Today, I Run

Today, I Run
Today, I run.
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My friend loaned me her car, so I drive to a trail head I’ve never been to before. I want to explore. I want to go up the rocks and jagged pathways and be completely immersed in nature. I love DC for that. You can escape whenever you need to into a National Park.
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I’ve caved in and started using the Samsung “Running Coach” app on my phone. I pride myself on being a self-motivator, but it looks like I am falling into another millennial trap of covering up the feeling of loneliness with a button on my phone. Hit this one to find a lover, this one to help you meditate, this one to find out where you are going.
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I find it hard to believe we are still born with any sense of intuition at all.
Looks great! says Samsung.
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How the hell do you know how I look? I say back. All that matters is that it feels great. I remind myself. Getting my heart rate up feels great.  
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Keep up, you’re going too slow.
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Of course, I’m going slow! I’m going uphill on a trail, dammit! This is as hard as shit! 
I give myself the break.
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Thankfully, I’ve learned how to do that in the past four years. 
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Four years ago I was not a runner. I was not even a mover. If the doctor asked me if I worked out, I probably would say I had sex pretty regularly– does that count?  Oh, and sometimes I take a walk. I wasn’t fat; I wasn’t skinny. I just didn’t really see the point of exercise when there were other things to do.
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My mother said my childhood pediatrician told me I had a body of an athlete. But the narrowness path of public education set me up as someone who was supposed to get good grades and be in marching band. I felt embarrassed around athletic people. Couldn’t really keep up. Leave me to the brainy stuff, I thought. Forget the body.
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So, when did I start running? I think back first run I took at my summer teacher training after I had arrived in China as a fellow in Teach for China, a program similar to Peace Corps or Teach for America. We lived and worked at a rural school for a month to prepare us for teaching in our villages in the fall.
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A few of my friends would run. But they were very competitive, as many of the people in my program were in they had first arrived. Many hailed from Ivy Leagues and were used to being the best. On many levels, I felt intimidated.
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I’m going to be quite vulnerable with my readers and say I have a slight, but sometimes major, emotional trauma from childhood when it comes to becoming a part of new, big social groups. Ironically, I seek the experience out constantly. Such is the paradox of souls yearning to heal.
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On top of that, the general atmosphere our training was just, well, difficult. I had become so depressed from nights hardly sleeping on the hard-wooden bunk-bed. We had ridiculous deadlines of lesson plans to meet without any real Wi-Fi connection. One weekend, I developed a low-grade fever and just wanted to nap the day away.
I think after some lucky Skype call connection with my dad, he reminded me to try and exercise more. I remember putting on an album of Afro-Cuban music and going towards the hills, the day-time glow of a full moon in sight.
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A la luna yo me voy sang my iPod.
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I guess this DOES feel good, I remember thinking.
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The fever disappeared and I forgot I had ever had it to begin with. 
Good pace. Keep this up.
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Thanks Samsung!
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Today, I run alone. I’m going to an event later tonight with a new friend that I don’t really know. Samsung talks in my ear but grounding down into my body reminds me about real emotion.
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Slow down and keep breathing.
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Stop pretending you’re not anxious. Just breathe.
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Run at a pace that allows you to still sing a song out loud.
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To who? About what? I’m alone Samsung!
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I wonder if I can make new friends who will want to run with me. Or maybe I do have friends that will run with me; I’ve just never asked.
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I pass an older gay couple with the two black dogs, the family of four that got lost from the trail, and a mom and her daughter racing in the grass to run into dad’s arms. 
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Belonging. I think to myself. I also have that sense of belonging. Matching my emotions to manifest my needs.
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I think back to the friends I used to run with. 
