One of the most valuable things about having Paul Heilker here with us was his presence in the room when we discussed his essays. I learned more on the days we read his pieces than at any other time in class, and I think it was because we were allowed to see in real time how an author’s experience influences his style. Most of the other articles we read were theoretical discussions of language and culture, where Dr. Heilker’s essays were actual implementations of the theories we were studying. In writing, students are told to show, not tell. I feel as if the same adage applies to teaching, especially to teaching language. Demonstrating a concept is far more engaging than lecturing on it (think back to your high school chemistry classes).
Though I have written many essays in my career as a student, I have never been able to see them as quite the tool that Dr. Heilker has demonstrated them to be. When responding to his essays, I found myself wanting less to comment on what I read and more to take what he wrote and experiment with making elements of it my own. In my post last week, I mentioned his essay On Running (relevant information from that post has now been moved to this one), in which he addresses the multiple and conflicting answers to the question “Why am I (still) running?”. My written response to On Running, in which I explored my own feelings toward the sport, revealed to me things I had never known about myself. I set out to write a counterpoint to Heilker’s essay, a detailed explanation of my deep-seated and categorical dislike of running. But I found I was unable to write anything like that because it wasn’t the truth. I discovered, after several drafts, that I love to run. I just hate running—in circles, around a track, against a clock. I run in the moment and on my own time, and I had never been able to express this about myself until I slowed my thought process enough to actually think.
I run because I just hit the ball so far that Kevin-in-the-outfield has to stop shredding bits of clover and pay attention. The metal bat I’m not supposed to throw clangs on the ground behind me. My new shoes crunch in the sand. I run because I have to get there before they throw the ball. I run because I know I am faster than the boys. I run because I know my father is watching me through the fence.
I run because there isn’t enough wind for the kite and I don’t want to listen to my parents telling me it’s impossible and we’ll have to go home. I am standing in the fields at Ahsurst Elementary at the top of the tallest hill in town. I wrap the spool up tight, give a determined look to the blue canvass fish on the grass, and take off. I run because I can feel the tug of the line, the ripple of the wind through the string in my hand, the force of it burning my palm, the sharp air catching fire in my lungs, but I don’t stop because I can see the shadow of the fish flying along beside me.
I run because my dog looks at me like the entire earth is calling his name and I’m keeping him from it. We are in the woods on a spring day after school. The rain of last night’s storm is still trickling through the thick canopy, the heat of today’s sun turning it into a fragrance I will carry home in my hair and in the fabric of my clothes. The light is filtered gold. There is nothing here but the tremble of dripping leaves and the rush of the rain-swollen creek pounding against the rocks. So I do something illegal. I wrestle the prancing dog to my side, fumble for his collar, and unhook the leash. He takes off down the path, barking at nothing, paws beating against the dead leaves. I run because I can feel the pull of the heat of the trees in the air and the rumble of the creek in my feet and it wells in my chest until I have to move, have to chase after the dog that heard the call first.
I run because I’m on the cross country team. We run in packs around the baseball fields and the elementary school and the old folks’ home. We avoid the woods because there is a Pittbull loose. (Max swears he’s seen it. Patrick swears “Pittbull” is a euphemism for baseball players smoking pot). We run in long circles, our feet thumping on the pavement and the grass and the mud until Ashley’s watch tells us we can stop and go back to the track to run in smaller circles and walk over hurdles and stretch our hamstrings. My throat aches and my eyes stream and I can’t breathe. We run until the sky goes black and blue and all I want to do is go home and sleep, but when I finally get home what I do is snap at my mother, ignore everyone at dinner, bury myself in my history book, and remain there until the early hours of the morning. I shower in semi-consciousness and dream about dropping a hammer on my foot and skipping tomorrow’s practice to study Moh’s hardness scale. I run because I have to.
I run because the gun goes off. It is rainy and cold, but I can’t feel anything except the thrumming of adrenaline in my chest. The thick wall of runners dissipates as we reach the path through the woods. The spikes on my shoes chink against the small stones and roots and, for a moment, I am alone with the damp leaves and the sound of my burning lungs. Then the trees end and I emerge onto a road lined with spectators. They chant things I don’t understand, but the sound fills my head and I let the momentum carry me down the hill. The race fades into a rhythm of breathing and movement. I round a corner and a teammate yells at me from the sidelines: you’re nearly done. My feet, dead weights swinging of their own accord, suddenly tingle with feeling again. I begin to run, my vision blurring, the people in front of me suddenly at my side, then behind me. The clock looms ahead. An opening appears. I run because I can see the finish line.
I run because I haven’t in a while. I left the cross country team with a sprained ankle in my second year and never returned. The dog with the spark in his eyes acquired a lump in his hip and never recovered. I moved away to college and when I came back for the summer I realized the impossibility of ever coming home again. But now I am standing on the firm, wet sand of the beach where I have spent every birthday since I was ten years old. The waves, silky and thin, brush against my feet as the same wind whips the same hair into my eyes. I take a breath that is never deep enough and feel the salt of the air in my nose and on my tongue as I try to hold it inside me for as long as possible. The sun is warm on the backs of my hands. The seagulls screech over the muted sounds of my father and sisters playing out in the calm between the breakers. My mother reads under the brim of her straw hat, the umbrella long since having given out. I look at the sand and the water stretching into forever and feel the glow of the universe welling up once more. I take another breath and on the exhale I race the wind down the beach, the fastest I have ever gone, and I think maybe I can find the edge of the world, where everything is one infinite moment. I run because, in that moment, can’t stop.