The Limits of Attention

A NOISELESS patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

These past couple of days I’ve been thinking and writing about how important it is to pay attention, to do what we can to support and lift up others.

Or, at the very least, to do our best not to trod them beneath our feet!

Of course, like so many things, this is far easier said than done. Even our best intentions can lead to outcomes we didn’t expect, and we touch the earth and those around us in so many ways that no amount of attention can render our passing completely harmless.

I was reminded of this as I was walking the Heron Rookery Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Park. (Yes, I’m still getting a big kick out of using its new name!) If you’ve never been, this is a beautiful three-mile out-and-back hike that follows the Little Calumet River through countless trees and wildflowers.

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A perfect morning in the newest national park!

Well, I must have been the first one on the trail this morning, because I hadn’t walked more than thirty feet when I passed through my first spider web. It ended up being the first of many, as the flowers and tall undergrowth started crowding the path.

I didn’t give it all that much thought; I just periodically brushed the stickier strands off my arms and face. Then a certain glint of sunlight reminded me that those webs don’t come from nowhere…

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Whoa! Almost didn’t see that metaphor!

The spider was about the size of a quarter, and it was just doing its thing, but I’m still glad I didn’t give it a ride on my hat.

After this encounter, of course I saw weavers everywhere, and all of the exquisite handiwork I had been blundering through all morning.

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Now that’s a project!

So there I was, doing my best to pay attention to where I was and what I was doing, and still I was destroying the patient, careful work of hours.

Sometimes we hurt others in spite of our best intentions. Maybe sometimes, like when the web happens to straddle the trail, it’s unavoidable. But our inevitable mistakes and failures (oh, being a father…) don’t make it less important to try, to do our best to avoid hurting others when we can.

It sure beats the alternative–focusing on ourselves so much that we mindlessly and cruelly cause harm:

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I’m not going to lie, this sort of thing really challenges my ability to feel charitably towards my fellow hikers. There are so many less destructive ways to proclaim one’s existence to the universe, or to preserve the immortal equation of “Rando+Tom.” I mean, write a blog or something!

So I’ll keep trying to pay attention as I go along my way, hiking the dunes, raising my sons, trying to be a good husband and father. And I’m sure I’ll still make mistakes, still blunder into spider-webs.

But I might also get the chance to take joy in the little things that would otherwise slip by unnoticed, like this:

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You’d be easy to miss! I’m glad I was paying attention.

And they are so worth the effort.

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Filed under Fatherhood, Indiana Dunes, Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized, Walt Whitman

Taking a Moment to Look Up

O ME! O LIFE!
O ME! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the
    foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I,
    and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the
    struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I
    see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me inter-
    twined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these,
O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Walt Whitman, “O Me! O Life!”
This morning, I sat at the breakfast table as usual, reading the news. And, as usual, I was withering under the onslaught of soul-crushing outrages and violations of my conscience.

 

Then I happened to look up, and I saw this out my back window:

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Just…wow.

If I had spent one more minute scrolling through the eighth version of the same terrible headline, I would have completely missed this buck’s visit.

To be honest, for the past two and a half years, I feel like I’ve been fighting a losing battle to pay attention to the world around me. Not that I haven’t been obsessed with the daily examples of dehumanizing rhetoric, short-sighted decisions, and casual cruelties that never seem to cease. In fact, I haven’t been able look away.

And I’ve written letters and made donations, made phone calls and attended marches, but…

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I
see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me inter-
twined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these,
O me, O life?
Too often I’ve felt like the speaker in the first half of Whitman’s poem, overwhelmed by what’s wrong in the world. It’s easy to forget that sometimes it’s enough that “life exists” and “the powerful play goes on.”

 

And if this powerful play of our world is often terrible, it can also often be beautiful. We just have to pay attention.

That doesn’t get us off the hook. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying to help others, or to make the world a better place for my sons, and for everyone else.

But it’s easier to do that if we look up once in awhile. After all, how else can we contribute our verse?

 

[By the way, I don’t live in the Rocky Mountains (I wish!) or somewhere out in the country. I’m in a suburb of northwest Indiana, right in the heart of steel country. If I can see such beauty out my window, who knows what you might see out yours?]

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Filed under Fatherhood, Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized, Walt Whitman

Persistence and Kindness

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-
work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of
sand, and the egg of the wren…
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 

This morning I was hiking in the Indiana Dunes when I was surprised by an unexpected object standing right in the middle of the sandy trail:

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Oh look! A metaphor!

Yep, it’s what it looks like: a mushroom.

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Ready for your close-up?

Is it odd that I found myself captivated by this perfectly shaped bit of fungus? Probably, but if so, I’m in pretty good company. Whitman famously used his poetry to lift up the ordinary, even the lowly, and proclaim that it was anything but. So many things seem remarkable if we just stop and pay attention.

What’s most remarkable to me about this little mushroom is that it was there at all. I mean, I know there are any number of biological explanations for how and why mushrooms grow in the sand, in spite of my ignorant assumptions about where you can usually expect to find them. (I think dank and dark, not dunes!)

