The following blog post is an early excerpt from my soon-to-be-published book, Good Boy, Bad Boy. Although the book is still in the exciting (and painful) early stages of writing, I thought this would be a fitting post for the New Year.
For the past two years, or maybe our entire adult lives, we have been “clinging.” Scared to let go of the known and let life grab us, toss, turn and take us down a different road, a different journey, because the outcome is unpredictable. It’s a serious, concerning world out there, so safe is better than sorry … isn’t it?
With that said, this blog is about the first time I heeded the internal call, turned toward the flames, and was never the same again.
And the title of the post is a Hunter S. Thompson quote
As I had mentioned in an earlier post, I was in an unhealthy relationship with running track and field and cross country from my early teens onward. Most of the time, I was neither happy nor sad—I was just exhausted. I felt awake and alive in the early dawn as my feet lightly tread across the cold pavement and my body warmed with the passing miles. By mid day, sitting in the classroom, I’d be zombie-like, fighting the urge to not drift off for a little snooze before I laced up again in the afternoon. Running was always a source of joy and misery—the more I did, the less of me existed outside of it.
Running was the only thing that offered solace while simultaneously provoking that part of me that was stored away—that part that scratched at my brain, pounded my heart, and boiled my blood in its insistence to know more of life. I had trapped it there. Unintentionally, but purposefully, because running was my “goodness” and to face the other would only be bad. Of course, no one had ever said that to me directly, but it was the subtext of every conversation and interaction I’d had since I’d dashed through my first quarter mile. I was a runner. I was Joel, a very good runner. The very promising runner.
The disciplined pursuit of any sport or endeavour, where you possess some degree of natural ability and acumen, can lead to good things. To develop that ability and pursue it, can also lead to extraordinary things—as it did for me—and I wouldn’t change it for anything. But, because of the way I was raised, and because of my own tendencies, I did not know how to reconcile Joel the Runner, with that other part of me.. I couldn’t be both. It was all or nothing. I had to be the disciplined runner who knew nothing of life but running and winning and setting a good example for others. Ultimately, this was, for me, a partial lie because it denied so much and led to a somewhat delirious episode where, one day, the other part burst through.
I had listened to all the good advice from teachers and parents and coaches and never veered from the path. I had to run and I had to be good because it seemed to please people and it made things easier for me. Which, in a complicated life, is nice to have. Right?
As fate would have it, I tore my Achilles tendon on a run. At first, I was determined to heal it as fast as possible so I could run again. I lived with a bag of frozen corn attached to my ankle, making frequent visits to a physiotherapist’s table and trapped on the hamster wheel of my stationary bike at home… But soon I was on the mend—running and walking in a most monotonous of rehab routines. At first, just 15 seconds of running mixed with 45 seconds of walking for an agonizing 30 minutes on a grassy field. Every two days, I’d increase the run time and reduce the walk time by 15 second. It was a torture for someone used to running far and fast and most certainly invented in hell and, why I deserved it, I could not yet understand. My Achilles was mending, I was running, but the delirium had begun. I also started lying.
During this time, I forfeited my full athletic scholarship at a university in North Carolina, far away from home, because I’d said my coach back home was sick and I needed to be with him. Yes, he’d had a near death episode and I wanted to see him, but that was not really why I’d left and the recruiting coach knew it. He had given me a shot and deserved more than a pathetic lie in return. The shame of that moment was beyond any I had ever experienced. Not long after, he was let go from his coaching duties, wrongly or rightly I do not know, but I told people back home that was the reason I’d left. Truth be told, I didn’t know exactly why I had—it was more a deep feeling of “somethings not right in me.” Still, I ran. Soon I was long past the full 30 minutes of slow jogging on a grassy field and even racing a little again.
What had felt like “forever” was only six months or so, but soon after that, I got injured again, and then again. While my physical body was breaking, something inside me was breaking as well. By the third or forth injury in 18 months, I was no longer reaching for the frozen corn or seeking the physio table or even the stationary bike. For some reason I want to heal and so started lying again… When people asked how the rehab was going, I’d tell them it was going just fine. My coaches suggested special orthotics and new training regimes. The words and things that had once held hope, were nothing more than noise. That I kept on lying was strange and scary to me. Long after the injuries had likely healed, I had not laced up my shoes for a run. Instead, I had started reading of far-off places. And, I decided my next run would be … away.
Not even my parents knew. Of course, I was nearly twenty and could do what I wanted, but I knew I was about to let everyone down. Everyone who had loyally supported my running pursuit for so many years. I was going, or so I thought, to break their hearts.
