running

Another Year Better

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For the last seven or eight years, I’ve always gone for a run on my birthday. And on these ritual runs, I’ve always had the same idea jump around, exciting the membranes, spurring my legs to go faster and faster: What if I moved to Paris right now?*

It sounds like a hypothetical, and I suppose it is, but it always gets posed as a serious question in my mind. What if I got home from my run, booked a ticket, packed my bags, and left for good? Because the thing is, I could. There’d be a few annoyances and some awkward phone calls, but technically I could do it. I could go live in my dream city.

A couple of the years I felt THISCLOSE to actually acting upon my flight of French fancy.** The Great Escape, I’d title the chapter in my memoir. Or maybe it would be the title of the memoir itself. It sounded positively romantic, the thing that grand adventure stories are made of: “Girl turns 25, leaves her entire life behind and starts afresh in the place she wishes she were born.” Sounds rather Joycian, no?

But I’ve never done it. I’ve always finished my run, sprinting the last two blocks to my house, and returned to the life I’ve been living. The one in Los Angeles, with my quaint little cottage, my comfortable job, my lovely friends, and the permanent sunshine. And the dreams of being a Parisian return to the nocturnal world of sleep.

Today I turned 29. And for the first time in many years, I did not go for a run on my birthday. Nor did I dream of running away. Because really, that’s what I was doing. I can sugar coat it all I want – “Paris is my favorite city! Only natural for me to want to move there!” or “It’s just the adventurer in me!” – but my fantasies weren’t about Paris. Not really. They were, as my memoir title nails so beautifully on the head, about escape.

But from what?

I have a great life. A wonderful, blessed, privileged life. I know this. I’ve always known this. And I do not want to sound ungrateful. Because I am very grateful. I often break down in tears for no reason at all except an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my experience of this world. In fact, it happened several times today. Like while I’m typing this sentence.

So again, what was I trying to run away from?

Well, myself. That sounds really harsh and overblown, and it is, but it’s really the core of what was keeping me so unsettled, so ready to shed this skin and put on un autre. Because I was afraid.

I was afraid of embracing this self, this version of me that lives and loves and cries and drinks and stumbles my way through Los Angeles. Through Hollywood Blvd and along the coast and up Runyon Canyon and into casting offices and at home on my computer. The self that has wanted to tell stories since I learned how to speak, but has for so long feared that I had nothing to say. That felt I needed to do something crazy and rash and become someone else in order to earn that right.

And in a super ironic way, that’s exactly what I did that made me finally stop being afraid of myself. I made up a fake name, set a crazy 40 day goal, and then blogged about it. And while it was very much autobiographical and pretty much like an online literary version of The Bachelorette, it helped me recognize my own voice. And in doing that, I finally gave myself permission. Permission to create. Permission to write. Permission to imagine. Permission to live in Paris without having to move there. Or I could move there if I wanted, but not because this me wasn’t enough.

“Why are you sitting there when you can go anywhere?” my amazing friend and SoulCycle instructor Jenny said to the class during today’s ride.*** She was referring to a meme of a bird perched on a tree with the caption I always wonder why birds stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere.

In years past, this naturally would have ignited my French fantasy. But today I felt something different. It’s not about literally going somewhere (although you all know how much I LOVE to travel.) If it was about that, Jenny never would have said it to a bunch of people on stationary bikes. No, it’s about transcending that part of you that keeps you stuck. That part that’s afraid. That part that says “You can’t go there. You’re not an artist. You’re not a writer.” That part that holds you back and makes you want to become someone else.

I felt my legs go faster and faster, picking up speed with the rhythm of the music, the pulsing of room. I’m 29! I beamed, tears streaking my face alongside the sweat. This is my life! I’m breathing! I’m flying! And I was. I am.

*One year it was New York. And another it was Tuscany. But usually it’s Paris.

**I may have been a little less happy these years. Or perhaps the opposite.

***You didn’t think I wasn’t going to exercise at all today, did you?

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Museums, Cake, Austria

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As I ran through the empty streets of Salzburg, I imagined myself skipping through time. I was in the 18th century, hearing the sounds of Mozart in front of his birthplace. I passed by the Mirabell Palace, envisioning myself a lady-in-waiting in the 1600s, and then through the gardens, suddenly thrust forward to 1965, where Maria and the Von Trapp kids were singing Do-Re-Me on the steps. I crossed over into the old town and stopped momentarily on the bridge, watching the water flow down the Salzach. It had been the town’s lifeline since the 5th century, when Celts settled the lush green land. I stared up at the Fortress Hohensalzburg, my next destination, through cable car lines, and marveled at the many incarnations the town had been through, the evolving cultures and technologies. At that moment I felt both a part of its rich history and a stranger to it. The stillness of the morning provided a level of intimacy with Salzburg I didn’t feel I deserved, having arrived only the day before, yet I relished in it, the same as I had in Vienna on my 7am runs. I love this about Europe: nothing happens before 10am.