But what strikes me is not only how it came to grow here on the trail in the first place, but how it has managed to persist. After all, how easily could it have been eaten? Or washed away? Or stepped on? I’m really happy to imagine other hikers like me coming upon this little thing–literally just fungus!–and treating it with care, gingerly stepping around it, and leaving it to continue growing in peace there in the sand. 

It’s great to be resilient, to persist in the face of adversity, but it sure helps when people are thoughtful, as well, and support our efforts.

And with a little persistence, and a little kindness, who knows how far we’ll climb?

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Yep, more mushrooms–reaching for the sky! Well, metaphorically speaking, that is.

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Filed under Indiana Dunes, Literature, Motivation, Poetry, Uncategorized, Walt Whitman

Lessons from the Marathon: Milestones Matter

My younger son and I are training together for his first half-marathon, and last week we logged our first ten-mile run. As the big day approached, I mentioned to him how far we would be running.

“Wow,” he said. “Double-digits.”

That hadn’t even occurred to me. I knew every run after seven miles was his longest ever, but I didn’t even think about the psychological difference hitting the ten-mile mark might make to him.

But once he said it, I remembered training for my first half-marathon. Somehow the difference between three and four, or even four and seven miles didn’t seem quite the same as the difference between nine miles and ten. Once you cross that ten-mile mark, you are doing something different, something special. The same was true for me the first time I hit mile twenty. There’s a switch that gets thrown, a moment of recognition of the magnitude of what you are doing.

After six marathons, I’d forgotten. Or at least I had stopped paying attention.

That was a mistake.

Sure, the race is the end goal—13.1 miles—and this particular run is just one step along the journey. But if we’re not careful, before we know it we’re crossing the finish line, and all of those moments along the way suddenly seem to have passed in a flash.

And yes, I am being metaphorical. As my sons get older, I stare at the marks on the doorframe showing how tall they have grown and wonder where the time has gone.

One of the benefits of distance running is that it can bring you fully into the present moment. The experience isn’t always pleasant, especially if your feet hurt, or your legs cramp, or…well, you get the picture.  But it pulls you away from your worries about the future or regrets about the past.  It is just you and the road, the sky.  Right now.

But another wonderful thing about running a half or a full marathon is the opportunity it provides for marking your progress, for marveling at how far you have come and, perhaps more dauntingly, how far you still have to go. You get the chance to take stock of where you are on your journey.

I am making this journey with my son as he trains for his first half-marathon, a rare opportunity that won’t come again.

This morning we ran eleven miles. It wasn’t easy. The course had several hills, and the wind was cold and brisk. It was his longest run ever, as they all are now.

I am noting it here because I don’t want to let a single moment, not even the tough ones, pass me by.

 

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Filed under Fatherhood, Marathon Training, Motivation, Running, Self-Improvement

Lessons from the Marathon: Patience

Almost a year ago, I started taking guitar lessons. This followed a short stint on the violin, and the highlight of that experience was playing a duet with my son at our recital. That was wonderful, but let me tell you, the violin is not an easy instrument to learn, and the payoff of playing something genuinely pleasant to listen to often seemed impossibly far away.

Not long after that recital, I also started playing my old guitar. When I realized that I could play the same song I spent three months learning on the violin after only three weeks of practice on the guitar, I made a strategic decision to cut bait and switch instruments.

After all, I’m not getting any younger.

As this story might suggest, patience is not one of my virtues. It isn’t easy for me to put up with the missed notes, the flubbed chord changes, the endless repetition of scales that come with learning a musical instrument.

I want to make music now.

This is only one of several areas of my life where I’ve failed to really learn the lessons of marathon training. Like many people, I used to say I could never run 26 miles. And I was right: I couldn’t run a marathon at that very moment. Running that far takes time. It takes training.

It takes patience.

Over the many weeks of preparation for my first marathon—the intervals, the long runs, the step-backs—I slowly learned that I could run that far. Eventually.

Sometimes my progress seemed dramatic, like the moment when I first ran ten miles. And sometimes it seemed impossibly slow, like the day I hobbled back to my car after having to walk the last three miles of a long run. Still, I kept at it, holding fast to the idea that, come race day, all of that preparation would pay off in the end.

And it did—I finished the race, even though I felt like I had been run over by a truck after hitting the wall at mile 18.

But I learned something else that warm fall day in Chicago:

There is no “end.” Sure, there’s a finish line, a medal, a “chip-time” and a “gun-time.” And maybe if my goal really had simply been to run a marathon, I could have checked the box and moved on with my life. But I wanted more: I wanted to test myself, to expand my limits, to see where my thoughts and my feet might take me.

And that meant I had to keep running.

This is what I am trying to remember when it comes to music. When it comes to writing. When it comes to being a father and a husband. I’m never simply going to “get it,” draw a line under it and nod my head in satisfaction.

Because there is always more to learn, and this is what makes life so amazing.  It doesn’t matter if I miss a note here or there.  (Ok, more than one.)

I just need to be a little more patient.

