moving through walking

Trump made me run again.

The day after the election, the sun shown almost too brightly. It was early November in Minnesota and 65 degrees was simply not normal. And, yet, I don’t know what we would have done if it had been a dark, cold day. The sun was a sign that life goes on. There had never been a better time to pretend that winter wasn’t coming.

I don’t know where the Trump supporters are. There’s apparently quite a lot of them, but they’re not at my home, at my work, among my friends, in my family. Everyone around me was grieving. And it wasn’t logical, contained grief either. It was not the type of grief that could be parsed out and packed neatly into little boxes. It was the type of grief that almost didn’t look like grief because it’s so thickly laced with shock. The type of grief you didn’t know was coming.

It was the sun, the willingness to deny global warming, and that dense, permeating fear I felt everywhere that made me run again.

I set off at a fast clip through my neighborhood: gritty, densely populated. I navigated passed cars, and kids, and trash––passed yards without lawns.

I hadn’t run for almost two years.

My chest still felt heavy, but my legs felt light. It’s almost like I’d never stopped.

***

Running had never been totally easy for me. My mom started taking me on jogs, and even signing me up for recreational runs like the Turkey Trot, when I was five or six years old. These runs were long and slow and really hard. When you’re five, a hill looks like a mountain and three miles feels like forever.

By age 12 or so, I’d go for runs on my own when I was angry. Sometimes I’d be angry at my parents or my little brother, but most often I’d be angry at myself. Usually it was because I did something like eat an extra dessert, but I’d be so blindingly mad that the only reprieve was to go somewhere. Run until all of it was sucked out of me.

I still remember the route I’d take past streets like Kipling, and Joppa, past my old elementary school with the animals tiled on the front, and then past the three parks. At the second park, I’d know that it was time to go. I’d pick up my pace, running harder and harder up the long hill until reaching level ground where I’d start to go all out, running as fast as I could until I reached the stop-sign near my house. Gasping for breath, my face as furiously red as that sign, now blurry, I had wanted it to hurt.

I remember begging my dad to let me run past 10pm at night. Desperate. Tears in my eyes. He’d let me go. My neighborhood was safe then. At night I felt light and quick. I felt like nothing was holding me back.

I was never good at running. I ran cross-country in middle and high school, but was constantly overcome with shin splints. One coach told me my calves were too short to ever be fast.

But, by college, I had developed a healthier relationship to running. The neighborhoods surrounding my school were pleasantly familiar to me after the months I had spent campaigning for Obama in the fall of my freshman year. I ran past Iowa cornfields and small houses without expectation. I ran because it felt good. Some months I hardly ran at all, and some months I ran several times a week.

***

Then on January 3, 2015, my running career ended abruptly when I threw out my back lifting a cooler. The injury seemed minor at first. I was sore, but not in any real pain. I may have healed under normal circumstances, but I had been carrying the cooler full to the brim with food for a long road trip across the country. After two and a half weeks of sitting in the car, I found myself struggling to lift things. My suitcase, even just a bag caused me to ache considerably.

After a month or so of mainly hoping it would get better, I had to face the fact that I needed help. I had never had back problems before and had no idea what to do. People tried to give me advice, but I couldn’t seem to grasp it. They swore by whatever had worked for them––chiropractory, massage, physical therapy––I’d try them, but simply could not make it land in the reality of my body. None of it seemed to help.

As the months wore on, things only seemed to get worse. It got to the point where I couldn’t lift anything more than a pound or two––a laptop, a large jar, a full purse––without causing pain that might last for hours. I constantly had to ask people to carry things for me and, when I ventured out alone, I had to be careful about what I brought, constantly pulling credit cards out of wallets and keys off key chains to minimize the weight.

“You’re too young to have back problems,” people my parents’ age kept telling me. This never made me feel better. Clearly I was already having them.

