AN ESSENTIAL EMBER
By: Suni Lynn Lee
Outside the temperature hovers around 10 degrees. As I stand staring out the window, watching the wind whip the snow into sparkling spirals, I feel motivation oozing out of me. Inside it is toasty warm, and I shiver at the thought of stepping out into the cold to begin my run. But, I turn away from the window, thinking, “Today is my day to run, and I will run.”
Dressed in layers, I feel like an abominable snowman. I stuff soft cotton into my ears, pull a wool stocking cap onto my head, and snuggle my hands into fuzzy mittens. I sigh, breathing out my last bit of hesitation and turn to look at my cat. From her cozy position on the sofa, she stares back at me as if to say, “Are you crazy?” Then, I am out the door where the cold knifes through my clothes like ice water, and the only way to get warm is to move.
Going up the first steep hill, I innately match the pattern of my breathing to the rhythm of my footfalls: breathe in, step, step, breathe out step, step. I feel an emotional weariness resisting my efforts, the burdens of work and the day-to-day struggles of my life weighing me down. Like a Sumo wrestler muscling an opponent out of the ring, I push to cast my worries aside and focus on the rhythm of my strides, coming faster now: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. I move steadily forward, warming up as I put time and distance behind me.
Following the familiar route I have taken many times before, I sprint up and then down hills, across streets and bridges, around parked cars and piled snow. I leap over frozen puddles and plunge, child-like, through powdery, knee-deep drifts. Still, I push forward. On an uphill slope, my churning feet repeatedly slip and lose traction on the snowy sidewalk. Soon, my breathing becomes labored and with head down, shoulders hunched in concentration, I relentlessly work my way up. At the crest, my legs feel leaden, and my lungs are ripping breaths from the cold air, but I do not stop. Instead, I take solace in the knowledge that what goes up gets to go back down.
Nearing the halfway point of my run, I enter a cemetery and stride along a still and deserted lane, cutting between acres of graves now hidden beneath a blanket of winter white. In the silence, the scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, scrunch of my steps compressing snow against asphalt is melodic and soothing. In all directions, beauty surrounds me. Lines of tall, stately evergreens, their branches weighted with snowfall, stand like silent sentinels. Deciduous trees reach their gray, barren limbs into the winter sky, posing for Ansel Adams, while the cherry-red, artificial poinsettias lovingly placed on graves sprout from the snow like winter-blooming flowers.
At my turn-around point, I abruptly reverse directions. Retracing my steps, I become fascinated by my footprints in the snow. Like a photograph, they have captured a moment in time, a tiny fragment of my life. In some mysterious way, they validate me, as if to say, “Look, you are alive!” I am oddly comforted in knowing that although I may never pass this way again, my footprints are proof that I was once here.
I am sweating now and have moved beyond my second wind to a state only runners know. I unzip my windbreaker and loosen the scarf at my neck. I glide easily up the hills and, when on level ground, extend my legs into longer, more ardent strides. For stretches of time, I feel I have moved onto another plane of reality, consisting only of sounds and feelings. I am aware of cars passing on the street, a barking dog, my blood pulsing against the cotton in my ears, but these things are merely part of the music I am feeling in my soul – joy rediscovered.
My state of consciousness has become fluid, like an inland sea, flowing slowly toward and then gently away from the random feelings floating through my mind. I am thinking nothing but observing everything – a large, yellow dog straining on its tether, its barks exploding into visible puffs of air, a holly bush covered in snow, wearing its bright red berries like Christmas ornaments, a little Cape Cod house, exhaling smoke from its chimney, a cardinal decorating the bare, gray branches of a tree, icicles dangling from the eaves of a house, sunshine finding dazzling diamonds in the snow. I feel all these things and more.
Slowly, I become aware that I am nearing the end of my run. Conscious thoughts start easing their way back into my mind, clamoring for attention. I begin thinking of the day’s tasks, tracing the myriad threads in the fabric of my life, but now my problems and struggles no longer feel burdensome, as though someone has waved a magic wand, rendering them manageable.
At my stopping point, part of me yearns to run further, longer, harder, but it is enough for one day. I feel refreshed and healthy, with my breath coming easily and sweat beading on my nose. Beneath the layered clothing, my muscles feel warm and powerful. Somewhere deep inside, an essential ember has been rekindled, its spark energizing me from within.