Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Old Man and the Sea

Danny, as promised, this essay in in honor of you.

An earlier time and version of me, I often heard phrases like, “runs with the grace of a deer” or “runs like the wind.” Once upon that youthful time, I was running alone on my high school track. A solitary old man was sitting in the stands. He limped slowly up to me after I finished my run, and said that he enjoyed the beauty of my stride. I stammered as I tried to come up with a response, but he interrupted and went on with passion in his voice. “I've seen many people run on this track and some quite fast. You don't run. You're visual poetry with the ground. It is a gift to be cherished. It makes the eyes and spirit of old men young again. It is the essence of life, I say. Never, I say never, give it up.” I really stared blankly now, not knowing what to say. The riddles seemed to shroud the compliments in an overwhelming way for a fragile young boy's psyche. I grabbed my sweats and went on my way.
It was 15 degrees, at best, on blustery February Sunday. Winds were 20 MPH gusting into the 30's slowing the pace of fast legs that have seen better days. It seems that, factors of aging aside and a bout with heart disease, it has become easier to let off the gas pedal of vigor and hide within my own comfort zone with each passing year. It is even easier when I can rest on past laurels. Reminiscing is easier than pushing the human limits of running. I questioned my own sanity for choosing this spot and on this day for a run. However, lunacy ruled for the day, as I headed directly into the wind to start the run. I distracted myself with the blue and green quilted waves with bright whitecaps that boldly crashed upon the beach. The horizon was so clear I felt like I could reach out and touch its delicate but definite boundary. The majestic display of nature helped to occupy the mind while the hamstrings cursed and screamed with every step into the head wind. My face was so cold, the sinuses ached. I broke the monotony and the chill by running one minute down wind before running 4 minutes further up wind. The only pleasure heading up wind for the four minutes was watching the seagulls and piping plovers that were hunkering down on the beach weave a pattern in the sky in front of me as they temporarily fled my approximate path up the beach. Just before the northerly turn-around, I saw a seagull who did not take flight. Instead it sat limp and drained with a stoic but determined stare. I soon realized it was sick, injured, or both. Death could not be but a few hours away. I felt a reverent pity for the poor creature's soul. I could not help but think that we will all be in that bird's situation one day.
I reached the turn-around point and relaxed my effort into the pleasant feel of a tailwind. I slowed my pace as I came back by the dying bird, wishing there was something I could do to make things better. Whatever great my empathy for this creature facing the end of life, I realized my powers over nature and the meaning of life were very limited. I looked back over my shoulder one last time to see the noble posture and courage in the face of death. My mind then flashed back to the old man at the track. The irony then dawned upon me that, if the bird could see how I have treated my gift, it might be having pity upon me. Be it a few hours or a few decades, be it disease or the slow march of the aging process, we do not die from disease, disability, and age. We live with them. Something happened to the embers of old sparks. My sun-faded jacket had an inner glow. I slowly upped my pace from the comfort zone.
It was Mark Twain who said, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
The trade winds pushed at my back. I concentrated on form. My pace continued to quicken as I explored, dreamt, and discovered.
Yes, you must have your ship boldly take on the wave in order to ride its crest. I want to try my best to get to the top of my own wave and touch the sky even if gravity and physics has lowered its watery mountain-size. The crest is the thrill. It is the essence of life. It is the thrill of the chase. It is Santiago catching his marlin. The prize is in the struggle. Yes, my eyes were starting to see with clarity. What can these old sea legs can do if given the chance? It is time to revisit the gift of stride, for that is how the spirit, once again, becomes young.

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