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Graduate Lesson #5: Taught by Kris

In my teens, I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet.

“Love the questions,” he said.

Finish Line

Finish Line

As a High School student at the time, I had thousands of questions. It never occurred to me to love them:

[Would I get into a good college? How might I feel more confident? Why must I memorize the periodic table of elements?]

These things were not inherently lovable…

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves like unlocked doors, or books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you, because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question, and perhaps gradually, without even noticing it, you will find yourself experiencing the answer some distant day.”

I had no idea what “living questions” meant, but it seemed far more lovely than pervasive searching.

***

F***, I texted Kris.

Even in my fatigue, I took time to send her a picture of my disdain– the 15th street bridge— a steep half-mile climb I was about to run…

UP.

The Hill
The Hill

This was me at mile eleven of the Austin Half Marathon last month. I had been training since November, and I was proud… REALLY proud  of myself. Yes, I suppose I was proud to say I could run thirteen miles, but more than that, I was proud of my mind. Before training for the Austin Half– motivational slogans [The body can achieve what the mind can conceive... woohoo!!] were vague (and incredibly annoying).

Yet putting one foot in front of the other for hourS, (I can still hardly believe the plural) gave me practical experience in the power of my mind. I began going through important mental rituals: positive affirmations, strong music with a good beat, and visualizing myself in a happy place (conjuring memories of Adam Sandler movies).

I learned my mental state was everything. On days when I was thinking powerfully, I ran ten miles. I days when I was negative, I could barely squeak out three. As the miles and mental practice added up, I began to notice I was able to watch my mind and create my mood as I ran. Up until race training, this was something Buddhists and yogis did… not me.

***

Rounding the corner of mile eleven to see that hill, pushed me into an odd threshold. It was like standing in front of the closet doors of my mind, deciding which mental outfit to wear for the remainder of the race:

Hmmmm…. strong or tired?

It’s a weird feeling to see two different thoughts bubble up in your mind– and to see them both clearly like pairs of pants in a closet. Which one to pick? I certainly could rally, that I was sure of, yet giving in to fatigue seemed like a familiar friend– the outfit I had worn for so long, I knew it would fit. This was where I found myself as I texted expletives to my friend.

Kris’ call interrupted Beyonce’s feminist chanting. I punched the answer button as I began climbing the hill. Her calm, certain voice came through my ear buds— the voice of someone who has grown up training for individual and team sports– who knows exactly what a mile 11 hill feels like.

“Girl you’re almost there. At the top of the hill is one more mile and then you’re done. You can do it! Don’t stop. Shorten your stride. Keep breathing.”

I think I gasped something semi-intelligible, and hung up. Beyonce came back… <“Who run the world— GIRLS!”>

As I cleared the end of the hill, a text chimed:

“Push it to the end. 10 more minutes. Water at 12. Everything you have on that last mile.”

***

One of my favorite quotes about teaching:

“You teach more with who you are, than what you say or do.” — Parker Palmer

This is Kris. Kris has an incredibly inspiring belief about people. She does not believe people can be strong. She truly believes people already are, and for whatever reason do not believe it, or have simply forgotten. Whether we’re chatting about relationships, classwork, or working out, Kris just doesn’t believe me when I tell her I can’t do something.

“It’s one push up. You can do one.”


“Um, no I really don’t think I can,” I said hands planted on a wall of stone at the top of Mount Bonnell, one afternoon. I absolutely did not think I could do one.

“Yes,” was the reply.

Not “yes” as in a word. “Yes” as in belief.

And so I did a push up. And then many more.

And then three months later, thirteen freaking miles.

***

I ran the last mile of the Half in ten minutes– finishing in 2 hours and 31 minutes– a mere one minute beyond my goal.

“You ran thirteen point one miles,” reminded Kris after reading the draft for this post. “That point one is huge. Annnnd 2 hours and 31 minutes is not slow.

I smiled, and agreed to take that part out. Even in a blog post, our dynamic remains.

When I first met Kris, I didn’t think of her as a teacher. I didn’t even think we would be friends.

She is eight years younger than me. She played on a semi-pro soccer team, teaches bootcamps, is a die-hard Lakers fan, laughs all the time, and has a perpetual southern California tan. Compared to my fair, Mid-western complexion, bookish propensity, and disdain for pro-sports she seemed like my complete opposite, and admittedly I was intimidated by her. I didn’t think we would have much to talk about…

And so for the first year of grad school we didn’t.

***

“Can 31 year olds play beer pong?” I wondered as we filed into a friend’s garage last May. It was the culmination of finals week— and like a good college student I found myself at a house party for the first time in five years. Elementary art teachers don’t usually find themselves at beer pong tables.

I ended up on Kris’ team… a far more appropriate game for her at age 23. I must have told myself a few mantras like “age is just a number” and picked up a ping-pong ball.

And so it was, a game of beer pong commenced one of the unlikeliest, and yet closest friendships I’ve had in a long time.

It turned out, Kris and I were far more alike than different. We geek out on art, study over coffee, and philosophize on life while drinking wine. Our circles of friends melded into one— and one day I realized a family of strong, intelligent, supportive women surrounded me. ["Never judge a book by it's cover."] Another vague bit of advice that becomes all the more relevant when you live the answer.

***

On the way home, stuck in race traffic on 45th– it occurred to me how amazing this was. I just ran THIRTEEN MILES! How had this happened? Kris rolled down her window and began cheering at the top of her lungs for the full marathon runners chugging by at their mile 24 mark.

“You are AMAZING!! Two more miles! Two more miles!” she yelled.

Oh right, I smiled.

After the Half, Kris made brunch for friends and I. It was quintessential Austin fare: everyone laughed and conversed over gluten-free pancakes and soy-sage. I was too tired to contribute much in the way of conversation, and rapidly escalating fatigue began blanketed my mind.

As I crawled into bed for a nap that afternoon, I pulled out a high school journal. Perhaps instinctively I knew what I would find there, but it was happy surprise nonetheless. There on my very first bucket list– before I even knew what a bucket list was– were the word “run a mile.” My mind drifted back to High School Phys. Ed. I had dreaded the mile runs. I could barely conceive running four consecutive laps on the track. I crossed it off with a big goofy grin [check], and flipped the page.

There was the Rainer Maria Rilke quote—dated March 1998:

“… perhaps gradually you will find yourself experiencing the answer some distant day.”

At the end of the post, next to the words “distant day” I wrote:

February 19, 2012

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March 29, 2012 | | Comments are closed for this post
photo of Rebecca