Continuing on my run, signs of life began to emerge: a weary man setting up cafe tables, a biker zipping down the sidewalk, an Englishwoman asking me for directions, a guy with headphones and a throwback Michael Jordan jersey. I passed a street entertainer dressed in traditional Austrian garb, his face painted, and he smiled warmly at me. I thought of Vienna and all of the men in their wigs and fancy costumes hawking Mozart concert tickets. It was such a strange blend of past and present, at once preserving and mutilating a part of the culture. Tourism can do this. The essence is there, but it becomes commercialized, commodified. It can entertain and disgust, educate or morph the meaning. This was sometimes how I felt abroad, waffling between an annoying tourist invading private space and an inspired traveller adding energy and new layers of understanding through different eyes. I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

In Vienna even more than Salzburg, I experienced this dichotomy between the familiar and the foreign, the sense of belonging and of exclusion. For one thing, Alicia and I booked a room through airbnb. Since we started using the travel website three years ago, I’ve become a big fan and advocate. While the spaces we’ve inhabited may not always be of the highest quality, they never fail to make me feel more like a local. Hotels provide a certain comfort and sense of luxury, but apartments, with their wear and tear and tangible homeyness, bring me closer to the place.

On top of our accommodations, we were surprisingly well-connected within the city, considering neither of us had ever been and Vienna is hardly a top destination for Americans. We had recommendations from two knowledgable sources: a Viennese friend of mine from back home who had written me a veritable novel on insider to-dos, and a guy from the Mix of France who had spent a couple of years living in the city. Furthermore, another Mixy girl, Anna-Nora, happened to be on our flight from Cannes, visiting her mother who lived less than a quarter mile from our apartment, and our friend Marie-Claude’s brother Denis happened to be flying in the day after our arrival. We not only had a list of places to see and restaurants to eat at, but other people to join us!

While our guides directed us wisely- the Albertina, Palmenhaus, Cafe Sacher, the Natural History Museum, Nachtmarket, the Belvedere- we couldn’t escape the inevitable feeling of being outsiders. Most notably, the language served as a constant reminder of our foreign status. I know “kein Deutsch” (no German, obvs), Alicia a few words more, but we were pretty much lost in the sea of harsh syllables and words with seemingly endless letters. We amused ourselves with some of the new vocabulary we picked up (shmetterling, meaning butterfly, was our all time fave), but mostly I felt ignorant in my lack of multi-lingual skills. It didn’t help that Anna-Nora was fluent in both German and French, but any jealousy on my part quickly dissipated when she negotiated with taxi drivers and waiters.

Like Salzburg, my morning runs brought me closer to Vienna than pretty much anything else (maybe not the art of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, but they deserve their own essay.) What is it about pounding the pavement that makes me feel so at one with my surroundings? The endorphins? The meditative state I often achieve around mile three? Whatever it is, it exists, and I am thankful for it. With such a basic action as one foot in front of the other, I can drop into my body and the space around me, my senses heightened and ready to absorb the spectacularly new stimuli. The morning we left Vienna, I saw one last time the beautiful cake-like buildings, St. Stephens, Hofburg Palace, the Danube river, at once timeless and immediate, all of history crammed into the now, my heart beating and soul uplifted…

The church bells rang out over Salzburg- 8 o’clock. It was time to head back and wake up Alicia. We wanted to explore the city a little more before our departure, as the day before had been taken up mostly by a Sound of Music tour (this is every bit as kitschy and wonderful and emblematic of what I’m trying to communicate as it sounds.) I maneuvered my way through the cobble stone streets confidently, having learned the lay of the land, pleased with the bond I had been able to form with the city in such a short time. I turned left onto our street and gasped. Even though I’d been up and down it at least a half dozen times, something about it at that very moment gripped me- the light, the charm, the serenity. It was a sight that had no doubt been enjoyed by countless others before me, both Austrians and foreigners, recently and long ago, but right now none of that mattered. I was a tourist but I was also a witness. The church coalesced alongside chain shops and 300 year-old restaurants. I felt a certain transcendence, acceptance for how things are, how they’d come to be, and I smiled. Vienna, Salzburg, telephone wires, Mozart, the Chicago Bulls, me- we were all connected.

