Sunday, February 23, 2014

Paths Chosen

When running in my woods, I sometimes wonder why a path rarely taken seems more dangerous than a path I have run hundreds of times. Are the mountain lions and creeps more likely to lurk on a path just because I don't use it regularly? Is it because I do not know every detail of its switchbacks, roots and shadowy sections?

Do not worry, I will not be quoting Frost here. I have been thinking a lot lately about life choices, though. For one thing, I have three teenagers, and they are getting to that point where their choices can make a real difference. I fear they look at me, ragged with so much work, and wonder what the point of excelling might be. I push myself hard, and that has just always been my personality. But now that I have arrived (family I love, a nest we built, a career that matters), I feel unsettled. I am sure they notice this. I think kids with parents who are still struggling just to get by have more motivation to do well in the world. Kids who have grown up in a comfortable nest with a constantly fretting mother bird probably wonder if such a nest is worth all the fuss.

I actually love medicine. I despise our healthcare system. I think a lot of what we do is dubious at best, and harmful at worst. But the act of being a healer--that is right livelihood. Over the years since I finished my training, I have had multiple job offers to change my path, even to move away from the cherished nest. Each time, I have pulled back and gathered my chicks to me. I hate change.

Not running has pushed me to look change in the eye. That is, months of barely having the energy to do what I love: run, see my kids, play piano, cook a meal, shove my hands into my garden's dirt, these things are part of right living. And right livelihood without right living is a German-Irish-English-Lutheran-Buddhist-wanna-be-girl-from-the-midwest's worst nightmare. My Dad, who died fifteen years ago today, said many things to me in his last days. One of them was: make the word a better place than you found it. He was serious about this. But he also was a man who met each day (literally) with a song. Which, as a teenager I found highly annoying. But now as an adult I see it as the miracle it was.

Recently, I saw a friend/patient have a stroke. I see this often, strokes. Heart attacks. Cancer. Bad infections. Horrible accidents. What struck me about this particular stroke though, was the mixture of love, strength and laughter that surrounded this person. And emanated from this person. I've witnessed this before, like with my cousin (now gone a year). A few other patients here and there. My parents.
When you see this, or experience it, you are forced to consider what matters.

For my teenagers in the nest: what matters is loving others and making the world a better place. Also carving out time to enjoy the gifts of life. It is not always easy or fun, but it should never be a constant struggle. When your path feels toxic, change it. The firm hand of familiarity is not necessarily the best guide though life.

Dear inner hospitalist, I am not exactly abandoning you. But in 48 days I will be shoving you aside to try something new as a healer. I have sometimes enjoyed our time in the trenches. But being a pacifist, I am tired of having to use war analogies every time I put on my white coat. I think the hospital will miss you, but then again it might forget about you instantly and find another hospitalist to lure with its adrenaline highs and doctor's lounge donut lows. Its been a crazy ride. Love you.

But now, I gotta' run.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why Marathons Matter

"I didn't go out looking for negative characters; I went out looking for people who have a struggle and a fight to tackle. That's what interests me."
-Philip Seymour Hoffman

Training for a marathon is about paying attention to yourself. It presses you into a small, pure space in your body and mind that can be otherwise lost in a world of sedentary living and shocking headlines. Though your training is expansive, this space is focused. It demands your whole presence. It feeds you with endorphins, it settles inner debates about what matters, it tightens your ass for your favorite pair of jeans. It is existential and physiological. It fills you with delusions of grandeur and a mundane sense of having something important to do. It is painted in colors of pleasure and pain. When everything else is uncertain, I like to go to this space.

I could easily substitute "heroin" or a multitude of other evil things for "training for a marathon"in that paragraph. Heroin took the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman today.

I do not think marathon training is like addiction though. True, endorphins are nice. And the fitting into jeans can be good too, though superficial of course. But really what marathons represent is tackling something difficult that also gives pleasure and purpose to what for most of us is an unfocused existence. Or perhaps an existence focused on things that make us feel toxic and ungrounded.

Today I took a traditional Sunday long run with a friend who is faster than I. My role in this was tortoise to his hare. His role, I suppose, was to make me a faster marathoner.

I do wonder though, with all the swirling hullabaloo surrounding life as a parent of teenagers and a doctor of patients, if marathon training is sensible. Why not just run 6 miles a few times a week and leave it at that? I have certainly had that question posed to me many a time. Is there not struggle enough?

People need a focused space for healing, gratitude, escape, wonderment, and for paying complete attention to the body and soul they possess. At least I do. I have found that in other places besides marathon preparation. Being on the outside, sitting on a surfboard, waiting. Getting completely dissolved into the playing of music. Sex, of course. And birthing.

What is different about marathons is the process of preparation. If wise, you are given a four month task with something assigned each day. Life will try to derail you, but in the process you learn to listen to what your body needs and you learn to love the very act of that listening. So, it is not actually an escape, or a delusion. It is not an opiate to the spandex enwrapped masses. It is a struggle. It is the key to your own heart's contentment. It is as mundane as bread and butter. It is a way out of the darkness.