By now, running was the least of my concerns. I stopped being able to bike––my normal form of transportation––and was only able to work for a few hours a day at my standing desk, quitting my habit of haunting coffee shops altogether. Some days I couldn’t even do my own dishes. Everything was affected––my livelihood, my vacations, my most intimate relationships, my writing.

At grocery stores I’d ask people to lift jugs of juice or bags of apples off shelves and put them in my cart. People looked at me like I was crazy. I stopped buying heavy things.

I stopped going to yoga classes. I stopped sleeping on my left side. I stopped cooking and swimming and dancing.

“How did it happen?” people would invariably ask me on the rare occasion I would acknowledge my situation. Even through all of this, I had never really identified as someone who has problems with their back. When people would talk about my back problems, it felt like they were talking about someone other than me. This couldn’t be my reality. I was living it, and yet this couldn’t be me. Part of the problem was that I never really had a good story for why I had the problems in the first place.

“I don’t really know,” I’d tell them. “I threw out my back lifting a cooler more than a year ago, but that doesn’t exactly explain months and months of debilitating pain.”

“I probably had some sort of preexisting condition,” I’d add, avoiding their eyes.

The truth is, I have no recollection of having any sort of back issue or pain previously. But, in the fall of 2012, a massage therapist told me that she had found scar tissue all the way down the left side of my spine. My back looked visibly normal, but her sensitive fingers led her to feel differently. When I said I didn’t know why that could be, she pressed on.

“Did you ever get injured as a child?”

“No, not seriously I don’t think. Just normal bumps and bruises. A fractured wrist––that’s about it.”

I had done fairly serious outdoors trips as a teenager that involved carrying heavy packs and canoes, but I had no memory of actually hurting myself and neither did my parents. In fact, I had always prided myself in being able to lift relatively heavy things for my size and gender. Was there something I was blocking out? Or was I so unaware of my body that something relatively serious hadn’t registered as an injury?

One day, I explained this conundrum to one of my closest friends, Lauren.

“What about that dream?” she asked me.

“What dream?” I replied.

“The dream you told me about a while back where you were holding your back in your hands?”
“What??”

I went back to look in my dream journal which I only used very sporadically. But, sure enough, six months previously I had written down a dream where I was aware of having been in some sort of car crash. Except there had been no actual crash, no blood, just me calmly standing by the highway holding half my spine in my hands.

When I went back to that massage therapist a second time, I felt a tube of light open up along the lower left side of my vertebrae. Later that day, I made the decision to move back to Minneapolis, something I had not even entertained previously. I never went back for another massage. My back felt fine. Besides, I couldn’t afford it.

***

In the spring of 2016, after four different Western doctors, three different chiropractors, two different physical therapists, two different massage therapists, and two different Chinese doctors––after countless visits with each––I finally found BodyWorks.

BodyWorks calls itself physical therapy, but it was very different then any physical therapy clinic I had ever been to or heard of. Each visit was an hour long and encompassed mainly myofacial release and cranial sacral work.

Normally this type of medical care would never have been available to me. I didn’t make enough money to pay for any sort of ongoing treatment that was not covered by insurance. But I had recently switched my insurance to a state-sponsored plan, and was pleasantly surprised with the coverage and options available to me. I was able to get high quality physical therapy, psychotherapy, even acupuncture, without making a lot of money. I felt ridiculously lucky. Insurance put me on a path toward healing I never would have had otherwise. ObamaCare wasn’t exactly going perfectly, but hopefully soon all people would have this opportunity.

Through bi-weekly visits over the course of about three months, I learned a lot about my body, particularly about my fascia––the thin sheet of fibrous tissue that enwraps every muscle, organ, nerve and vein. It’s like a woven web with each portion of fascia in the body connected to every other. This helped me understand how the physical therapists might address an issue in my neck by working on my legs or hips. Or why they were fascinated with my scars—each one of them, even the ones in my mouth from an oral surgery 15 years ago––because they marked small injuries to my fascia that had the potential to affect other parts of my body.

