Notes on the Leadville 100

It is 7:15 in Twin Lakes, Colorado. The sun hasn’t set as much as the mountains have hunched their shoulders over us, trying (like we were the ones on fire) to keep us close, away from the wind. From here, eye-level with grass and tired knees, Twin Lakes smell like sweet and broccoli. Among each other, in our layers (now in shadow), we wait and watch for runners running 100 miles from Leadville to Leadville. It is the rickety approach towards mortality, the pained threshold of the modern man. All of these bodies— the way they look so far from antiquity— make me realize how far we from a natural existence but—

Two weeks later. 

I expected the Leadville 100 to show me a return to a natural human state. As if this level of extremity would allow scaffolding like training and elite gear and scientifically-driven nutrition to fall away to be replaced with a raw instinctual capacity to survive. As if personhood would step away into animal body in the shape of its movement, like how a horse at a gallop doesn’t have limbs. 

Here, limbs are more limbs than they’ve been before, and awkward at that. This body— whatever they say— is not made for this movement. The way the hands flap or are brought in with a clench. The head that rides above, held in place, or is trotted absently, or kicked back. The feet in need of cover. And the body too. The arms the torso the shoulder, all so far from the ground. The ground that asks for bodies back, when at 88 miles a body collapses, breathes, moans, and stands again to walk another 12. 

Is the natural state the brink of death? Imagine the coyote, or the horse, or the bass— all the unfettered speed. All direction funneled, and energy made only for the concerted living. But I think of — even then— the horse’s heart attack in a field in Colorado Springs. How afraid it was of itself— how much it wanted to run from the predator at its chest. That, too, and the weakness and exhaustion. The horse clipping its own front feet bloody. The coyote running on a rabid limp. 

The erratic jump. Perhaps it is not grace that returns us to nature— not hardly— or only in poetry— the return of our bodies is in pain, or tolerance thereof. The return to the humanness of the body is bodiless. From my folded chair where I shook in a sleeping bag with a cup of buttery broth, it looked bodiless to me— for anyone aware of their decrepitude would not carry on. Or anyone angry at it, rather. It is the gentle, endorphine-fueled decision— “I must carry this body on.” 

Too, gorgeously, does that “must” develop in these minds. Unpredatored bodies, bodies not at risk, have released themselves of the successive choices of taking steps. Or if they have not, they’ve even more incredibly been faced with these hundreds of thousands of steps and thought again, “go on…”— and—again— for what?

This, perhaps will bring us back to what is natural— is it an ache for this type of pain? The victory of the mind? The displacement of the body’s authority? Is it the natural inclination to ignore pain? To having pain to ignore? Or— what other pains does this one heft off? Or dull? Destroy, even? Or is it the knowledge that the body comes back? Are these things our humanness must venture into? 

What must we venture into? Is there a threshold beyond this one— one more humbling or dissociative or numbing or ecstatic? (Does this race house all of those? Is this running body, too, the sensational interaction of these?)— that tumbles a human further into herself? Into the borders of capacity? Are we only human in our extremes? Is this how we must experience ourselves? Is it good to do so? Must the cheetah run itself to death to be a cheetah? That is, of course, its identifier, isn’t it? Top speed? 

I wonder again at why I cried. Men and women have unnecessarily endangered themselves for themselves. But that choice— is it the joy or the pain? Both? This. So vivid. So holy. The body rejoicing as it collapses. The legs that no longer run like legs—that can no longer step or stretch—the feet landing flat—the shoulders—the hands that grip friends on the last mile to keep going—and then release to rise in fists across the line, unmeditated, and shrivel, and drop, and fall into the crowd.

Is that it? The explosion of personhood? And we as a people are proud. We as a people are satisfied once again with humanness—not the distance, but the pain we can endure. That chipping away of our mortality by looking at it, clearer. By seeing surely what could kill us and hasn’t.

.