 

 

 

What I Talk about when I Talk about Pole Dancing

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Exercise has always held an important place in my life. The reasons for its necessity continually change over time (health, meditation, weight loss, enjoyment), but it has been a constant for as long as I can remember. When I think of my childhood, I think of practicing handsprings in the grass of our front yard, doing back flips off of my best friend Mikie’s couch, running up and down Willamette Blvd, biking around the lush campus of the University of Portland. When I recount favorite moments in my life to friends, inevitably they involve some sort of physical activity – the time I ran 18 miles in Paris one morning because I couldn’t stop, the exchange I had with a wild dog in a Costa Rican rainforest during a mid-day jog, the joy of making that winning basket or home run.

Until last year, my favorite form of exercise was, without a doubt, running. Growing up it had been gymnastics, but anyone who has ever watched the Olympics or tried to do a cartwheel beyond their teens knows the career-expectancy of that particular sport. Running, on the other hand, can be practiced well into old age, as many an elderly marathoner can testify. Not only is it sustainable over one’s lifetime, it’s one of the simplest things you can do. One foot in front of the other. Repeat. Not much to it, beyond a good pair of running shoes and a sports bra (and those aren’t even actually required!)

In many ways, running has been one of the most essential things in my life. It has gotten me through breakups, writer’s block, finals weeks, anger, sadness, holidays, family vacations. It’s like a medicine for me, a shot of endorphins to ease the pain, lift my spirit, pump my blood, keep me alive. Some of my most creative thoughts have come on mile 5 of a morning jog, moments in which the clutter in my brain gets sorted and the heart of the matter just seems to burst forth – AHA! Now I understand what Bergman was getting at in Persona, now I see the missing piece in my screenplay. It’s incredible the way running can set up a routine for your life, one that teaches you how to function better in the world. It’s what Murakami talked about in “What I Talk about When I Talk about Running.”

Which brings me to pole dancing. I encountered pole (and Murakami’s semi-memoir) last summer, when I’d been cast in a play as an ex-stripper. As coquettish of a person as I was (I once got fired from a restaurant for flirting), I felt compelled to take my sexuality a step further, and enrolled in classes at S-Factor. I’d heard of pole fitness from my ex-boyfriend’s ex-lover, but it had never occurred to me to actually try it until attempting to tap into my inner “Billie.” Little did I know it was going to rock my physical, sexual, and emotional world.

My first class I cried. Not from the inevitable bruising of slamming one’s body against a metal pole, but from the sudden awareness of the damage done by over a decade of body dysmorphia. “Let your hands run over your curves, sending love and adoration into them,” the teacher cooed. What?! Caress my body and enjoy it?! Years of living in Los Angeles had taught me I was too fat, too flat, too not Victoria Secret enough. It felt strange, borderline criminal, to worship my body for what it was – feminine, beautiful, sexy, mine. As the class continued, I found other emotions welling up inside of me. This part of me had been caged for so long, trapped by societal conventions, possessed by other people’s ideals, restricted by my own self-image, reinforced by casual (un)sexual encounters, ripped and shredded over and over again by this perfect body, that perfect body, never my perfect body. And now it was being summoned forth, beckoned to come out, to play, to explore, to let go.

And it did. That part of me, that deep femininity, that innate sensuality, that natural womanly sexuality, just burst out. I tore at my clothes, touched my breasts, felt the curve of my back and the way my hair brushed over my shoulders. Every inch of my skin felt alive, more alive then it had ever been, like that moment right after an orgasm, when the slightest touch sends shivers down your spine. How could I have neglected myself for so long? How could I not have recognized who I was? I remembered a novel I studied in high school – Gabriella, Clove, and Cinnamon. Gabriella. The caged bird. The juxtaposition of her sexuality and society. Intellectual concepts now fully realized. I let it sweep over me. Relax, left brain, just FEEL.

I walked out of my first class and signed up for a year. I had never spent money on fitness (my mom covered my $50 a year 24 hour fitness membership), but I didn’t even flinch as I lay down my credit card for $200 a month. How could you put a price tag on finding yourself? Money didn’t matter. This mattered. My body mattered. I mattered.

From the outside, I know it looks crass. Learning to strip, giving lap dances, grinding my center into a long, hard pole. And sometimes I do feel dirty. Really dirty. But I love it. Because it’s mine, and it’s for me, and it’s what I want. Forget the male gaze. It has nothing to do with men. It’s about women. Our bodies. Our erotic creatures. Our sex.

Almost a year after joining S Factor, I feel better than I ever have in my life. I don’t attribute all of it to pole dancing – other things have opened up for me creatively, intellectually, socially – but I know it’s been integral in my development in the same way as running. If I walk into a class feeling down, anxious, upset, I inevitably come out joyful, calm, and ready to conquer.  Plus, my arms have never looked better.