I learned how to read when I was 3.
I threw a stack of Dr. Seuss books on the floor next to my oldest sister Pam, who was 14 at the time, and then I cried until she taught me how. People who know me won’t be surprised by any of this – that I’ve been reading since then, that I threw a tantrum or that it all had to do with books and stories.
I read as much as I write as much as I talk and think.
As I tell a friend, “It’s the words, every time.”
They just undo me.
I began writing short stories soon after – and my mom has some of them stashed away somewhere that I would compose on a typewriter when she had to take me to work with her at her office job when there was no school. My dad bought me an electric typewriter for Christmas when I was in fifth grade. A fountain pen later, when I thought every writer needed one (note: They’re too finicky for me).
College introduced me to the art of the personal essay, through a creative nonfiction course that also began a lifelong love with MFK Fisher, an essayist who wrote about food and love, or, as she summed them up together: Hunger.
Are you swooning yet?
It gets better. In “The Gastronomical Me,” she writes about a “rotten apple rolling” or something as awful as “a young woman with a cancer.” Who cares about the rest of it? The phrases are enough.
As an English major, all I did was read. As myself, it’s all I would have done anyway, so to earn a degree doing something I loved seemed ideal. And it has been – even though I joke when people ask about a liberal arts degree that I spent five years learning how to read.
That’s probably true – I did. I don’t regret it. My head is full of lines I love – from the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”, which I won’t quote here because it’s a family blog, to one sentence from Gertrude Stein’s massive “The Making of Americans”: In it, the narrator talks about a man dragging his father through an orchard by one leg, and the father says, “Stop, I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
Every day I try to drag myself beyond that tree – to be better, go farther, be more, somehow. I fail. We all do. Sometimes it’s incremental progress, and sometimes it’s none at all. Sometimes I slide down a voice into a living room, to paraphrase John Updike in his short story “A&P,” which I hadn’t read in 20 years and dragged out a few months ago, forgetting about the cold grocery store, the teenage cashier, the three girls in bathing suits walking through the aisles.
That’s how words live with me.
And just like the soundtrack I’ve written about here, there’s a narrative that goes through my head, too, full of these writers and lines and sentences and plots and just constructions that surface when I need them most. Sometimes it’s just funny – a “30 Rock” line of bad poetry in the middle of someone’s emotion, said to break the mood, for a moment.
Sometimes it’s me going down the rabbit hole of Jeanette Winterson quotes on Goodreads, remembering her books and how much I love her. Consider this from her: “I stretched out my hands, holding the falling sun in one hand, and the climbing moon in the other, my silver and gold, my gift from life. My gift of life. My life is a hesitation in time. An opening in a cave. A gap for a word.”
It’s from her book “Lighthousekeeping,” which sat in hardback on my nightstand for a decade before I finally opened it last year, and then fell madly in love with her again. I hadn’t read her since college, and now I’ve gone back and re-read all of what I owned plus most of what’s been published since then.
Then I did the unforgiveable: Gave that hardback away to a friend who needed it more than I did, even though the book had been borrowed from Lori Walsh. If anyone would understand, she would.
What does all of this have to do with running?
What does anything have to do with running? Everything. The words and miles their own threads. April is National Poetry Month. I generally hate national anything month or national anything day or any kind of construct that makes me celebrate something I may not be in the mood for. Including birthdays. It’s an issue, I realize.
But this month, all my social media feeds are crammed with poems. I click through when I have a minute, and I’ve remembered some I forgot about. Found different ones that moved me. Just reveled, for a moment, in someone else’s interpretation of life and love and all of it.
One of my favorite poetry terms is caesura, which is just a pause in the middle of a line. What a delicious word for a hesitation, a moment, a time to consider.
I ran the Denver marathon relay one year with a group of acquaintances from all over the country. They had asked me to come out, and I did, and anyone who has traveled with me knows how I am: I showed up with a book and $20 and figured I had everything I needed. At the finish line, it was raining and I was waiting for the other women, and I realized I didn’t have any of their contact information. I just hadn’t thought to bring it. So I sat there, in the rain, with my library book and hoped they would recognize me when they came past.
So as I thought about this blog post – which I had originally planned to use to talk about how much I hate lightning, since it’s spring and all – instead I decided to just go straight to running and language, to combine my month and my true loves and see what I find.
Of course, Winterson is there for you, always. Also from “Lighthousekeeping” – “Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
Or this bad boy, which could easily apply to racing: “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. It's the playing that's irresistible.”
I log all my books on Goodreads, and have for the past few years. I wish I had kept a lifelong list of everything I’ve read – it would be mighty and glorious. It also would save me money. Instead, I sometimes pick up a book and settle in with it and then realize I’ve already read it. More than once, I realize I also already own it. A list would have helped, maybe.
Goodreads, which is just a Facebook for all things of word nerdery, of course has a list of quotes about running from various books. So here are some that I thought were glorious, not all from books I’ve read, and in no particular order.
“I'm often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.” ― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
“If you don't have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain't getting them.” ― Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
“Running in the wind, in the pollen and dust, a flower in flight” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
“Outside, daylight was bleeding slowly toward dusk.” ― Stephen King, The Running Man
“There are many challenges to long distance running, but one of the greatest is the question of where to put one's house keys.” ― Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
“There was no let-up. The tempo was always moderate but steady. If a new guy decided to pick up the pace, that's where it stayed, whether he finished with the group or not. You showed off at your peril.” ― John L. Parker Jr.
“Here I am I am tired I am tired of running of having to carry my life like it was a basket of eggs” ― William Faulkner, Light in August
“The marathon will humble you. But the truth is, sometimes it will do more than humble you. Sometimes it will break your heart.” ― Bill Rodgers,
“When Douglas walked, his mind ran, when he ran, his mind walked.” ― Ray Bradbury
“Remember, it’s the pace that kills, never the distance.” ― Bill Jones, The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop
“For every runner who tours the world running marathons, there are thousands who run to hear the leaves and listen to the rain, and look to the day when it is suddenly as easy as a bird in flight.” ― George Sheehan
Did you think I wouldn’t make you read yet another Winterson quote? One for the road:
“Tell me a story, Pew.
What kind of story, child?
A story with a happy ending.
There’s no such thing in all the world.
As a happy ending?
As an ending.”
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at email@example.com. Story ideas are encouraged.