Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When You Can’t Stand, Run.

It is an ordinary Tuesday afternoon as Tuesday afternoons tend to be, except that I am flying home from an extended visit to France, nearly ready to return a copy of the recently mentioned “The Memory of Running” book to Mike of SMR—nearly ready but not quite. Mike graciously invited a review of the book and because I enjoyed it so extravagantly, I’m happy to write. 

As you might already know, “The Memory of Running” is a transformation story, told by its protagonist, Smithson “Smithy” Ide, a friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk, to quote the book’s back cover. Smithy approaches one of those fork-in-the-road junctures where he has to take a few hard looks at his life and decide how to go on. The situation is unspeakably tragic; he has just learned of the death of both his parents and his younger sister, Bethany (“my Bethany,” he says) within the time span of a single week. What adds to the agony is that Smithy has spent much of his growing-up years literally running courageous searches for Bethany who’s intermittent psychotic episodes cause her to go missing and harm herself in astonishing and public ways. 

Says Smithy, “A person doesn’t get over a family.  Sometimes things happen that make a person feel like standing up is just too much...”

It’s one of those times and Smithy is evidently going down, increasingly dependent on the daily packs of Winston cigarettes, the Vodka, all those beers, the crappy food. He acts like an asshole. His body becomes sedentary, almost immobile, strangely a little like his sister in one of her motionless psychosis-induced poses.

At one point, we learn of a pivotal conversation between brother and sister during the time prior to her disappearance and death. Noticing the beginnings of her brother’s deterioration, Bethany—usually the subject of his concern—puts Smithy on the spot. “I’m not worried that I’m crazy, that I’m going to be crazy. Now I’m worried about you.” Smithy laughs a little, tires suddenly, and casually suggests the worry is unwarranted.

But she gently continues. “Can I tell you something, Hook? (her nickname for him) Can I?” He consents, sort of… 

Bethany asks if he remembers how he used to look for her and let her ride his bike home while he ran beside her. “I’m afraid you’ve stopped running, and I don’t want you to. I want you to stay a runner. I want you to remember running.”

Smithy listens, a tribute to the bond between them. Not easy for him, though. Looking back on the conversation he says, “I had this feeling of somewhere a mad scientist fooling around with his beakers and vials, and he had me strapped to a chair, and there was nothing I could do.” Well ok, sometimes a sister might get a little carried away.

When Bethany says she wants him to stay a runner, she’s saying a lot. ‘Running’ in the book, is a metaphor for hoping, taking action, for thriving and being fully alive, but the meaning of the word is not only abstract. Running, according to Bethany, literally requires the passionate and intense movement of the body, whether you are Norma, the Ides’ family friend, sitting tall and strong in a wheelchair, or whether you’re riding the maroon 3-speed Raleigh bike. Running is not just an approach to life; it’s the daily practice of moving one’s body to its fullest capacity, with abandon, and with discipline and determination.

In the new grief of his parents’ and sister’s deaths, Smithy makes a tenuous but irrevocable return to his running past. Just as he used to, he jumps on his old bike without plan or preparation in search of his sister for one last time. His destination is the Cheng Ho Funeral Home, many states away from his Rhode Island neighborhood.

And here begins one of my favorite things about the book. As Smithy begins to move his body again, we see other things in his life beginning to move as well. As he peddles long days through rain, sun, wind, on freeways and rural gravel roads, he slowly wakes up to himself, comes to his senses—he begins to taste, touch, see, hear. He experiences aching muscles, sweat, his heartbeat, and the deep sweet satisfaction of rest that follows intense exertion. He wakes up to his surroundings too, to the people he meets, some whom he has known for a very long time. He feels sadness, trust, desire.

We don’t ever get over a family. The book shows us how true this can be, how the people we love keep forming and shaping us profoundly, long after they pass on. Bethany’s words stay with Smithy, and maybe they resonate with all of us runners. “What are you going to do,” she asks, “… stay a runner… remember running.”

I could never summarize a book like this, nor would I want to; it’s made of action and unrepeatable moments and its conclusions, if it has any, are modest, provisional, and open-ended. But maybe travelers and readers have something in common—we want to take something with us when the adventure is ending. If that impulse is ok, here’s something I’d gratefully carry with me from the book: Bethany’s wisdom, which becomes Smithy’s also: When things happen that make standing up feel it’s just too much, the thing to do—the only thing to do—is run. Stay a runner.

Hope I can remember that some day when I need to. Returning your book now, Mike, with a thousand thanks for the wonderful read.


"Plans just happen, I have found out.  I was someone who never had a plan, so it shook me up to see how simple they were to make and how often they just made themselves.  It was a tender kind of secret and I loved knowing it."
Smithson Ide

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