And a note on kindness after the race— It was a unique type. But simple. No runner with assumption. Not to prove a point. Not owed anything. The knowledge that this choice had been theirs, and the pain, and the cold. And, therefore, gratitude. Where crew (those of us who lined the trails and watched vividly through the night to recognize the height of a runner’s headlamp, or their gait) would grow ornery and delirious, organized and full of exhaustion and plans, the runners carried a kind resolution. We brought a support and, too, such a pitiable unknowing. The race was not ours. Of course. 

I’m not sure that I know anything new about me or anyone. I don’t know more about humanity, because I was not the human in the race— but I saw a joy that seems to have come at the ownership of pain and diminishment of it. Or the management of it. I saw, perhaps, that the human body is not lost to modern man. That we are not far from it.

How incredible—it is a human body— of trees, air, ants— we, too, standing in personhood of natural life. We— we who check our teeth in mirrors, we with non-physical resources— biologically so far from capable, and yet still real. Still alive at Mile 100 with feet on this shifted earth. 

Home from Brooklyn

It is an afternoon that feels like a morning. Even at 3pm or maybe 4, I’m saying good morning to everyone. The light agrees— It’s yellow. Objectively slantwise. I’m going home from Brooklyn. Pathetically— or understandably, or consequently, or randomly— I haven’t spent much time at all in Brooklyn since moving to the Upper West Side. Three times. I’ve been to Brooklyn three times. But every time feels like a transgressive vacation. I’m ashamed of how much I am excited by (for example) exposed brick and twinkle lights. Of broad outdoor seating. Of three-storied buildings. Of wood-paneled floors, pool, and red leather. I woke up this morning to sky.  And trees. Plants. These things are all things that happen in Manhattan. Yes. These things have largely been coopted by the forces of gentrification, idealization, and cultural white-washing. Yes. But I woke up to the sky and the sun on my back and oh how full my heart was. (It’s a feeling, perhaps, like pouring over Mrs. Dalloway. Of picking up Virginia again and again.)

And so from Brooklyn this morning that is an afternoon, I am making my way home. Stepping up onto the island from the Union Square Station, I reintroduce myself to Manhattan. I’ve seen her, now, from yet another angle. Like seeing your father from a distance makes you remember you have a father who is a person and who walks. From across the East River, New York is not the word for itself, nor is the Empire State Building a symbol of itself, but the skyline is something that holds itself up. I, idiotically, wonder if it could be getting on without me? Of course it could be. It always will. I am barely an appendage, let alone a cog. But nonetheless I step back up from below and reacquaint myself to it. I do this by, as I have found myself wont to do whenever I find myself in a new area of Manhattan, slipping into a bookstore, and then a coffeeshop, and then a park. My fingers go over titles and I remind myself that I’m a writer and entirely foreign to this city. I remember Anne of Avonlea and feel her coming back to me. 

I’ll tell you briefly about falling in love. There are loves you spot from far-off. You look across the East River, hear tell of Prospect Park, and you know right well that a first date with Brooklyn would go well. That none of your friends will be surprised that you and Brooklyn had a lot to talk about and that Brooklyn even paid for dinner. And then there are Manhattan loves. The ones you swore off pretty early, being just not the concrete type or too picky for the Manhattan bandwagon to reciprocate the nod you got from across the room when you first got on the Penn Station escalator. Brooklyn loves are (bear with me) like an ice tray: You know that you can easily enough pour yourself into the mold, slot into a freezer, and find a solid cube (I said bear with me) in the morning. You’ll stay in the freezer for a while, enjoying yourself, your mold, and your freezer. Then one day you’ll get dropped into lemonade and remember how brilliantly sour you can be and bid adieu to that ice tray. Now, with Manhattan love, there’s no pour, no freezer, no mold. There’s the living of unsimilized life until one day, books under arm in Union Square, you feel a drip. And another. And you realize you’re melting and Manhattan’s melting and you’re all goo and it’s not all that bad. 

This afternoon-morning, I feel the drip. It’s running under a linen jumpsuit down my back and pooling at the tie at my waistline. It’s also sweat. 

