Here's me and my Goddaughter on Saturday. She's showing off the stains that she got while climbing a pine tree in her yard. The tree-climbing thing? Yeah, she got that from me.
To say that I get a warm feeling at the thought of her climbing trees seems inadequate. "Warmth" doesn't come close to articulating the electric tingle that surges through me as a see my childhood echoing in her. Yet even that pales in comparison to how I felt on Sunday.
I invited my Goddaughter to join me on a run, and she enthusiastically accepted. As she led me around her neighborhood, I observed her form. I asked her if she'd had any instruction in running, and was amazed to hear that she hadn't. From her fingers to her toes, I see things she's doing and, more importantly, things she's not doing, that tell me she's a natural. She's got a strong foundation, and I'm thrilled at the potential I see in her.
On the way back she talked about her running, and she said something so familiar that it was like a bell ringing in my head: "...I can't keep up..." The way she phrased it, I assumed she meant that she'd been out running with a group, and couldn't keep up with them. When I asked her about it, I found out that's not what she meant. She wasn't referring to any group runs. She simply felt that, when she ran by herself, she couldn't keep her speed up.
Is there a word for "hilarity" that carries a deep undercurrent of empathy? There should be. That's what I felt when I heard this. Her childhood was nothing like mine, yet the way she compared herself unfavorably to some imagined benchmark was instantly and deeply familiar. There was no one telling her she wasn't running fast enough. No one but her.
I told her about the decades I spent feeling like I was too slow, too this, too that. I told her how I finally learned to relax, let go of my expectations, and give myself the room to explore. I struggled to articulate the paradox of finding my speed and stamina only after I stopped looking for it.
As soon as I got her home, I went out again to get in my weekend distance run. As I ran, I thought about what I'd attempted to convey to my Goddaughter, and how to distill it down to something pithy. Suddenly a new aphorism popped into my head: "Come at running with a feeling of exploration, not expectation." That's good. I'm going to start using that with the young people I run with.
I've expended a lot of thought on that distillation process, but it's easy compared to articulating the joy I feel when I share running with the young people in my life. That's because I'm not just nurturing the next generation. I'm reaching back to the younger me and healing us both.
Forty years ago there was an obese little kid who was already busy constructing the sort of expectations my Goddaughter voiced. He was telling himself what he was, what he was not and what he would never be. He was furiously carving the lavish filigree of his own limitations.
I spent half a lifetime hating my body, which was unfair because nothing about my situation was my body's fault. I was the one shoveling food into it. Only during the last few years have I cultivated a collaborative relationship with my body. And as magnificent and rewarding as all that work feels, the greatest part of it all is sharing it with a young person.
When I was a kid, I couldn't see the bars of the prison I'd built around me. And now I get to take all that pain and turn it around. I get to make something positive out of it. I get to show my nephew and my niece and my Goddaughter that there are other ways to be: that we're always capable of more growth than we imagine. I get to present to them options I didn't have.
And as I reach out to them, I get to reach back. I get not only to reconcile with the young me, but to cherish and comfort him. When I run with a young person, I feel like I'm saying to that young me "Hey, you know what? We turned out OK."