Drive-by Derision

I was winding my way down the Iron Horse Trail, on a Friday afternoon jog, when a gentleman on a bicycle encountered me while I rejoined the trail after a brief shortcut. I was deep in thought, as I am wont to do in the middle of a run, when I heard him say to me “I don’t care much for Laurier, a snotty school.” It took me a few steps to process what had just transpired, then I remembered that I was wearing my “Laurier – 1911” t-shirt. It was a shirt celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school, which began as The Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada, which after various iterations, became provincialized as Wilfrid Laurier University in 1973. I now work at Martin Luther University College, the inheritor of the mantle of the original school, now a federated college of Laurier.

I hadn’t given any thought to which t-shirt I was wearing until this drive-by derisive comment. As I continued my run, I wondered about this anonymous aside. Would this fellow had said this to me if we had encountered one another walking on the street, or on the bus? And what precipitated this comment? Had he been refused entrance to a program? Did he have a boss whom he despised, who had graduated from Laurier?

I was intrigued by his interest in telling me his opinion. There was, of course, no time for a response of any kind. We were travelling in opposite directions and he was moving quite quickly on a bicycle. I wondered: How many people out there are looking for an opportunity to anonymously set someone straight on what’s what? Does he have a wrath-reaction every time he sees “Laurier”? So many questions, with no answers…

One of the wise, and recurring, bits of wisdom I have heard during Covid has been a reminder that none of us knows what kind of trials people are burdened with – bubbling below the surface. We usually don’t know the contexts of peoples’ comments. People can be a bit like icebergs, it seems, with a grimace on their face being but a sliver of a sore festering below the surface. And all it takes is the right trigger in the right context.

Of course, this person’s experience of Laurier is as a valid as those who claim that Laurier is warm and welcoming, as are that of people who have experienced the school in both ways. The interaction was a curious experience, and my lament is that it provided no opportunity to speak to the person about his experience. That would be helpful, for him and me both I think. Authentic relationships emerge when we share our stories with one another. Tales tie us together and that is why sacred scriptures are awash with narrative. Narrative draw us into one another’s lives, including the life of God.

In a way, the interaction was a missed opportunity. But then again, it afforded me the occasion to think about how I might trigger people’s feelings with something as a simple as a t-shirt. Of course, that same t-shirt might evoke the comment: “I love Laurier, the people there really care!” I have heard this said of both Laurier and Luther. I just haven’t heard them as drive-by accolades. But I live in hope.

The Chime of My Heart

Jogging, today, I overshot
the Victoria Park Island
footbridge.

The sight of the Boat House
Restaurant arrested me. After
a quick U-turn I was back on track
but wondered:

Was it the bald trees that muddled me?
Or
Was I hypnotized by the
tick-tock of my feet, or the
pendulum of my breath, or the
chime of my heart?


I was running in that place where the
need to let go of things that
need me to let go of them held sway.

I made my way over the bridge and
wound round the park. Now
back in myself, I saw a goose wink at me:
slipping through a park is not only
prayer, it is also life and breath.

The Gift that Life is

Today I ran my first race since I was in high school, some 40 years ago. It was the 10 km MEC Trail Race at the Laurel Creek Conservation Area in Waterloo, ON. It isn’t the case that this is my first foray into running since high school since I have been a regular runner most of my life. I have always enjoyed jogging and tell people that running is meditative for me, giving me space to settle into my soul and enter into a kind of harmony with all about me. I experience running as prayer on legs.

So, why would I turn something seemingly sacred and scar it with competition and such? I can’t really say that I did this because I was hungry for a running community, although in this short venture into a competitive event revealed how people connect through a shared experience. I can’t really say I did this because I needed a goal to motivate my daily running. Running is a kind of gift onto itself for me, and so I have no need of external motivation to run. I can’t really say I did this because I have my eyes on qualifying for anything since I have no dreams of grandeur. Why then? There is something about a competition that invites one to transcend the self with others. In fact, the etymology of the word “compete” suggests that it means to seek, or go after (petere) with (com) others. In the company of others, I struggle with myself to become something more. The bible uses this motif to get at the life of faith when the author to Hebrews writes:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1,2 NRSV

Interestingly, the word for “race” in the Greek text is agon; sometimes translated as race, and at other times as contest, struggle etc. The word agon makes its way into English in the word agony. Agony, then, is a kind of contest in which we have occasion to try to find a way to best ourselves. But besting ourselves for the sake of bettering ourselves sometimes calls for others to aid us. I found that to be true this morning as my fellow racers prodded me to run a little harder, to be in the moment a little more clearly, and to breathe deeply into the joy of moving. Bettering ourselves isn’t only about shaving seconds off a lap time, but also about seeing movement, and breath, and oxygen as pure gift.