Here are things melt me on the way home: 

  The whistle on the subway, how vivid it is. (The petal, the bough—) 

– The frequency that my little mind reaches out to passersby with an address. Like a dog on a leash, I dash out with an unspoken thought like, “You look so happy today” to a quiet gay couple or to a woman in a risky, skin tone bodysuit: “Don’t worry, you look fantastic.Or a “fuck yes” to the t-shirt that says, “I don’t owe you anything,” beneath story-winding lipstick. 

– How tenderly I feel about my mind while I walk in the city. For so much around me, I feel myself facilitating observation: Robiny (Anne), I say, what do you think of that? What would you write of that? How could you be Virginia in this space? How’s that this way? Do you love this? Don’t you? How much this city somehow makes me a friend to myself and a necessary ally. 

– The wonderful moment walking past the park. I notice first the men playing basketball, how glad they are to be there. How good they are. Then I notice the men’s soccer game. First, I watch the ball-carrier across the pitch, then the overlapping run, the tap, the cross, and…. then in the foreground (like a whistle in the subway) I see the net I’m looking through, and the boy whose shoulder I watch the game over. Ten? Fourteen? Somebody’s little brother, or some neighborhood kid. I want to cry— the kid allowed to play with the big guys, but only in goal. His solemn, proud position. His useless, temporary spot. His incredible dignity in it. Simultaneously, I hear the request: “Can’t I come this time?” and the report: “I started out my career tagging along to play goal on 108th street…” 

– These things. These layerings, perhaps? These layerings of face over face, of my mind over cross streets, of fashion over story over park over life over life over life… These things do and require melting. This tight binding of worlds (to lend yet another metaphor, for Manhattan, too, is a layered knot of metaphors, syntax, and parentheticals) that doesn’t require (or merit) unknotting, but instead a tender tracing, and losing (yes…the losing is the most important part I think), of strands with the finger tips. 

I walk my last two blocks home in love. How ecstatic is this island. How entirely obvious. How intolerable. How tough on the tongue. And how intoxicating. 

City, Sleep; Hot Days Behind.

Some nights turn themselves over. A city— that sharp word, meant for big poems and accusations— sits. It leans onto its heels, rocks, and (slowly) flips a tanned arm upward and shows its soft skin. This happens infrequently in New York. Manhattan. The word itself is made of knuckles. I’m sure there are puppy-tummy cities out there, ones that gleam softly, smoothed by greenery or fleshed out by hospitality, but New York is not one of them. But even this city– this broken-nail city— turns over, and it happened last night. 

I knew it was happening from the light on my air conditioned walls. Cream, pink, and doughy. Familiar in its alien sense. Entirely of earth in its most planetary way. And it drew me outside. 

This had been the heat wave weekend. I don’t particularly want to talk about it (the thought makes me feel dehydrated), but it was enough to become the topic of the whole city. All together, Us of New York, uninterested in so many things this weekend. So many of us tired, uncomfortable, in need of shelter. Like God had taken us all and cupped us in big heavenly hands, then mashed us like bread. Awful and intimate and humble. But the heat wave gave us the cream and the pink of a glorious sunset. Last night, God unclasped his hands and lifted us up: look here, won’t you? 

There’s not much more to say than that sunset last night was the blush of a heat wave breaking. And as it changed, so was the periwinkle, so was the yellow of the street lamps. It was the reassertion of color, the reclamation of the eyes over the pores. And it shrouded everything. 

And everything stopped. It sat.

Nothing was not still in the light of the sunset. Nothing was not the light of the sunset itself. It was a sunset the Big Dipper could have dipped down into— all the way down to the Central Park Reservoir, skimming the surface, as even there the air would slosh into that dipper with a thick, swirling foam. You could breathe the sunset and feel it on your skin. You could see the buildings twitch their glowing foreheads against it. And, quietly, that underwater city— that drowned vie en rose— made me go soft myself. I leaned into New York’s touch, and let her thumb my cheek. I walked silent Central Park pathways like fingertips up a forearm. I considered loving this city in a real way.

