The view from up here

I’m taking a quick break from all the running talk to share what may have been my sportiest, most active day ever, at least since I’ve been in Amsterdam. Last Saturday started like most other Saturdays, with my regular group training run, although due to the heat and my plans for the evening (more on that in a second), I cut my run short. While the rest of the group logged 18km, I finished up at 13km. After a casual bike ride to a lovely lunch, and some afternoon down time, it was off to the newly opened Lookout at the Amsterdam Tower. But this was no touristy sight-seeing visit. This was business.

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Every day, I ride that little ferry in the bottom right corner, crossing to Noord. Lucky me.

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to Rocycle, a “party on a bike” spin class that had recently come to Amsterdam. Although I had wondered at the time why anyone in this bike-crazy city would be interested in a spin class, I have to admit that it was a lot of fun, and a great workout. I’m not even close to being a regular at the spin studio, but I am on the Rocycle email list. I read that they were hosting a rooftop sunset ride at the A’dam Tower, raising money for the A’dam Music School. And I wanted in.

To loosely paraphrase the very funny Kristin Newman in her memoir/travelogue “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding”, sometimes you have to do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it. This seemed like an only-in-Amsterdam experience, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I wasn’t in the best of shape for the Rocycle workout, to be honest. My legs were tired from the morning run and I couldn’t find (or keep) the pace for some of the combinations. But I didn’t worry too much about that…I just looked out over the IJ River, and watched the sunset, and felt the wind whipping around us, and knew that this was a true Amsterdam experience that I would not soon forget, even if it left me sore and sweaty.

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And off we rode, into the sunset…

 

(Definitely Not) Born to Run

I have a love/hate relationship with running. As a tall, gangly, pre-teen, I got feedback from my softball coach about my running style. My long legs didn’t result in a long stride, and after getting a hit, I was often arriving at the base just before the ball. Family being what it is, my siblings translated my coach’s criticism into, “You run funny”, and after hearing that a few times, I decided I would do whatever was necessary to avoid running.

Avoidance worked for a long time. My teen years were focused on volleyball, which brought its own challenges to my still-gangly body. My high school boyfriend was an accomplished long-distance runner who did his best to get me to join him, without success. I was too self-conscious, and also too other-conscious. His speed, stride, and overall energy for running embarrassed me. I can say now what I couldn’t see then: that his running was strong and beautiful and desperate, given all he was trying to outrun. Running probably saved his life.

As an adult, cycling became my primary sport. On the bike, I felt coordinated, capable, and fast. I started cycling long distances. I completed the 3-day Boston-NY AIDS Ride in 1999 and 2000, both of which were transformative events. After a few years and a few more multi-day cycling events, I started to look for something new. (I do that a lot, I’ve been told.) I didn’t want to stop cycling completely, but I wanted more of a challenge. I wanted to push myself and feel the same sense of accomplishment I had after the AIDS Ride. Somehow, I landed on My Next Thing: triathlon.

I’m a decent swimmer, and that’s the shortest part of the tri, anyway, so I knew I could train and get ready for that leg. The biking would be easy. But, there it was, the last hurdle of triathlon, lurking at the tail end of the race, taunting, daring me to come for it: running.

I found list of area triathlons and picked a sprint-distance race in Lowell, MA that August. I then set out to become a runner. I approached running with a rational, almost academic attitude (I do that a lot, too, I’ve been told). I got Runner’s World magazine from the library. I joined my local running club and their weekly “Walk to Run” program. And I started running.

It was awful. It hurt. I couldn’t breathe. I got side stitches. I was slow, plodding. I hated it.

And it pretty much stayed that way for years, even as I kept on running and doing triathlons. I became a regular at the women-only Title 9 Triathlon, and even recruited family and co-workers to race with me. I would train and prepare, and every year, the run would suck. I would lose time, have no energy, and usually give up and end up walking (just for a minute or two). It never got better, or easier.