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So much to learn…

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Fatherhood, Guitar, Marathon Training, Motivation, Running, Self-Improvement, Uncategorized, Violin Lessons, Writing

First You Have to Run the Race

On Sunday, I ran a 5k with one of my sons. We weren’t trying to place, or set new PRs; I needed to run the race as part of a regional series I joined, and it coincided with one of our half-marathon training runs. We went the distance, holding to our 10:30 pace, and then kept going for six more miles.

Just checking another box.

So you can imagine our surprise when we learned that my son finished second in his age group.

“Way to go!” I told him.

He looked at the results and then shrugged. “Well, there were only two of us,” he answered.

He said the same thing the next day when we went to the Extra Mile running store to pick up his medal. (We had missed the awards ceremony, opting instead to continue pounding out our miles on the trail.)

“That doesn’t matter,” I insisted. “You finished a 5k. Out of all of the other runners in the race, there was only one other boy your age. That’s amazing!”

“Yeah,” he said.

I’m not sure he believed me.

This isn’t surprising, and not simply because both of my sons are reaching that age when whatever dad says is taken with a hefty grain of salt.  (I can barely keep up with Internet memes, so what do I know?)

After all, how often do we immediately downplay our accomplishments, or measure ourselves against an impossible benchmark, or lose sight of the big picture? Rather than focus on what we’ve achieved, we quickly shift our attention to what’s still left undone, or what we could have done better—anything other than finding contentment in what is.

It’s easy to respond to this impulse with platitudes, and I’m afraid that’s exactly what I did with my son. “Remember,” I said, thinking of a motivational quotation I once saw in a running magazine, “you beat every runner who spent the morning on the couch.”

This is true, of course, but as with most platitudes, its truth risks getting lost in its simplicity. After all, people still mock participation ribbons with abandon. We may say it’s how you play the game, but really, everyone knows it’s whether you win or lose.

But marathoners know this is a mistake. Sometimes what matters most really is just showing up.  Going the distance. Seeing the race through. If we don’t do that, if we never toe up to the starting line, it’s not the medals that we miss.

They usually end up in a drawer, anyway.

It’s the rich experience of life itself, the friendships we make, the sunrises and sunsets we see, the painful setbacks we face, and yes, sometimes, even the surprising triumphs.

All of these things wait for us. They wait for my sons.

But first you have to run the race.

Another medal for the drawer. What I will always remember is running next to my son.

 

 

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Filed under Fatherhood, Marathon Training, Motivation, Running, Self-Improvement

When Winning Isn’t the Point

I started running about ten years ago, and it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking of the sport as a way to stay healthy, or to clear my head, or to spend more quality time outside.

Running is all of these things, of course, but after my first race, I started to think of it primarily in terms of goals. Instead of focusing on what I was gaining from running, I focused on what I still had to achieve. I wanted to run faster, and farther. I wanted to win medals when I raced (if only in my age group), rather than simply finish.

Come to think of it, many of my blogposts on the subject explore this dichotomy between my general love of running and my pursuit of objectives—the sub-four hour marathon, for example.

And honestly, these ambitions are a big part of what I find rewarding about the sport. Goals motivate me. Like many runners I know, I enjoy training and seeing improvement. So often our success or failure seems to depend on many factors beyond our control—this is certainly a reality I have wrestled with lately when it comes to writing, as the rejections pile up—and it’s nice to have one area of my life mostly dependent on my own hard work. I may not always finish in the top five of the forty…somethings, but if I train hard, I can generally match or beat my previous best time.

It’s up to me.

This inner drive to push myself to the limit was on my mind when I lined up for Rusty’s Run, a 5k, this past Sunday. This was my second race of the season, and, although I hadn’t trained hard, I managed a third-place finish in my first. I wanted to run my best race and see what happened.

But I couldn’t. Because I wasn’t alone.

My younger son has committed to running a half-marathon. He came to this determination completely on his own when making New Year’s resolutions, and I committed to training with him. Every weekend for the past two months, he and I have rolled out of bed early to log our long runs.

So, while I was committed to participating in this race as part of a regional series I joined, it was only the beginning of nine miles we had to run that day. If I raced it hard, I would never last the remaining six miles.

When the starting horn blew, then, he and I set out at our usual pace, carefully budgeting our energy for the long run ahead of us. When other runners passed us by, I fought the urge to go faster.

I’m not going to lie to you. It was weird.

But it was also kind of wonderful. The race was an out-and-back, and I actually had the energy to smile and wave to people. When I crossed the finish line, I wasn’t immediately bent over double, gasping for breath.

But best of all, I was running side-by-side with my son during the longest run of his young life. We didn’t talk much, and, when we did, it was about when to eat our gels, or when to get a drink, about how far we had come and how far we had to go.

You know, the things distance runners talk about sometimes.

There were no medals, and no p.r., but that wasn’t the point. Really, it’s never the point, although that can be hard to remember.

It’s joy, pure and simple. And for now, it’s the joy and the privilege of taking this journey with my son.

Our race is in early May. Our goal is to finish. I can hardly wait.

Ready for our first training run: a balmy seven degrees!

 

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Filed under Fatherhood, Marathon Training, Motivation, Running, Self-Improvement, Writing