What running taught me

Mon Dieu!  I have been delinquent in keeping you lovely folks up to date on all the goings-on around here. It’s been a busy time. We just returned this morning from a wonderful long weekend in Lyon (more on that soon). The weekend before we were with friends and enjoying a particularly Dutch adventure (more on that, too) in the north of Holland.

But for now, as I relax after a slow, hot, not-so-great training run, and with my first race in years just 6 days away, I figured I’d take a few minutes to share a bit more about my return to running. As I mentioned last time, I spent a couple of years recovering from a very painful injury to my heel and foot. It was so bad that I had pretty much given up on running completely. But after many months of finally being pain-free, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could start up again. When I was encouraged (pressured?) to be part of a company team for an annual race in Amsterdam, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for my “comeback”.

As I often do when tackling a new project, I made a plan. I dug out my list of physical therapy exercises and started the calf stretches and one-legged squats. I downloaded a walk-to-run app and eased slowly back into running. I joined a running group to give some structure to my training. In the first weeks, I obsessed about my heel and how it was feeling. I paid attention to every little twinge, worried that it was a relapse. I rested, stretched, massaged, and did whatever I could to be sure that I was protecting the site of the old injury.

Several weeks into my training, on a long run with my pace group, I noticed a little pain in my knee. We were running distances I had never done before; on this day, the knee discomfort started around kilometer 14 or 15. I remember being surprised by it – less by the pain itself, and more by the idea that some part of my body other than my foot could hurt.

Later that day, I realized that for the previous months of preparation and training, I had been completely focused on my heel, worried only about protecting and strengthening it. So focused, it turns out, that it never occurred to me to pay attention to pain or discomfort anywhere else. I was running as if I believed that the only possible injury I could have was a recurrence of the old one.

I don’t think my approach is an unusual or even a bad response to injury. We do need to protect parts of ourselves. We need to strengthen these tender areas, baby them a little. That’s fine at first – necessary, even. But if the goal is to return to full health, then shielding something too long can put us at risk in other ways. Maybe we opt to remove ourselves completely from something – a sport, an activity, a relationship – in order to stay safe. Or, we may find that our focus on the hurt or broken part has blinded us to other things that need our attention – both opportunities and vulnerabilities that we fail to see.

I’m not going to get all “Zen and the Art of Running” on you (mostly because I haven’t read the book), but I do find that this time around, running is giving me more than it did before. In the past few months, I feel like I’ve developed a greater general awareness. I have more trust in my body and its ability and potential. My injury and the pain that came with it felt like a betrayal of sorts; my normally healthy body suddenly had limitations that frustrated and (literally) hurt me.  But now we’re back on steady ground. I take less for granted, and try to pay more attention – not just to the parts that have been damaged.

When physical activity of any kind brings you challenge, focus, peace, growth, and health, you’re on the right path. Whatever does it for you, keep at it. Do it more.

It’s party time

I dream of being one of those people who entertains effortlessly. Who always has the right wine chilling and the right snacks in the pantry. Who can throw together a platter of cheese and fruit and crackers in five minutes. Who has serving dishes and ice buckets and cocktail shakers at the ready. Like Martha Stewart, but without the condescending smugness. Or the jail time.

Unfortunately, I am NOT one of those people. Don’t get me wrong – I really like parties. I like going to them, and getting a peek into someone’s home and life. If it’s a good night and a good party, I meet at least one or two people that I find super interesting (and I tend to monopolize those people once I find them).

Theoretically, I also like to host parties. For one thing, I want to be able to reciprocate the hospitality and friendship that have been extended to us. I enjoy bringing people from the various spheres of our lives – co-workers, expat friends, neighbors – together and seeing what happens. In the best case, everyone meets one or two people that they find super interesting.

In spite of how much I like parties, I am not a natural party-giver. The details stress me out. Party planning becomes a spiraling frenzy of questions that I can’t answer. How much beer do we need? How much food? More red wine or more white wine? Do the plates match the napkins? Do we even have napkins? When should I buy the vegetables, the cheese, the flowers? And on and on…

So it may surprise you to hear that we are, actually, throwing a party. In two days, to be exact. For about 30 people. I am nowhere near ready for this.