Apparently my fascia, particularly in my left upper back, was either extremely tight, or injured, depending on how you wanted to conceive of it. Nothing of significance had shown up on the MRI, but the physical therapists didn’t exactly pretend like things were hunky-dory.

For so long, the pain I felt in my back had felt largely amorphous. Beyond a vague understanding of where it was located, I didn’t really understand it. Sometimes I didn’t even know if it was radiating from my upper back or really my neck. But, from the work I did with the therapists at BodyWorks, and the corresponding work that I did at home, my body started to open up to me. Some of my “homework” involved more classic physical therapy exercises, but mostly it involved doing myofascial release on myself with a series of different sized balls. I learned that lying on a small ball for two to five minutes could release all sorts of muscles I didn’t even know were tight.

As the weeks wore on, I started to see tangible improvement. I could lift a couple pounds again. I could do yoga. By this past August, I could sit and work at a computer again. I think one of the only ways to truly understand chronic pain is to have it cease after experiencing it for a long time. With chronic pain, the pain is always there, and so there’s never really relief. And yet you never get used to it. It pokes into your brain and your daily thoughts change. Your personality changes. You’re not the same person really.

But I was starting to feel like me again. I was starting to write again, bike the city again. It wasn’t long after I was once more spending too much money at cafés that I quit going to BodyWorks. I was grateful for their program, but tired of different people touching my body, of driving to Bloomington, and of feeling guilty for not doing my exercises. And I was better.

Life was back to normal. Well, almost. Lifting a particularly heavy bag of groceries or bin of laundry could still provoke considerable pain. And, though my back felt better, my neck still appeared to be extremely tight. If someone squeezed my shoulders or if I did something funky in yoga class, I would be aching for days.

After learning the hard way more than a couple times, it eventually appeared that I was better off just leaving my neck alone. If someone wanted to give me a massage, I told them not to touch my shoulders or neck. If we were supposed to stretch or roll our necks in yoga class, I simply wouldn’t do it. Eventually I stopped going to yoga classes all together. It was just easier that way. I envisioned that I would eventually completely heal, with time, with patience. But, by late October, I had to face that I wasn’t getting better. In fact, I was getting worse.

It was getting hard to lift again, to do work again, to sleep comfortably again. Things weren’t nearly as bad as before, but I could tell where they were going and I didn’t like it. But life was full to the brim with a new job, numerous others projects, and ongoing activist involvement, so I let the nagging worries hang out in the dustier corner of my mind.

And then it was time to go on the meditation retreat. Though I had gone on over a dozen meditation retreats before, and I had always had an attitude of eager anticipation, I almost didn’t go on this one. My back already hurt. Work and sleep were starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable again. I didn’t want to think about what three days of sitting would do to it.

By this time, it was just five days before the election. Everyone was saying that Hillary was going to win which soothed any guilt I had about doing nothing to support her campaign. I’d vote for her and then, finally, after Tuesday night, we could be done hearing about Trump, seeing images of Trump, incessantly talking about Trump. I actually felt bad for the media––they must be desperate for a break from this guy. I could tune him out if I wanted to.

In truth, it never occurred to me for one second that Trump might win. It was a reality check, for sure, how popular he was getting, but when people––mainly older people it seemed––started to seriously stress about him actually winning, I found it hard to entertain their concerns for any length of time. At the end of the day, the country wouldn’t actually make him our president.

***

At the heart of a meditation retreat is that you have an uninterrupted block of time where you simply cannot run away from things as they are. Most of us distract or numb ourselves from our pain, whether through drugs, sex, or alcohol. Or through food, television, social media, the news, the fantasies inside our head, each other. On the retreat, there was none of this. There wasn’t even talking, so I couldn’t really become absorbed in the worlds of the people around me. Fantasizing loses its touch too, after you’ve had enough space to become acutely aware just how much you’re doing it.