For the 2013 race, I had a new strategy. I embraced the suck. The run was going to be rough no matter what, so what was the point of “saving my legs” during the bike? I went all-out, aiming to finish in an hour and 25 minutes, which would be a personal best. With only a mile to go on the run, I checked my watch and calculated that I was close to hitting my goal time, but only if I kept on running. As the photo shows, (you can see most of the clock over my shoulder) I crossed the finish line at 1:25:17, 4th in my group.

Title9 2013 finish

Little did I know that about 6 months later, I would be sidelined with plantar fasciitis, a common and incredibly painful injury which, at its worst, felt like someone was jamming an ice pick straight up my heel. It took over a year to recover, including several months of physical therapy. I gave up on running, feeling that I finally had a good excuse not to run. I wasn’t interested in risking a relapse for an activity that I didn’t enjoy in the first place.

It was winter 2015 when we moved to Amsterdam, and the walking and biking was enough to keep me fit. Another year went by without any running. And then, at a work event in January of this year, maybe over a beer or two, a friend convinced me (“I’ll do it if you do it…”) to join the company team in a road race in September. The Dam to Dam is a 16 kilometer – that’s 10 miles for you non-metric folks – race from Amsterdam to Zaandam. At the time I was coerced into participating, I had never run further than 7 miles in my life.

And here we are, less than four weeks away from the Dam to Dam, and I am a runner. Again. Or maybe at last. I connected with a running group (old habits) and have been training three times a week. Last week I ran 17.6 km. In the course of one of my long Saturday runs, I decided that I would also do the Amsterdam Half Marathon in October, because, why not?

The truth is that I am enjoying running for the first time. Maybe it’s the group and the support. Maybe it’s the short hop from our apartment to the Vondelpark, where I do my weekday workouts in the peace and stillness of the early morning. Maybe all the biking got me in better shape, so the running is easier on my body. I probably still run funny. (Who doesn’t?)

In the past when I ran, I would think primarily about how much I hated running, which was not terribly productive. Now, I run without music, and that gives me a lot of time and space with my thoughts. But more on that next time…it’s taken me about as long to write this as it does for me to run 10km (I’m still slow and plodding) and I need to get up early for an interval workout.

One foot in front of the other…

 

Ireland (or, My Return to the Motherland)

Like many Americans raised Catholic on the east coast of the United States, I can trace at least one branch of my family back to Ireland. My great, great, great grandfather on my father’s side left Ireland in the 1840s. The exact date is unclear, but his son, my great, great grandfather, was born in America in 1846. This would have been a time of massive immigration, the start of what would become the Great Potato Famine, bringing waves of Irish to the shores of the U.S. By 1850, Irish made up a quarter of the population of Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Buffalo. New York City, where all of my ancestors landed, still claims the largest population of Irish in the United States.

In practice, we were our most Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. We wore green clothes, ate corned beef and cabbage and Irish soda bread. (And yes, I know that actual Irish people don’t eat any of those things on St. Patrick’s Day. Or ever.) My dad would sing, “The Wearing of the Green” and we’d all  be Irish for the day. In truth, my Irish heritage is so minor that it hardly merits mentioning.

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My interest in going to Ireland was less about genealogy and more about geology. Some time ago, flying to I-can’t-remember-where, I was flipping through the in-flight magazine and I saw a photo of the Giant’s Causeway. I didn’t know where it was, I only knew I needed to go to there. Happily, it is somewhere accessible (unlike, say, Al-Khazheh in Petra, Jordan).

Twenty years ago, Northern Ireland would not have been considered “accessible” by too many people. Even just ten years ago, we learned, Belfast had only 2 or 3 hotels. Now there are 40, and tourism is a burgeoning industry . The city center is clean and charming, with good restaurants, and the rough and beautiful Antrim coast is a short drive away. After a couple of busy, crowded days in Dublin, arriving in Belfast felt like a relief.

IMG_2336And our visit to the Causeway did not disappoint. Our bus tour got us there early, before the crowds arrived, and we were able to spend time climbing around the rocks, listening to the waves crash in, and marveling at whatever created this crazy pile of stones. We got a cursory overview of the history of Northern Ireland from our bus driver/tour guide, but it wasn’t until the next morning that we were able to take a deeper dive into the complex past – and the still-complicated present – of Northern Ireland.