I find running to be an experience of transcendence. I suspect others find other activities with like consequence. This morning I found racing to be an experience of sacred agony. I suspect other have other ways into this holy gift. In either event, “laying aside every weight” is a call to lean into the moment with clarity, and conviction, and amazement at the gift that life is.

Running Like a Fish

It has been an unusually mild winter in our parts – not much snow nor sun. These winters are utterly unlike those I remember as a child. This isn’t altogether surprising since I lived far west and north of my current location: now Southwestern Ontario, and then Central Alberta. I miss the sun but not the cold, although I find the weather feels warmer when there is snow on the ground.

While I haven’t been so fond of the weather, the upside is that it has made running outside quite easy. I have done a number of longer runs over the last little while, all around 10 km. My run starts with a bit of an uphill climb for the first 5 minutes or so. If you were to drive my pathway, you would have no idea that the path is uphill. In fact, when walking I would only attend to the grade for the last 100 metres or so of the first 500 metres. But running, like cycling, makes one intensely aware of grade, and wind, and temperature.

My pathway mostly involves a hiking/running path. It is well protected, which is nice when the predominantly northwest winds are blowing hard. The run is largely uphill on the way to my 5 km turn around. The trip home tends to be downhill, with the wind behind me most days. The trip home seems to be the part of the run where I manage to experience the “runner’s high.” This makes the run doubly rich.

The euphoria of these moments – not experienced with every run – are really quite remarkable, and give a kind of gravitas to the idea that the journey is the destination. The race itself is the prize, it seems. Many times, as I’ve run, I’ve thought about the marvel of being able to move, something I most often take for granted. When I’m in the right head and heart space, it strikes me as an utter marvel that I can slip across physical space like a fish through water. As I do so, I feel badly for people in cars, too often seemingly stressed and sometimes racing to make lights etc. When my lungs and legs are in harmony, my spirit soars and I have no desire to give up that feeling of being alive for the comfort of the car.

Last week I was speaking with a senior friend at church who ran regularly throughout his adult life. He spoke eloquently of the joy of the sport. He, unlike me, ran competitively. I have not run in a race proper since I was a youngster. One day I might try it again, but for now I revel in the experience of knowing that my knees can still sustain my joy, and my heart can yet propel a hope that humanity will find the collective will to ensure that the air for all is fresh.

My friend no longer runs but he remains an avid walker. One day my running days will be over, but as long as I’m able, I keep on the move, thankful for movement in whatever way I can manage – recalling all the while that it in God that we live and move and have our being.

Public and Private Transit

I generally exercise at the Athletic Centre at the university where I work. I find fitness breaks really need to be convenient, or they are quickly sidelined by this pressing need or that persistent email. Having a gym ready at hand is so very helpful. An added bonus is that my weekday runs are on a treadmill, which I understand to be easier on the knees.

On the weekends, however, I like to do an outside run. It is really a rather different experience in that I use some alternate muscles when running on the ground. Yet other important differences obtain. I have to pay more attention as I run. Traffic patterns, and sidewalk and road hazards warrant attention, as well as the especial need to negotiate people who are travelling in the same direction as me.

Last Saturday I was running down Weber Street, and crossed Franklin, at which point I usually turn left and run a couple of blocks before ducking into a cemetery, a soothing stretch in my run. As I ran toward my intersection, I saw the light go green in my favour, with a walk light to boot. I looked ahead and saw a woman in the right (turning) lane coming toward me. I have learned that you want to ensure you make eye contact in such cases. She saw me, and I kept an eye on her as I sprinted across the street. She glared at me. I suspect it was because I was slowing down her turn. Unfortunately, I understand her impatience. I experience it when I drive.