So it didn’t take long for me to feel into just how badly my body was feeling. And it wasn’t just my back either, each muscle––in my legs, my arms, my feet even––wound into an angry cord. Part of the problem was that I was tired. Too many long days and nights with not quite enough sleep. Without that frantic pace of our technology-laden lives keeping me going, I felt like I was shutting down.

After two sits on the floor, I moved permanently to a chair, something I had never done in the four years I’ve practiced meditation. Then, after lifting a large pot during my kitchen job, I began to hurt so badly that, for a period of time, I stopped meditating at all. I had still been looking forward to the part of the day when we had the opportunity to do qigong––a series of slow, energetic movements guided with the breath. But I found myself lying on my back instead, listening to the steady lull of the teacher’s voice trickle in from my open bedroom window.

Qigong wasn’t exactly a devastating thing to miss, but I was starting to feel envious of my fellow retreatants and their ability to move freely. Later, I watched several of them do yoga in the lounge outside the meditation hall, their bodies bending into all sorts of shapes I was sure mine no longer could. How good it must feel to move their bodies in that way, to have such a delicious opportunity to break the tension, and prepare physically for more meditation.

My entire neck and most of my back felt like it was covered in some sort of paper maché cast, each vertebrae glued to the next. Yet, there was no sweet candy inside. I felt bitter, stuck. I started fantasizing about taking my spine and snapping it like those ugly snap bracelets that were so popular once.

I didn’t felt like being careful anymore. I was desperate to move. The next day, when it came time for qigong again, I decided on a whim that I would go. I was already in so much pain, I figured that it would be hard to feel much worse.

Since throwing out my back, I had approached qigong gingerly, tentatively doing some movements and skipping others, like the neck rolls, altogether. But on that day, I decided that I would do qigong fully, like I had never been injured.

I felt rebellious, joyful as I moved my body almost too enthusiastically through the movements. By the end of the 45-minute session, I ached even more acutely than I had before I started, but I also felt these delicious rivets of energy flowing through my entire body.

After qigong, I headed down to the lake, planning to practice walking meditation along its sandy shore. I had intended to simply walk back and forth in a slow, steady manner, but all I wanted to do was move more. I started by simply flapping arms, side to side, and then up and over my head like I was swimming the butterfly. Before long, I was seized by a strong urge to move my neck. To really move it. Not just a little to get by.

The sun glistened off the water. It really was too beautiful for November. I felt fear pushing up from my gut, into my chest. Every time, for months and months now, that I had tried to intentionally move my neck more than a necessary amount, I had regretted it.

But I was ready. Slowly, I moved my neck all the way to the left, all the way to the right, and then all the way down and around in a full circle.

My neck creaked and cracked––sounds made more alarming because of their proximity to my ears. The pain throbbed at a real intensity. Yet I was unwilling to stop. Something inside me told me to keep moving.

Back in the big room outside the meditation hall, I rolled my back out using a foam back roller. One chiropractor had told me that he thought those were bad for people. I had taken his words to heart and stopped using them altogether. I had forgotten how delicious they feel. Then I started doing yoga. And not just gentle stretches either, but full sun salutations and warrior poses. I felt glittery, new parts of me waking up.

It wasn’t too long before I recognized that my body was tired. Muscles, long underused, were now fatigued. Lying on my back in final savasana, I still ached, but underneath the ache, I felt a new kind of soreness that felt right.

The next day, I found myself stiff and scared to intentionally move my neck again. But I did anyway. And I did it again the day after that, and the day after that until, pretty soon, I was comfortable moving it several times a day. My neck still creaked and cracked, but the pain wasn’t nearly as bad and, in fact, my back was feeling much better too.

I was like the Tin Man. I just needed to be oiled.

***

I was never supposed to run again. No matter how much better moving my neck made me, running was supposed to be for other people’s bodies, not mine. But, the day after Trump was elected, all that didn’t matter. That sickly fear was clawing at me. I needed just needed to go––somewhere.