First, our oven is broken. Sort of. The bake function crapped out so we can only grill or broil. I had planned to make a delicious chocolate bundt cake and maybe some American-style chocolate chip cookies. I’m a pretty good baker but I know my limits – you can’t broil a cake.

Second, this is one time that I miss having a car. Getting enough food and drink for 30 people is a slow process when all you have is your bike and your fietstassen. We started stocking up on beer a week ago, buying a few bottles every time we went to the grocery store. Then we found out that our local liquor store delivers. Perfect!

I’m sure that everything will come together, and with any luck I’ll keep my cool in the hours leading up to the party. The trick is to focus on what matters, and not get so wrapped up in the trappings that I forget about the point of this whole thing: our friends.

It’s not been easy to build a community here. People are busy with their own lives and commitments. Unlike those who move here for love, we’re probably not here forever. The fact that we’re somewhat transient may make people less willing to invest their time in us, whether they are conscious of it or not. But, little by little, we have made connections and made friends. It takes effort and consistency and time, and often we needed to be the instigators, and make the first move. And now we get to enjoy the pay-off: a home full of fun, super interesting people.

Now to put them all together and see what happens…


Where do we start?

Earlier this week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in several years. As we sat down, we started talking about a race he had recently run, my sponsorship of which had put us back in touch. With that covered, we had a moment where we looked at each other and said, “So, where do we begin?”.

Given the time that had passed, we weren’t sure how or where to start.  Do we calculate exactly when we last saw each other and work forward from there?  Or just skip ahead to current stuff – jobs, family, mutual friends? We figured it out, and, as it’s always been our custom to enjoy long, lingering meals, we spent over three hours catching up.

I’m hoping that meal will be good preparation for my upcoming return to the office, about a week and a half from now. Where do I start catching up with my colleagues? Of course, three months isn’t nearly the same as three years, but three months in the life of an organization is a significant amount of time. Particularly when that organization includes hundreds of people and spans multiple countries. On top of that, the past several months have been a time of transition and turnover. I honestly don’t know how many people I’ll recognize when I get back. Part of me wonders if I should pretend to be a new employee, and see how long I can keep that up…

For now, I’m focused on spending the first few days getting re-acclimated, meeting with and listening to the people who have been doing the heavy lifting in my absence.  I have to remember to be patient with them, and with myself, and to allow for some difficulties in the first few days. Getting back to my old routine and schedule will be a challenge.  I’m thinking of strategies to bring the things that have become important to me – exercise, mindful eating, thoughtful communication – into my work day.

All of this will take time. I hope in the weeks to come that I’ll be able to share some of what I learned during my sabbatical with friends and colleagues, and that those lessons will result in positive changes to my work and to our organizational culture. But first I need to listen, and understand the successes and challenges that my colleagues have had while I’ve been away. And most importantly, I need to find a way to show my gratitude, which, especially in these last days, is immense.

How to end a sabbatical

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I couldn’t find the kinds of resources I wanted to help me plan and prepare for my sabbatical. So it should come as no surprise that there are even fewer resources to help me end my sabbatical.

Yesterday I realized that I had only three weeks remaining before returning to work. A friend pointed out that if you offered most people a three-week vacation, they’d be thrilled – it would seem like a luxurious amount of time. To look at it another glass-half-full way, I still have about 20% of my sabbatical remaining. Not bad.

Still, I’m starting to feel some urgency and some anxiety about the remaining time. Several months before my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to attend a leadership training program, and as part of that experience I was assigned an executive coach. In a follow-up conversation a few weeks before my leave, I asked her for her thoughts about “re-entry” into work, and if I should use the week or so before returning to start getting caught up, checking email, etc. “Absolutely not!”, was her immediate reply. “Your sabbatical is your time until the moment you walk back into your office.” That’s been my guiding principle, and I’m confident I can stick to it.