There is something about getting in a car that ratchets up my hurry-up gene. I have told colleagues that when I drive to work, I arrive with my shoulders tight, my brain a little frazzled, and my blood pressure seemingly raised. But when I catch a ride, take the bus, or walk I arrive relaxed and ready to begin (or end) the day with more equanimity. I experience myself differently in a vehicle. I am often uptight, anxious and impatient – having experienced anything and everything in my way as a hazard and/or an annoyance. In the middle of winter, when I have to wait for pedestrians, I have to remind myself that I am safely ensconced in a few thousand pounds of protection that is temperature controlled, and the poor shmuck on the street is navigating puddles, or snow-banks, or howling winds with a few layers of protection. I have to remind myself that I can afford to take a deep breath and show a little kindness.

There have been news stories this last while about sidewalk-free neighbourhoods protesting the planned implementation of walk-friendly streets. At one level, I can understand this. Walkers can be erratic, and some are even in-your-face bold. But a refusal to address the fact that most of us will one day necessarily need to be able to walk to public transport seems naïve at best, and willfully belligerent at worst. This refusal, at a deeper level, bespeaks a deliberate rejection of empathy; an unwillingness to experience the street in the shoes of people on the street; knowing what it means to be the little guy in the fight.

Drivers, it might be said, are an individual manifestation of the cult of efficiency run amok. The person before me no longer represents a relationship to be negotiated, but a problem to be solved. Of course, I am really transferring my shallowness and impatience onto other drivers, whom I only know from a glance or two (or worse yet from no glances) in my direction. For all I know, their driving might be attributed to a hard hospital visit, or a troubling performance review, or a fight with their partner, etc. But then again, such factors are really an argument in favour of a broader access to public transit – an argument, alas, which may well fall on deaf ears since many of us, I think, prefer the private character of our cars to the “public” of public transit.

I suppose both the private car and the public transit represent seemingly innocent answers to the innocent question: how do we get around? But we cannot afford to ignore that this seemingly benign question is sometimes answered in a malign modality that shape us in ways unaware. At the end of the day, cars more often than not enforce a self-enclosed subject who engages his or her surroundings via the mediating power of a car, while a walker or jogger, or such has a more intimate relationship with her or his environs.

There may be a life lesson in this. I’ll leave that to others, but I want to make the simple observation that no one can opine on this increasing question with impunity. We all have some skin in the game. I, for the sake of the environment – which includes me, look forward to the day when buses and streetcars outnumber cars on our roads. In the interim, I’ll try hard to smile at passing motorists, and patiently wave walkers across the road.

Jogging Past

My Saturday afternoon routine generally involves a midday run followed by herring on heavy dark bread that I make myself. Akvavit and/or beer aid the digestive process. I look forward to Saturdays. This little routine sets this day apart from others and the lunch serves as a nice crown to the jog. This last Saturday was one of those odd days when it was the run rather than the lunch that stuck out.

We had some snow this last week, and so my run meant negotiating sidewalks that haven’t been cleared, people walking their dogs, and folk forging forward in the direction I run. In more clement weather, these latter are no problem. I simply slide from sidewalk to lawn, or perhaps the street and sneak by without their knowing. When the lawns are full of snow, it isn’t so easy and so I try to slip around them while staying on the beaten path. This is more difficult than one would imagine, because people gravitate to the center of the sidewalk when they don’t see anyone coming toward them. There isn’t, then, much room for passing. As I slither past them, I give often give them a fright. Sometimes I try to make noise before I arrive, but that too shocks them. I feel bad about this. But this last Saturday it got me thinking.

When we walk, we tend to anticipate meeting people in front of us. It is as if we imagine the future before us, and the past behind us; and it is really the future we need to look out for. But my running reminds me that sometimes it is the past that sneaks up on us. We often imagine that the past is spent, but as Faulkner notes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun) This invites us to walk differently. Treading softly we hear the ever present past; seeing peripherally we discern history’s advance; being aware we develop that sixth sense – the ways of the wise in our midst who have learned to anticipate the unexpected, to dance with a ghost.

But perhaps I have made too much of a jog. After all, all of this is but a trope. Yet tropes too have truck with truth. At the very least, it gave me something to chew on after lunch, which I washed down with a nice cup of black coffee, warming and fortifying me for an afternoon with books theological.