That fear had been living there, even before the results came in Tuesday night. At the end of the meditation retreat, people expressed trepidation about reentering a world entirely absorbed with the imminent election, but I still felt steeped in happiness and calm. I had found a path forward with my body, and I felt clearer and better rested than I had felt in weeks.

But that bubble soon burst when I turned on my phone during the ride home. Text messages streamed in from my housemates that our garage had been broken into over the weekend. There was no sign of force but three bikes were stolen. Immediately I felt as if the news was choking me. I felt fear and also horribly guilty. Ten days earlier I had lost my keys. This was likely my fault. And beautifully ironic after coming back from a mindfulness meditation retreat.

Perhaps it was the stress of the burglary contrasted with the peaceful seclusion of the retreat but, over the course of the next two days, I had a distinct feeling of being violated. A feeling that I was no longer safe. Despite not necessarily having the same worldly problems, everyone around me seemed on edge too, behaving almost like jumpy rabbits before a storm. We didn’t know it, but perhaps at some level we sensed what was coming.

***

I ran past a nearby housing unit that I knew contained several undocumented immigrant families, and smiled at a young Latina girl playing near the sidewalk. Did the Trump election mean something to her? Would it impact her life a little, or a lot? Was she already picking up on fear among friends and family?

As I ran farther from my house, I noticed a young man ride past on a bicycle that looked strangely familiar. In fact, the closer I looked, the more I was pretty positive it was my partner Peter’s bike, one of the bikes that was stolen in the recent break-in. It looked exactly like it and no one else I knew puts one mountain bike tire and one road bike tire on the same bike.

I started following the man for several blocks, something I was pleased to find was relatively easy as he was riding at quite a leisurely pace. There was part of me that recognized possible recklessness, but there was nothing on me that could be mugged, and it was broad daylight with dozens of people around. There’s only so much that could happen.

“Excuse me,” I finally caught up to him. “ Do you know where you got that bike? It looks like one that my housemate lost recently.” I had decided to play it cool.

“No,” the man seemed a bit surprised, but not upset. “It’s my cousins. He just let me borrow it.”

“Do you think we could go talk him?” The young man agreed. So we wandered around the neighborhood for a while, looking for his cousin. Again, I questioned my wisdom here, but I felt relatively safe and was eager not to lose site of the bike.

After what felt like a long time, we found the cousin hanging out on a corner with a young woman beside him. I introduced myself to the cousin and asked, “Do you know where you got this bike?”

“I bought it from a guy off the street for $20 a few days ago. The guy was pretty hung-up and looking for cash.”

“I’m pretty positive it’s my housemates. Our garage was broken into a few days ago and three bikes, including this one, was stolen.”

The cousin, who I learned was named Anthony, didn’t seem the least bit surprised. When I asked him if we could buy the bike back, he easily agreed.

“So, do you know this guy?” I asked referring to the man he’d bought the bike from.

“Yes, but I can’t tell you.” This was fine with me. I had gotten lucky with these two cousins and was happy not to have the opportunity to hunt down our actual burglar.

“But I’m going to go talk to him and try to get your other bikes back for you.” Anthony said with genuine care. I was moved by his kindness. As we walked along, someone else biked by on a pretty nice bicycle that I didn’t recognize.

“Is this one of your bikes?” He asked me jovially.

“No,” I answered wondering where he might have gotten that one. The guy biked on, seemingly unconcerned. It occurred to me that there was probably a whole economy of stolen bikes in our neighborhood that I hadn’t really been awake to. It felt strangely refreshing to have this up-close, personal experience with it.

Coming back into the house with Peter’s bike safely locked in our newly keyed garage, I was red-faced, sweaty, and elated. My run-turned-bike-hunt had been a wonderful reprieve from thinking about the election. It felt magical, really, that literally the one time I had gone on a run in two years, this had happened. I didn’t know if I would ever see these neighbors again, but I felt buoyed by our brief connection.

