“The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and subtle way, to locate the most tender and live spot, and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. It would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it might take you.”
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
I dreamed that I was living in an old house in the woods. As I wandered through it, I saw dozens—no, hundreds—of beautiful spheres scattered around the floorboards and resting on top of paintings, shelves, and tables. Each sphere was about the size of a golf ball, and some were illuminated. Though most were white, others glowed in delicate shades of green, yellow, and blue. They seemed hazy and otherworldly. My eyes blurred a little when I looked at them.
Somehow I became aware of a presence outside. I stepped around several spheres to open the front door, and on the porch I found even more spheres. I understood that they were gifts from another realm—the nature world—and that they had been left on the porch for me to collect.
I was flummoxed. What was I going to do with them? I was grateful for the generosity and beauty of the gift, but the spheres were taking over my house like tribbles.
I gathered the new spheres from the porch and went inside, where friends were sitting together around the dining table. I thought, Of course. I should give as many as possible to my friends. But first I had to “activate” them because none of the new spheres were glowing. I discovered that I could spark their luminescence by blowing gently onto them, one by one. As each sphere took on its unique light, I set it inside a paper bag alongside many others. I handed the makeshift luminarias to my friends and watched as their faces began to shine.
“The athlete that dwells in each of us is more than an abstract ideal. It is a living presence that can change the way we feel and live.”
I recently did something I’ve never done before. I ran for thirty minutes straight. Maybe I should put quotation marks around the word “run,” as my pace was only slightly faster than that of a hermit crab. I reveled in the moment nonetheless.
I used to think I couldn’t run, that it wasn’t possible for someone of my body type and fitness level. Sure, everywhere I saw people running. Lithe and fit, or just-barely-jogging. Runners whose dogs pulled them forward. A solo runner listening to music; a club of fleet-footed friends racing past her down the street. I just couldn’t see myself out there with them.
Last fall I grew determined to change this mindset. I’d created an idiosyncratic, four-year course of study to help me reorient my life toward singing, my deepest calling. I dubbed this program “Voice University” and figured I could invent a curriculum each semester to provide some structure and move me along the path.
Following the university metaphor, last September was the beginning of my freshman year. I decided to focus first on foundational issues—preparing my body, mind, heart, and voice for optimal work as a human instrument. I called this course “Wing Building.” The body component had several parts, including good nutrition, flexibility and stability exercises, and regular aerobic activity through walking and running. My ultimate goal was to incorporate these practices in a sustainable way so that they became part of my everyday life. And I dreamed the impossible dream—to work up to running for thirty minutes, three days a week.
I asked a friend who has significant athletic expertise for support. Three times a week she bicycled to my house at 6 a.m. and accompanied me on a walk-run. The way I wanted to train was to alternate periods of walking and running, gradually increasing the running segments until they filled the entire thirty-minute session. At first I could run for only thirty or forty-five seconds at a stretch. My friend tracked my time and encouraged me through each milestone, which was usually a tiny increase of five seconds of running per segment. We worked together slowly until I was running for a total of about eleven minutes, averaging one and a half minutes per segment, with a three-minute run at the very end. This felt like grace.
Later in the fall, my friend’s morning schedule changed, so our training sessions came to an end. Before bidding me adieu, she gave me a gift—a Road ID bracelet with my personal information inscribed, along with my favorite Emily Dickinson quote: “Dwell in possibility.” As she placed the bracelet on my wrist, she said, “Congratulations. You’re a runner now. You did it, and you can keep going.”
I’m forever grateful and in her debt. By the time she set me off on my own, I’d developed a little confidence in my routine and in myself, so I kept going. But solo progress was spottier. Pulling myself out of bed at 6 a.m. was more difficult when no one was meeting me on the front doorstep. It was also harder to go outside on dark, cold winter mornings. Mostly I went, but sometimes I didn’t. For several months I treaded water.
In late spring I decided to refocus my efforts. I’d looked ahead on the calendar to September, when my college a cappella group’s reunion was scheduled. A Duke Ellington quote flashed to mind: “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” Exactly. In that moment, the concept of a “five-month montage” was born. I decided to spend five months undergoing a deliberate body-transformation process, during which I hoped to lose a certain amount of weight and make real progress on my running.
Film directors speed audiences through such times by way of a montage set to music: Daniel-san waxing on, waxing off Mr. Miyagi’s car, then practicing crane kicks on the beach; Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs and buffing himself up for the big fight. No one wants to watch characters grow moment by excruciating moment—it’s boring. We’re a culture of instant-gratification transformation junkies. We want change, and we want it now.
