering and leaving us through our breath and connecting us to all the air in the world. We feel its presence most clearly in those moments when the body and the mind loosen their hold on each other. The meditation practice in Zen is an effort to recreate this state. The idea is not to silence the chatter inside the head but to observe that chatter—the murmurs of our minds, our hearts, our souls—with detachment. My attempts at meditation have been less than stellar, but as a runner I know that when the body and the mind become temporarily uncoupled, the spirit moves more freely out into the world. This is the essential thrill of running: letting go of the spirit, knowing that—for now—it will return with each breath. It’s like holding a balloon on a string on a windy day and trying to imagine what it would be like to loosen your fist and open your hand. Maybe death—the last breath leaving my body—just means freeing the spirit from the body and the mind, the self that we call our “soul,” and allowing the spirit to become fully itself again: everything that is not me.
Running, for now, lets me coexist with the spirit. Switching directions in front of the Arlington National Cemetery and crossing the Potomac back into the District, I begin my uphill journey toward home. The breath connects my body to the world I move through. There is so much air. My body is at once solid and weightless, and against all evidence to the contrary, I believe I can go on like this forever.
This essay originally appears in issue #69 of Conjunctions, “Being Bodies.”