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I think of Derek, I think of Brittany and I think of Li Hai Peng. My co-fellows, two Americans and one Chinese, in my village, who convinced me to start running with them.
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Derek had a long, lean and muscular build. Brittany was tall and fit and had been running cross-country for years. Hai Peng had shorter legs, but they carried him along quickly.
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The first year I attempted to go with them two or three times after dinner. Teaching most days was a nightmare. And with running, I did not believe in myself at all. Someone in my family sent me a giant jar of Nutella in a care package, so and truth be told, I just ended up eating spoonfuls of that in my room after teaching to combat the stress.
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The second year, I settled in. I had a mastery over my class, my Chinese, and my emotional well-being in general. I started doing a lot of yoga, but I got bored. There wasn’t really much to do in the village, so I joined the run.
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Today, I look up the hill I’m about the climb. I can almost hear my childish cry after Derek and I see him up ahead on the trail. 
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“Derek slow down! Not fair, you’re too fast!”
“No, Merritt, you’re fine. Keep up that pace. See, you’re doing so well! Lengthen your stride. You have long legs, you can do it.” 
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“Thanks coach!” 
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Hai Peng and Derek used to sing songs in Chinese. Derek told me he liked to run to sad, melancholy songs, rather than upbeat ones. While we ran, we would talk about what was happening with teaching, or just ourselves, and even our lives outside of that place.
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I’d wave at my students, playing outside at home after dinner. Derek would always see that 14-year-old picking grapes who had dropped out of middle school and who he had befriended.
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When I ran alone, I’d hope the stray dogs wouldn’t chase me, but sometimes they did, and it made me run faster. Adrenaline is a nice drug of choice. In my mind, I’d plan out my trips I’d take to Vietnam and Cambodia. I’d think about what kind of life I’d have once I got home. I’d look at the grape fields and the mountains, but I never thought that one day that this place would be the home that I’d miss.
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Eventually, we started training for a marathon in the nearest city, about a two-hour bus ride away from our village. Hai Peng’s friend, Kun Zai, had come to live in the village because he had a job in computers that allowed him to work remotely and have time to play lots of video games as well. He always brought along a much needed sense of joy and humor to our running conversations that were often dampened by the stress of our work in the classroom.
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The day of the race we lined up early in the morning. There was a man smoking a cigarette and with a Red Bull in hand jogging in place.
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Yeah, I think I can do this, I thought. 
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We were off, running past a large beautiful lake and through alley ways of shops preparing fresh包子Bāozi, or steamed buns, from the windowsills.
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Derek and Hai Peng took off quickly, both of them taking a stab at the half-marathon. Kun Zai promised to keep an eye on me as he and I were both attempting our first 10K. 
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Near the end of the race, I found myself alone, tired, and ready to have the whole thing over with. But then Kun Zai met up with me.
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“You can do it! Defeat the enemy!” he said, a quick as a gunman from one of his games.
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I looked forward at a girl running about 30 meters in front of me. Sure, I can do it. Why not? (Or as I was probably thinking in Chinese 为什么不?Wèishéme bù?)
I crossed the finish line and came in 9th place for the women’s race.
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I’m not really sure there’s an enemy to defeat anymore. I don’t hang around competitive people and I can’t say I’m competitive with myself like I used to be. 
The only “enemy” was the voice in my head that told me I couldn’t do anything.
Now, I just enjoy the view from the run.
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Derek e-mailed me a few days ago. He still lives in China. I suggested that he and Hai Peng should make a motivational bilingual running app. It would sell millions! He said he’ll pitch the idea to him. 
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Across oceans of disconnect, it’s good to know technology can help make us feel we still belong to some greater tribe of friendship.
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 Nice job, you’re almost there. 
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Thanks Samsung.
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But where exactly is ‘there’?
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For I know with each breath I take, I have the chance to begin again.