Throughout my life I’ve felt this way and have been incredibly impatient with myself as I attempt to manifest a personal change. But somehow this time was different. I decided to live with slower, more incremental progress and dwell in the montage, moment by moment. I got up every morning, tired or not. I went outside, regardless of the weather or my comfort. I sweated, spat, grunted, and nudged myself along. I kept going through moments of intense boredom, negative beliefs about my capabilities, and the desire to give up. I just kept going.
I thought about creating a montage playlist (so many great, cheesy song possibilities!) but relinquished the idea in favor of chanting. I’d taken a sound-yoga course during spring semester and had learned a mantra honoring the Hindu deity Ganesha, remover of obstacles. I wondered if this might help spur me down the path, so I tried chanting it silently in tempo with my pace, especially when I thought I could run no further. It did help. Pretty soon I felt as though I had an encouraging, invisible running partner.
By June I’d increased my running time to a total of sixteen minutes and forty-five seconds, in increments of about two minutes per run with a four-minute run at the end—very slow but steady progress. I celebrated each milestone, scribbling the new time in a little notebook. That notebook tells me that on July 1 I ran for twenty minutes and forty-five seconds total, still in brief segments of running interspersed with walking.
On Friday, July 8, I wrote, “Slow and low, that is the tempo.” It had been brutally hot throughout the South and much of the country. My morning run-walks were the only time I could bear to be outside, and even so, it was freakishly hot and humid.
Then on Thursday, July 14, the heat broke. Suddenly it was cool and dry, almost unimaginable during summer in North Carolina. The next morning I went outside to a fresh, gorgeous world. My body sang, and I felt giddy with energy. In the middle of my run-walk, I wondered whether I could take advantage of the cool weather to string together a few running segments. Well, why not try? I followed a two-minute run immediately with a two and one-half minute run, no walk in-between. Could I add another running segment? Yes, I could. Another? Yes. In this manner I strung together the final segments until I’d run for thirteen minutes and twenty-five seconds—my longest running stretch, ever.
The following Monday, the weather was still gloriously cool. I decided to play a “what if” game. What if I could string more segments together into an even longer run? What I discovered was this: I was able to run for twenty-five minutes straight. Oh, wow. This was an enormous surprise; I felt like I’d won the body lottery.
I gave myself two weeks to settle into the new routine, just to make sure I could repeat it without injury before trying to increase my time. All went well until Friday, July 29, when I woke up in a black mood and wanted nothing more than to pull the covers back over me. No way did I want to go out and try to run for twenty-five minutes. I wanted to give it all up.
But I didn’t. I hauled myself out of bed, put on my running clothes, snapped the bracelet my friend gave me around my wrist, and went outside. I didn’t expect much from myself. The hot, humid air had returned, and it enveloped my skin, an unwelcome garment. I ran slowly, ploddingly. I was bored. I was tired. I was irritated at the whole interminable process.
Finally I reached the stop sign that marked the end of my route and saw that I’d actually run for a little more than twenty-five minutes. What? My pace must have been faster than I’d realized. Huh, I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if on this morning—this irritating, blasted morning—I finally reach my goal?
I kept running until I saw these numbers on my stopwatch:
Angels did not trumpet from on high. There was no double rainbow. No one was there to slap my palm, high-five style. No matter. I smiled and walked home. I knew I would get up on Monday and do it all again.
Last night I found myself running during my evening walk, and I felt joy in the physicality of my body. I’ve let go of my five-month montage deadline. I’d like to keep losing weight, and I want to increase my running speed. But the most sustainable way to approach those intentions is step by step, and small steps at that. Finally I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of going slow.
It’s a hot Sunday in May, and my to-do list is filled to the brim — tomatoes and basil to plant, posole to cook, and concrete stoops to power wash. But all I want to do is sit on the porch and stare out at the hazy sky, coffee in hand. I hate that I saved all my chores for today. There’s way too much to tackle, and the more I consider the impossibility of finishing everything, the crankier I get.
Clearly the best thing to do is ditch it all and go visit a garden.
The celebrated, private gardens of Montrose are open to the public today — one of only two days in 2011. Usually I hear about these openings too late, but not this year. I don’t want to miss seeing them again.
I grab a wide-brimmed hat, hop in the car, and meander past meadows and cow pastures to the leafy environs of Hillsborough, North Carolina. This tiny historic town is the county seat and home to an annual hog festival, a reconstructed 17th-century Indian village, and a slew of notable authors, including Annie Dillard, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, and Hal Crowther. At the downtown pub, you might see bikers mixing with banjo players, blue-clad college kids beside farmers in overalls, or an ex-presidential candidate lying low among the locals.