Just before returning to Dublin, we took a taxi tour in Belfast with a very knowledgeable driver who brought us to several sites related to the Troubles: Bombay Street, the Shankill Road, the peace walls.

The history of the conflict in Northern Ireland is deep, ancient. Scholars and writers have spent lifetimes researching and explaining it; residents of Northern Ireland have spent lifetimes living it. I won’t dishonor anyone by pretending to understand even a fraction of it. All I can say is that I left with so many more questions than I arrived with, and with a lot of reading and learning to do. Reconciliation and forgiveness may be among the hardest tasks we are given as human beings. It has been less than 20 years since the Good Friday agreement brought a cease-fire to Northern Ireland. True peace will require time, work, and will, from all sides.

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Bombay Street, Garden of Remembrance and separation wall

 


 

I first went to Ireland in 1994, on a whirlwind detour from Oxford, where I had gone to visit my best friend Meg. She was doing a semester abroad; the trip to England was the first time I had left the U.S. (save for a disastrous trip to Canada the year before, the details of which are known to only a lucky few). On a whim, we went to Dublin on a Friday night with no place to stay, no plans. I can’t remember how we bought a plane ticket in those pre-internet days…did we just show up at Heathrow and pay cash?

We arrived after dark, found bunks in a hostel, went to a pub and drank Guinness. In the morning we took a train to the countryside and walked around a little village and went to the grocery store, and ate brown bread in the station waiting for the train back to Dublin.

That visit to England and our hop to Ireland started something that has, in the 20+ years since, led directly to me being here, living abroad. It is a love of travel, sure, but also a desire to see and to understand. I felt that desire so keenly again on this trip – the combination, perhaps, of my present-day love of learning and the ancient memory of some long-ago, long-gone ancestor.

 

 

To live in this world

 

A year ago today, I shared a long, personal reflection on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. After I posted it, a friend suggested I reread it from time to time, and especially on this anniversary day. I did, and will continue to do so, not as a measure of any kind of “progress” but as a remembrance. Another year has passed and still – again – things are different. Words like “easier” or “harder” have no place in grieving, at least for me. There is just different, other.

This year I don’t have anything profound or even anything particularly personal to say for myself, so I’m relying on someone else. One thing that has brought me comfort during these past 2 years has been reading poetry again, where I find expressions of the same solace, anger, resignation, peace, or confusion I feel, but cannot give voice to.

So I offer this up to you, and to the memory of my mom, and all the love and light she brought into the world.

“In Blackwater Woods”, by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes
to let it go,
to let it go.

Dutch lessons, take 2

Hoi allemaal!

Yes, that’s right, more than a year after my first attempt at Dutch, I am back in the classroom. Today was day 2 of a five-day intensive program, with classes from 9am-4pm. As tiring as it is, I think it’s a better format for me than the twice-a-week evening classes we tried last year. It also helps that I’m not working, so I can focus all of my attention on the class and the homework. (Except, of course, for small breaks like this…!)

I’ve written several times before about Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite writers, and his beautiful, true reflections on the difficulty of learning another language. He and I have been pursuing our adult study of French for about the same amount of time, and I have seen my own experiences mirrored in his. Progress, then setbacks. Mistakes, then breakthroughs. The joy of having a real conversation, and thus a deeper interaction, in another language. Never feeling quite at home, but getting more comfortable.

French, however, was easier in comparison, since I at least had some old, cob-webby memories of vocabulary and grammar from my high school days. But with Dutch, I have no frame of reference, nothing I can dust off. Everything is new, and much of it is difficult. Being in a level 2 class means that the other students have various experience with and exposure to the language. Those with Dutch partners or spouses have an extra advantage. Ditto the South African student who speaks some Afrikaans. Sometimes I feel like the slowest person in the class, struggling to remember a simple word or the correct sentence structure.

In those moments, I remind myself, again, of one of Ta-Nehisi’s many truths:

“There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.”

The class ends on Friday and then it’s back to work on Monday, ready or not, where I will be held to account by many Dutch coworkers who are anxious to judge my progress (and correct my mistakes). Here’s hoping I can show some improvement by then…!