Ode to 艾 and 爱 (Ode to Ai and Love)

— I’m not doing the quote full justice, and there’s much more I want to say on this but here is the story for now —
Today I went to go see Ai Wei Wei’s “Never Sorry” at the Hirshorn Museum.  It’s been over five years since I’ve seen the film. To be honest, at this point I define my life by “life before I went to China” and “life after I lived in China.” Most ex-pats who have lived there for any extended period of time might agree. The place changes you. I was curious – how would I feel about the film this time?
When I saw the movie five years ago, I went with a group of four Chinese teachers my father had dragged along with us. I respect my dad so much – for years Chinese teachers have been visiting his school and he always connected with them so beautifully – inviting them to dinners, Christmas, taking them shopping for groceries, and supporting them just as humans who needed to be seen and understood. Of course, having a bit of a radial edge, he always wanted to dig deeper into their experience. What was life in China really like? Were they a part of the Party? Were they religious? What was life like for their grandparents during Community rule?
So he took them to the film. Big mistake? Maybe. They yelled at the host leading the Q&A after the film. He was also Chinese. He originally came to the US to get his degree in engineering at CMU, but started learning about Chinese history in the 20th century, and switched his degree to nonprofit management. He had been working as a coordinator for wealthy Chinese high school students coming to the US. When I asked him afterwards what the Chinese teachers were saying to him he said, “They think Ai Wei Wei is a nobody, not important, worthy to be ignored. They are still so brainwashed by Chinese propaganda.”
When I saw the movie today, I noticed people in the theater laughed a lot at Ai’s antics. He is quite a hilarious activist, a modern day jester if you will.  There’s certainly shadow side to Ai in this context. He makes those privileged in the US feel safe in our complicity. To  feel good that we “aren’t” China. We are here, in a museum watching an activist film, for free, on a Sunday. I probably watched the film the first time in similar fashion. Amazed, fascinated, curious and in awe of the man. Knowing that “over there” people lived in repression and thankfully we had free access to art, music and culture. A dangerous dose of some American exceptionalism I was born into: the illusion of pure free expression.
My viewing of this film this time around was much more…human.
I cried much more than I laughed. I sobbed seeing schools destroyed by the Earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, due to shoddy construction of “tofu-brick” buildings in schools in poor areas; meaning, tuition funds go to a fat salary for an official comes before the price of a student’s life in a safely constructed building. I cringed at the moments when Ai sat in the hospital photographing himself wearing a bandage on his head after being assaulted by the police. The audience laughed, but here I saw a man in pain, trapped in a cage he could not escape, no matter how humorous his approach.
When I came to Washington, DC in 2013 for an interview with Teach for China, I remember heading over to Hirschhorn afterwards, alone, to see Ai’s “According to What?” exhibit. Always was my favorite museum after all. I saw the backpacks of every student killed in the Earthquake lining the ceiling, the names of dead children lining the walls, read aloud by many different voices.
Knowing, in my heart at the time, these students and families would one day be a part of my own world. People I connected with, played music with, shared meals with, attended religious services with (Yes! religion exists in China!), talked about love and relationships with, danced with, cried with, spent the night in their humble homes with.
Today I sat shocked, at the lengths an artist must go to in order to humanize himself to the Other.

The Woman Warrior

Ever feel like a book comes to you at the perfect time, describing the exact emotion you have been wishing to capture for so long?
We all know the feeling, and I’m an addict. I confess I have a vice for getting used books each time I pass a Little Free Library or find a free or cheap book bargain shelf. All of them spoke to me in a title or a passage. Most of them now sitting on my shelf, waiting to cozy up with me at a cafe, couch or park and be devoured for hours. It’s real.
When I went to NYC last week, I found The Woman Warrior at a vintage clothing shop where nothing I tried on seemed to fit quite right. I put on a nice poolside cover-up thinking Hey, this will motivate me to swim and get in shape this summer. A woman waiting in line told me I “looked like a lady of leisure.” I had just gotten off from my teaching job for the summer. My mother, just retired, after 30 years.  Yet, the passage I picked up out of this book was about work, as the narrator is talking to her mother about her life after immigration:
“See what I mean? I have worked too much. Human beings don’t work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we’re too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all. I can’t sleep in this country because it doesn’t shut down for the night. Factories, canaries, restaurants — always somebody somewhere working through the night. It never gets done all at once here. Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here; one evening so long, you could visit your women friends, drink tea, and play cards at each house, and it would still be twilight. It even got boring, nothing to do but fan ourselves. Here midnight comes at the floor’s not swept, the ironing’s not ready, the money’s not made. I would still be young if we lived in China.”
I have been feeling this for the past two years, but really lately, trying to explain to others how deeply my friendships, relationships, and experiences unfolded when living in rural China. How expansive life felt, and yet bitter at the same time. I couldn’t seem to quite touch that again in the US. Only a few friends stuck around enough to get “bored,” which usually left us singing, dancing or sometimes sleepy.
At times, I feel blocked between the knowingness of “time” and its natural flow, and a culture where acquiring more money, more material items, and less time is bounded towards our eventual death. Not enough for this, not enough for that. Everyone moving about with deep seeds of unworthiness in the lack of our “productivity.”
The stars have it out for us as well. We are all healing the mother wound and our relationship between our focus on the masculine essence of linear time and the feminine co-creative universe. Despite a messy election cycle, there has been a tidal wave pop culture art of women in the past year and few months – the Women’s March, the Handmaid’s Tale, Beyonce’s photos, Hidden Figures, Moana, Wonder Woman, etc – ya know what I’m saying. The list goes on.
I see the fruits of the long evenings in my friendships bearing gifts to the world.
One of my closest friends from China just made a return, and looking at her pictures reminds me of this feeling.
Another friend has started her own clothing business, another will deepen her passion for teaching and the healing arts in grad school. Another, falling in love again like it’s the first time.
I wonder if those changes came about in those long evenings – movements we took to pause, sit, share our souls, and simply be.
Our modern, culture does not allow for this. Political action wants you to think otherwise, but see what happens when you stop living in resistance, and rather in receptivity.
For the next week, I challenge you to sit with a friend as if time would never end.
Hold that space in your heart and see what change comes about.
– Blessings

