Remembering to Play

Every Thursday, I teach a Pilates class at a local private school. The window on the far wall of our classroom overlooks the gymnasium, where most weeks, the school hosts gymnastics lessons for little ones.

My students and I often spend the first few minutes of our designated class time tip toeing to peer through that window at the children below, marveled by their lack of self-consciousness and fear.

Sure, some of these children--most of them no more than seven years old--are tentative. They scoot precariously along the balance beam, arms flailing for balance. Others approach the apparatus with reckless abandon--flipping effortlessly on the uneven bars. Hurling themselves at full speed over the vault. Somersaulting forward and backward and forward again, weightless and free.

Photo by Vita-lina/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Vita-lina/iStock / Getty Images

I was much like the latter children at that age. I spent so much time upside down, be it in trees, the pool, or on land, that the most iconic image of my childhood is one my mother cross-stitched into perpetuity--me, hair in braided pigtails, clad in a yellow, red, and blue striped polo shirt and navy shorts, upside down in a handstand on our front lawn of our childhood home.

I wrote stories and poems, never caring if anyone read them, or what those who did thought of them. I made up elaborate pool "routines" for me and my sister to perform for our parents, neighborhood children, but mostly, ourselves. I ran fast because I was friends with a lot of boys, and as the shortest and smallest, I didn't want to be left behind in their games. I climbed tress, swung from monkey bars, taught myself to play the piano, and swam endless laps of the pool just to see how long I could hold my breath--all of it done for fun, for play.

At some pivotal point in our lives--for me, it was the combination of a cross-country move and the onset of puberty--we lose that sense of fearlessness and ease in our own bodies and imaginations. Fun becomes work and achievement and check boxes and responsibility.

So when I was struggling with running leading up to Boston, I'd just laugh when people told me to run the race "for fun."

Fun has long not been part of my vocabulary, and definitely not when it came to running. At first I ran for health and the purely selfish goal of burning calories and losing weight. And then it became more selfless, for a cause. And then it morphed into accomplishments--PRs, age group placements, and finally--the holy grail, the Boston Marathon qualifying time.

My fun, my joy, came from the achieving, not the doing.

And when the achievements disappear, the doubt and the dread creep in. Anxiety. Depression. Self-loathing. Insecurity. And those emotions were clouding every aspect of my life--relationships, writing, teaching, running, music--leading up to and even beyond that unfortunate DNF race 

I was paralyzed because I didn't know how to have fun. To find joy.

And so these days, I'm on a quest for joy. For creative outlets without the judgment of self and others. To write shitty first drafts. To try new workouts and classes. To compose. To play Chopin with passion, even if I flub a few runs or miss some bass notes. To do more handstands. To get lost in novels and in the woods and in my mind and on my runs.

To discover, to dream, to seek, to find, to play.