I take a road that winds away from the town’s main drag, pass by an Episcopal church, and park at an elementary school. Montrose is next door. As I enter through the front gate, the cries of circling red-tailed hawks capture my attention. But soon the vegetation steals the show.
Trees of burgundy and green surround a lush expanse of lawn. I follow a gravel path to the front of the house, which used to be the governor’s mansion (back when Hillsborough was the capital). And from there, I visit garden after garden — some in shade, others in sun, each a riot of color and semi-contained chaos. Nigella and poppies have sown themselves into the pathways; their insistence and exuberance charm me as I step around them. I see banana trees, wicked thorns of barberry bushes, cast-iron urns spilling over with plants, roses climbing rustic trellises made of juniper, and a magnificent magnolia with crazy-looking blossoms larger than my head. Cats wander through it all, occasionally deigning to pose for a photo or two. Under some shade trees near a line of boxwoods, lemonade is being served. Its sweet tang takes the edge off the heat.
I head to the greenhouse to view the plants for sale and end up clutching a small conifer and a bright green succulent. A man wearing a worn cap over his long hair notices me and says, “You look like you’re having the time of your life.” I smile and move into the shade. He’s right: my mood has changed entirely. I no longer feel aggravated about my to-do list, the weather, or anything else. Somehow being here has catapulted me into another state of consciousness. Time seems to have slowed, and I’m filled with gratitude.
I walk over to a tent to pay. When I ask to whom I should write the check, an older woman replies, “To me.” Nancy Goodwin, Montrose’s owner and self-taught master gardener, is sitting in a lawn chair looking at me with a gaze clear and sharp. Her nondescript clothes and no-nonsense manner overlie a potent energy, charisma, and passion — as though Cleopatra were packed into a seed. This one woman has managed to create gardens at a nearly unbelievable scale, without power tools or irrigation and with only a handful of women to help. I’m both humbled and inspired by her vision.
I want to dream bigger.
I’m sharing coffee with my sister, an artist whose home is splashed with color and pattern. The walls are ochre, scarlet, and cocoa; bright green gingko leaves fill the curtains. Origami cranes peek out from under pots filled with jade and African violets. An owl made of acrylic and spare computer parts flies out of a canvas in the bathroom, and close-cropped photographs of wild mushrooms adorn the stairwell. All of this gets moved to new places every week or so. Her home’s dynamism is so different from the spare, cool aesthetic of mine, with its wooden floors, clear surfaces, and white walls. Once something is positioned in my house, it stays there. I thrive in a quiet, intentional environment, but I envy my sister’s color and verve. As I look at the walls of her kitchen, I wonder what color they’ll be the next time I visit.
I drain my cup as she wanders off. She returns with a bucket of clay, sets it in front of me, and says, “Will you help me make some cats, please? I have so many to make before next week.” She’s talking about figurines for the Lost Cats Project, a citywide hide-and-seek game she cofounded to promote not-so-random acts of creative kindness. After sculpting and painting the cats, she names them, gives them collars, and tucks them into hidey-holes in parks, galleries, restaurants, and museums throughout the greater Richmond, Virginia, area. Then she tweets clues regarding their whereabouts, sending groups of seekers into a frenzied search.
“So, will you please make some? It’s easy. Here, I’ll show you.” She rolls a hunk of clay into a ball and rapidly coaxes it into form.
I hesitate. I’m not so good with my hands.
“C’mon, I need to make 100 more. Will you help me? You’ll be my guest artist. It’ll be fun.” I take a handful of cold clay and roll it between my hands until it becomes supple. Soon I’m looking at a cat. This cat has a smushed head and a vexed expression, but she’s sort of appealing. I name her Isadora and ask my sister to paint her orange. For another hour, we sit together making cats. She’s right. It’s fun.
Some months later my sister sends me a stop-motion video made by a VCU art student who found Isadora. In it, we see Isadora come to life and go on an adventure. She wanders out of a building to a river, stumbles over the roots of a tree, and winds up on a bench, where her new owner finds her.
Seeing this video stuns me. I can’t help but smile — and cry a bit. I’m moved that the artist was inspired to fashion a beautiful, quirky little film in response to finding Isadora. (OK, it was a class assignment, but still.) Though he describes his video as “silly,” I’m reluctant to dismiss it. It’s brief, but it’s also potent.
What we create wanders through the world, sometimes with surprising results.