The Child

我要让孩子长成的样子

而不要我期待的样子

因为我知道孩子并不属于我

他只是经由我来到这个世界

去完成他自己的梦想和使命

I want the child to grow into the way he wants to grow into

Not what I expected

Because I know the child does not belong to me

He just came to this world through me

To complete his own dreams and missions

Break The Rules

August 5, 2016

Break the Rules 

I. Spirals 

At the farmer’s market I meet a man selling Kombucha. He says you may actually be able to alter the way your genes are expressed by certain microbes in your stomach. I say that I’m reading a book on microbes but I don’t know what it’s called. I show him the DNA on a necklace I made the Natural History Museum yesterday. There’s me – in the spit around my neck – a pure expression of who I am. A microbe is an invisible force that could change all of that in just a swig. Who ever said God wasn’t real. Who ever said invisible forces have no factor on our lives.

                   

II. Pillars of Light

The Hirshhorn Museum calls me when I’m sad and lonely. I go to feel something breathing between those empty walls. I go with the hope that I can walk out less confused.

Three years ago, I came to interview in DC for a spot to teach in rural China. I walked into the Hirshhorn to find the museum was featuring art from the Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei. Children’s backpacks lined the ceiling to count the dead in the Sichuan earthquake. A middle finger flicked off the White House and Tiananmen Square. The Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium was big enough to hold the whole world inside to compete and oppressive enough to trap its creator under house arrest without a passport. Off to the land of “tofu-brick” buildings that crumble under corruption. Away from the swamp where the student’s from schools built in the early 1900s remain almost as segregated as they did upon the building’s conception. 

Today, I watch while a museum security guard tells a couple how to stand between two pillar-shaped mirrors in order to show their reflection. I ignore the exhibits’ large white canvases covered in tiny dots. If an order of dots is what’s to come, I suppose I find it more frightening than Ai Wei Wei’s dystopia. At least there, I found hope amidst the rubble.

III. The Tower

A man is playing guitar across from Trump Tower.

I turn to him, in a burst of angst. Make him go away!

Vibration warrior, knock this tower down.

“Yes girl, this is my protest!” 

I day dream on my bike ride back about a boy I met once who did street art. How we may have ended up if I hadn’t wanted to follow the rules so much rather than the laws that govern this universe.

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I get money out of the bank. The teller cannot recognize my signature.

It’s two short, I only left my initials, I tell him.  I write my name out longer.

“You can tell the counterfeiters,” he says. “They write it so delicately and with precision, but if it’s yours, you just do it naturally.”

I’m at the temple of a man who watches a million signatures a day, to a believer in the art of hands this is pure gospel.

The world is moving towards fingerprinting technology now, you know, I say. 

“But a signature, will always stay the same. You can slice off a finger but you can’t steal the way someone moves.”

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I like to eat dinner and watch Chef’s Table. Perhaps is a phenomenon of not sitting to enjoy your own creation and needing that of another to truly feed you. Grant Schatz made food that can float and switches out strawberries for tomatoes. He lost his sense of taste to cancer and kept creating. Reborn when he took a sip of coffee after chemo, he made art on the dependence of others. It’s as if he said, “Look what I can make. Now let’s see if I still love how you look with my eyes closed.”