But the question remains as to what to do with the time that is left. There are no great adventures on the horizon, but neither are there any big things I feel like I must do. Many of the goals I had for this time have been accomplished. I have learned, traveled, explored my hometown, nurtured relationships, exercised, read, reflected, gotten organized. Still, a part of me feels like I need to produce something, or have something more concrete to hold up to others to justify having taken this time. (One could argue that this blog could be that “something”, I guess.)

So that’s where I am on this beautiful Wednesday morning. Not yet counting down the days remaining, to be sure, but mindful that those days are few, and should be used well.

Half the clothes, twice the money

If you work with me or if you’ve traveled with me, you’ll back me up when I say that I know how to pack a suitcase. I pride myself on my packing skills, and while I’m not one of those militant carry-on only types who washes her socks in the hotel sink, I’m pretty good.

I‘ve also learned to make do with less.  On a whirlwind trip to Africa, my first, a colleague and I visited three countries in 10 days.  We flew from Dulles to Johannesburg, and sprinted through the airport to make our connecting flight to Maseru.  Our bags had less of a sense of urgency, and decided they’d rather stay in South Africa.  I spent the whole trip with just a backpack: toiletries, the clothes I was wearing, plus an extra shirt and a few spare pairs of underwear.  With no opportunity to buy replacement items, I borrowed here and there and, yes, I washed a few things in the hotel sink.

When circumstances force your hand, you realize how little you actually need.

Packing for a month-long journey is a challenge, particularly when that month is going to be spent in one of the more fashionable places on earth.  But I’m trying to keep that first Africa trip in mind, and remember that I have more than enough.   Maybe I won’t be prepared for every weather condition or possible event or activity, but I’ll make do.

What I most want to remember is that the freedom to choose, while highly valued, can sometimes limit us in other ways.  “The aim [of choice] is to have chosen successfully, not to be endlessly choosing”, writes George Trow.

I spent 12 years wearing a school uniform.  Every morning I put on a plaid skirt, a clean blouse, a blazer or a vest. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but the nuns were on to something.  They knew that when you aren’t worrying about your clothes, about fashion or fitting in, you can give your attention to other things, other choices.

I’m not bringing any plaid skirts to France.  My bags (yes, there are two) are packed, choices made, and I’m more than ready to turn my attention to the adventure ahead.

One day, ten questions, one word

I will confess to watching, more than once, the show “Inside the Actors Studio”, with the wonderfully pretentious James Lipton as the host.  I’ve also seen the brilliant Saturday Night Live Will Ferrell skit that introduced the word “scrumtrulescent” into my vocabulary. (It’s ok, you can go watch it.  I’ll wait…)

If you’ve watched the real show or the SNL spoof, you’ll know that at the end of the interview James asks his guest ten questions.  What is your favorite word?  What is your least favorite word? What sound or noise do you love? What is your favorite curse word? Some of the celebrity responses are revealing.  After watching a few episodes, you’ll start thinking about your own answers to this now-famous questionnaire.

Just to be clear, NO, I did not spend the first official day of my sabbatical watching reruns of “Inside the Actors Studio”.  And I’m not going to bore you with all of my answers – just one.  Because my favorite word has been following me around all day, just outside of my field of vision, waiting for me to see and remember it: liminal.

Liminality comes from anthropology and describes the disorientation that can occur partway through a ritual or transition.  The participants are no longer the same as they were at the start, but they haven’t yet achieved the status that they’ll have at the end of the process.  They are said to be at a threshold, between two states.

I can’t remember when I first learned about this – it may have been in a freshman anthropology class or during my post-collegiate love affair with Joseph Campbell – but I do remember that the concept made a lot of sense to me.  It gave me a way to identify and better understand the inevitable transitions of my early 20s (and mid 20s, and early 30s, and mid 30s…).  And it’s helping me make sense of these few days before I board my flight and really get started on this adventure.

I’ve learned not to look for comfort in these liminal spaces, just patience.  I try to remember that something is happening.  Something has begun, and the restlessness and ambiguity are part of the deal if I’m going to see it through to the end.  Today I’m just glad that my favorite word decided to reappear on Day One of My Sabbatical, when I needed it most.

So here’s to liminality.  Scrumtrulescent liminality.