A good city. Must be if God treats her like that. Must be… if she is, it seems, still earth. Still hurdling and drowning and floating. Still holding me bare stomach to bare stomach. Must be good if she too is tenderly yawning and stretching. If she’s sighing to herself and, widely and softly, falling asleep. 

San Isabel, June

I.

Dawn, overhead and heavy.

I am
5 miles off the motorway and 2,000 feet up
Pray:

Hips bruised
sunburns. How steady I feel this morning
how thick the stream-clean legs
how pinked with sting
Pray:

soundless, still I am
woken up to see God
scalding the morning
onto the lips of the valley
Pray:

cold
cloth grips the muscle
of my back new
cold from a clear runoff
through ribs
Pray:

I am deep in grass
I am cold in air
I am sun-untouched as yet
Wind off the hill:

each

shifts a new body
in a taught thin hammock
unzips a damp bag
to bring a stale limb to air
elbow
hair to uncoil from wool
sock to roll off and foot to inhale
and to graze
the weighted grass
Pray:

Each, alone, consults the sky
for time, and some, location

all new to new body, all
rocky on assumptions

crinkling, rumpled
heavy

meet each to each
Pray:

At the river shouldering to pass
toothpaste and unpeel
brushes from Ziplock
Pray:

I love them, each, best.

All birds
all gold
all warm tip of Ponderosa
all blue shadow on
purple faces

I love them each before water
or cinnamon
or the one now stumbling:
slowest to morning

each, each unpeeled child each now, before
later giggles
before later knock
Pray:

They are good—

Amaranthus Caudatus

After trimming a broad spotted flag
After some debate and delay
After checking technique and cross-checking
After taking scissors to the failing leaf
Of my plastic-potted fig
Watching the milk of the branch pearl up
And drip
After watching the plant pull its pus back in
And continue living
I walked in Central Park

There were blue paths and dogs
Bikes and city smell and
Grass. I touched the elm labeled elm
And the oak labeled oak. I imagined
sticking a pin into one of my frail branches
and how the fig would slump and realized
I never knew an elm was an elm.
Suddenly each plant was a plant.
They all had leaves to dust and
low branches maybe failing and
morning light and waterings.

Yesterday while watering the little palm
I spotted a broken stalk
Wove it up with the hundred other stalks
And checked on it this morning.

And here, everything trampled.
What a feat to lift up a garden.
What alchemy to grow a park
And what divinity that the world started green
that it knew already how to live
and already what to let die.

Go

It was rain today
a sick sort
meant for places with soil hungry for it
heavy
flipping drops in loving tandem
ramming headfirst into sidewalk
dead drops dribbling
limp
to the grate backbroken
in the subway

I stood on a street corner
23rd and 7th
I did not have the light
and I was in nothing but rain
and rain

I saw through the rain a boy
his hands
turned upward to the sky
in the first
rainfeel catchdrop
walking
offering palms

not backs
(des collines wrist to tip
la campagne vollonée) but
turned upward
the hand shows its muscled shape
like how
fingers close themselves
if not colline then jointed city
Michelangelo did not paint the upturned palm of God
the boy
his hands were like city hands

I don’t know
if he was feeling for rain
if he
could not believe his hands
or if
like strings
for piano hammers
he held himself
for the felted pounding
of raindrop
and raindrop
if
he could feel his own vibration
if
he loved the rain
the rain that hisses like this rain
heard it shrieking
offered to it a place of landing
or warning

pointing skyward
between the holding
and the letting

A Smell

Because of the wind or the time— I know nothing about flowers—
the entire valley smells like something growing. I
have a terrible sense of smell. But
I park and roll down the windows.
My dog sits up and lays down.
It is such a big smell.
Like how mountains have shadows.
I think of everyone I could ask about what the smell is
and if they are knowledgeably smelling the smell.
I make intelligent hypotheses— Sagebrush. Gingko.
I think about writing a poem
and wait for someone to tell me it is a miracle
or a pattern
or something rotting in my car and
no one comes
no one tells me what smell the smell is
or if I should like it anyways
and I drive home
earthy, human, and still.