Finally, I found enough courage to tell my parents and coaches that I needed an extended break from running but that I’d surely be back. Another likely lie. Of course, returning was possible, but I didn’t really believe that. I’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop – this departure from running had felt inevitable.
All my life, the only thing that had settled the buzzing and stinging of my pre-race nerves, was when I’d plan our annual family vacation to the arid Okanagan Valley of central British Columbia. Even at nine years old, I’d go to the local travel agency and get the free maps so I could plan new routes and new adventures. I’d pack our family van the night before and start “warming up the engine” at 5:00 am the next morning.
Following one of these trips, my father bought me a book about a man who had hitchhiked across Canada. After reading it, a long buried fire in me started to burn again. In a way, I felt resurrected and knew that a similar journey would be the perfect escape for me.
In addition to my running and schooling, I worked a few jobs and was saving up for something good. Saving, I’d been told, was good. But now I was going to use those savings for something else… I was going to use it all. With my route mapped out and my hiking bag already packed and hidden in my room, I told my parents I would be leaving in a week, after Easter, to hitchhike across the country.
This terrified my mother. Most other people didn’t know a thing about my intentions and, for the first time, that was fine with me.
The seed inside had started to sprout in a different way—creating something I’d never known before. I was walking through an enigmatic doorway into something brand new. This sure wasn’t the safe and secure suburban life that I felt society expected of me. It’s not the way things “should” have happened; who was letting it happen, I didn’t know. But it was.
As I left, I was terrified but allured by the vitality unfolding in me and coursing through my veins.
A journeyman now, each new place I reached promised something new. Sleeping on the ground in a field at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and staring up at an expanse of stars, marked my soul and reminded me of the beauty in the world I had lost sight of.
Racing through a summer storm at midnight, beside –a long-forgotten highway, drenched and cold, reminded me of my human fragility and power to endure.
Patiently waiting for my next ride under the endless skies of the prairies, with the neon glow of cities passed by, brought back a serenity to my restlessness would never allow.
I found freedom in the solitude of long stretches on the open road, and trust in experiencing life unfold without really know what the next ride ahead of me entailed. Each new driver that picked me up offered a homecoming to the interconnectedness and interdependence we share as human beings.
I learned then, that in retrospect, I did love running; however, it wasn’t so much the high of winning, or the measures of improvement I loved, but the aliveness and mind-body connection I experienced while running over hill and dale. If I’d only known it then, it could have been something entirely different for me. But that wasn’t my path.
Long past the borders of Canada, I continued to travel—to Asia, and later, Central and South America. It was at the edges of our magnificent world that I searched for my own edges. In a way, it was in the meeting of new people, the eating of different foods and learning of different cultures that I experienced the depths of my soul. Of course, I was still not content, but I was also no longer tamed and in the captivity of my goodness.
There was a “stripped away” feeling in parts of the world where the bullshit seemed to vanish—at least for a entitled outsider. In this sense, we can both lose and find ourselves in these places.
Here, I continued to crash against things I never would have done: Letting out an unbounded scream at the top of a mountain; dancing all night without pause and not looking over my shoulder wondering what someone thinks about my dance moves; drinking among friends by the light of the fire until the glowing embers give way to the golden light of the sun’s morning rays; shocking my body in an ice cold lake, burning my tongue then introducing my stomach to something spicy and exotic; knowing the intimate caress, energetic and primal bliss of being merged with another…even if it’s not a perfect fuck….
It’s important to occasionally not be comfortable and safely in control of everything around you because you’re learning to trust something else entirely.
This is part of the awakening and, of course, it can be “running away” but it also can be “running toward”—even if you don’t know exactly what you’re aiming for. That’s the point. This isn’t maturity, it’s not better than going any other course either, but it is surrendering and an allowing of vulnerability.
The system we live in says: Okay, you can do that once when you’re young but then you need to get on with it. This is the wild and unpredictable dance of living. The boundaries of which life does not give, but that only exist in our civilized minds. Outwardly, we can live the vast and endless expanse of what is ultimately our soul’s journey.
Part of me hates to advocate for such wild measures. It is at odds with the prescribed normal life and that can be extremely difficult- it can infuriate our family’s expectations, cause friction with our old friends, pour arsenic on our savings accounts, and thwart our steady climb up the corporate ladder. But the balance of allowing my life to be unpredictable and more prescribed while it has always worked for me.
There are times I lost sight of this balance. And, with time, I’ve come to see that it isn’t only in the wilderness and remote corners of the world that it can be experienced. It exists in the most seemingly mundane moments of the daily grind. Most importantly, it lives inside us. It is inextricably and irreversibly part of who we are. We have to know it, embrace it and ultimately learn from it.
Be Well, Wild, and Free!
Thanks for reading.
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