***

In the week after the election, I ran a few more times, each time a small part of me hoping I would get lucky again and find my other two housemates’ bikes. The runs made me tight and sore, but I didn’t let those sensations concern me, committing even more diligently to daily neck stretches and time with the back roller.

I also found myself deeply desiring to check out, watching TV and sleeping more than usual. The news felt like a dream, or really a nightmare, that I avoided when I could.

Around me, people’s grief morphed into a frantic desire to get engaged, make a difference. People who never protested went out to protest. People flocked rallies and meetings, signed up for new organizations, donated money, learned new ways to better support the most marginalized around them.

As someone who had long been deeply engaged with local politics, this appeared like something to celebrate—this unexpected boom in civil engagement. But any optimism seemed to largely be a white, middle-class illusion. For our Muslim, undocumented, trans brothers and sisters––for so many people––there was no glass-half-full perspective, no matter how anyone looked at it. What if their had been this great desire to care for our world, each other, before Trump was elected?

“How did this happen?” we’d invariably ask each other. We were still shocked, but slowly starting to recognize that many of our immigrants and friends of color weren’t as surprised as we were.

“Trump is a reflection of what was already existing.”

Because I was so full to the brim with community involvement even before the election, I didn’t think this new desperate-to-do-something energy was affecting me in the same way. But somewhere right after around the election I made the decision to go to Standing Rock to help support the Dakota Sioux protect their land and water against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I had been following this occupation for months now, but never seriously entertained going. A big part of it was the recognition that I wouldn’t be able to ride eight hours in a car or sleep in a tent without causing considerable pain to my back and neck. But the election, this new confidence I had with my body, and the fact that things were only getting more intense for the people up there, changed things for me. I felt that tug at my heart. It’s that tug that has guided my activism more than any ideology.

For days I dove deeply into the logistic planning, supply gathering, and learning that would make the trip feasible and most supportive to the movement. I also listened carefully to people’s stories of arctic temperatures, rampant police abuses and the urgent need for more firewood, gas masks, and winterizing materials. I felt anxious about how I would fare up there, but overriding the anxiety was the desire to be tough. To prove to myself and others that I was healthy and that I could help.

Then, less than a week before I was set to go, I hurt my back carrying firewood that was to being processed in the Twin Cities for Standing Rock. I felt new, yet sickly familiar pain––pain like I hadn’t felt in months––and it served as a wakeup call. I might be able to lift my backpack with ease, to carry groceries, to run now even. But my body was not up for any real physical labor.

This time I was concerned, but not scared. Since the retreat, I felt confidence in my ability to find the right combination of stretches and rest that would make it better. My bigger worry was that I wouldn’t heal enough in time to go to Standing Rock. The next day I talked with a close friend who had just come back. She reinforced what I had heard others saying. While everyone seemed to have a different opinion about it, it seemed that what the people of Standing Rock needed right now were bodies. Specifically bodies that could help with heavy lifting and construction, bodies that could withstand brutal treatment from police, bodies that could ideally stay up there all winter if need be.

My body was doing beautifully––it was healthier than it had been in years––but it wasn’t the body they needed. I would be better off using my mind to help organize, something I found I was reasonably good at and enjoyed. As I started to think about what it would look like to really help solidify our wood processing and shipment effort from the Twin Cities, I felt a sense of ease come over me. This is what it feels like to give from the heart, with clarity.

***

These days I feel like my world has two paces: sleep or run. Sometimes I need to check out, but most of the time I’m all the way in. Each day I bike the city, I write, I sink deeply into my work and my community. I send dozens of emails, and text messages––many about wood––and I visit the meditation center. I invite people over for dinner and give hugs. I try to smile at strangers in my neighborhood, on buses, at stores. I keep moving my neck. It’s not perfectly better. But it’s healing.

It hurts to think about what could happen to Standing Rock after Trump gets sworn in. What could happen to the world in the next for four years really. Some days I can only let myself get a glimpse of it. Some days I cradle it in my arms. I try not to get stiff. I keep moving.