On Learning to Run In Paris
Plus, why we forget what's good for us.
I learned to run in Paris. My friend T., a distance runner, convinced me to jog with her from where we worked in a chaotic part of the city to the Bois de Boulogne, a 2100-acre expanse of woods, lakes and restaurants on the edge of the city.
Our office wasn’t far from the Bois, on T.'s scale of "far" anyway, maybe a mile and a half. But the first time we did that run, I thought I'd throw up before we even got to the park. The route was uphill in stagnant urban heat, threading through clots of tourists and the merciless centrifuge of cars around the Arc de Triomphe. I was ready to collapse after 3 minutes. But T. wasn't having it. She showed me how to pull my shoulders back, opening my chest so I could get more oxygen.
I'd always run defensively with my head down as if I were darting across the street against traffic while being chased (a skill you can only perfect in New York). But with my chin up, I could breathe better, and I felt my legs take over as if I'd shifted the energy there. Just keep moving, said T. And somehow, I did. Granted, it was more like a slow motion trot than running.
And then, the sky shifted and we were out of the concrete glare on a tree-lined path where it felt 15 degrees cooler. Everything went technicolor. You could smell all that greenery and hear the crunch of your feet hitting the ground. I forgot my petty aches, my embarrassments. I forgot myself. And, for a little while, misery turned to wonder.
Pull your shoulders back and press on. Keep going until you can see past the shadow of your own ego. This is not so complicated. Why do we have to keep relearning lessons we got at 16 or 26 or 46?
Months later, T. and I ran after dark through the section of the Bois de Boulogne where sex workers set up for the evening. They wait for clients near cars and vans they've turned into mobile hideaways with curtains, glowy lamps, and pillows. As we ran by, faces and bodies would appear on the edges of the trees, like flickering scenes in a film. Bright eyes with extravagant eyebrows, a long furry coat open with glittery nothings underneath, blue ankle boots, bare legs in the cold, a slim-hipped silhouette against the sober gray outline of the forest. They watched as we fluttered by them, benign interlopers that we were. We were extras from some other movie set.
I can't recall precisely what insular troubles my young heart was battling in those days. Surely, there was lots of 20-something drama and angst. But that night is still vivid, those faces in the dark and the adrenaline of crossing unseen boundaries.
If only we could go back and tell our angsty past selves that what seemed to matter so much now won’t matter in a decade. Just let go of the slights and busybody worries that block out the sun. What will stay with you are the times you were shaken out of your myopic orbit. Sometimes it's when beauty scoops you up, or fear, or both. Like the feeling of moving fast through damp fall air in the woods, the unexpected flashes of color in the dark, the murmurs of people you can't see and will never meet. And mostly, it’s the electricity of being somewhere you never expected to be.
Last year, Australian journalist Julia Baird published a lovely book called "Phosphorescence" about rediscovering these truths after wrestling with a near-fatal illness. She learns to swim and dive in the ocean. Sounds simple, but that vast alternate universe with its wild and alien creatures rekindles her connection to the world, to wonder, and to life. The book is a call to at last shed the heaviness of self. She writes:
"We seem to have forgotten how comforting it can be to feel small and experience the awe that comes from being silenced by something greater than ourselves, something unfathomable, unconquerable, and mysterious."
In the book and her TEDTalk, Baird draws on research that validates what we all intuitively know: Getting outside ourselves has mind and body benefits. As she puts it, cultivating our sense of wonder can make us “more patient and less irritable, more humble, more curious, and creative.” All of this is balm for the selfie-era of internet-fueled rumination and therapy TikTok.
In one study Baird mentions, adults were asked to take weekly 15-minute walks during which they'd seek moments of awe, in other words, intentionally look outward. Not surprisingly, this group reported more joy and pro-social connectedness than the control. The sentiment echos writer Cheryl Strayed’s favorite piece of advice: Put yourself in the way of beauty."
We know all this though, don’t we? Yet, thanks to our chronic emotional amnesia, we forget what’s good for us. Or at least we have to keep relearning what's not good for us when it comes to food, love, jobs, friendships, and tequila. Or maybe we unconsciously choose to ignore our wiser selves.
I don't have a fix for this, or I wouldn't have been up all last night like an over-caffeinated lemur staring at a detective drama about something called the Glasgow Marine Homicide Unit. But maybe we could more charitably call this kind of madness “unintentional beginner's mind” In that case, we won’t count on a singular revelation or turning point, but rather constant resets, and a hope that we’ll recover these bits of wisdom a little more easily every year.
When I was back in Paris a few weeks ago, I brought my running shoes despite the record-breaking heat wave (the "canicule," as the French call it). This time I did my little upright jog (shoulders back, eyes up) in the Jardin du Luxembourg, that grand old park on the Left Bank with its obsessively groomed trees and voluptuous flower beds.
The Jardin has more statues of women than I've ever seen in any public space (and most of them even have clothes on). I always visit the twenty queens of France (and other illustrious women) who stand in a semi circle around the main garden. They watch benevolently as generations of us trundle past them, fretting about our 21st-century troubles.
First, there's Saint Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, with her elfin face and braids that fall below her knees. She was born in 423, an unimaginable date. From Genevieve, I trot through the centuries woman by woman, each presiding over some dramatic moment in the eternal cycles of human chaos or creation, reminding us that none of what we're angsting about is that novel.
My favorite queen is the spectacular Marguerite d'Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, a prolific 16th-century writer, intellectual and mother of the French Renaissance. Of her, historian Will Durant wrote, "every free spirit looked upon her as protectoress and ideal." Appropriately, she stands as if in contemplation with her right arm across her waist, and her left index finger posed delicately under her chin.
The day that a trot through the Jardin doesn't revive my weary little soul with an infusion of awe, there will be no hope for me. And lately, I’ve been thinking about how the queens don't change even as my face softens and my gait slows. When you are young, Paris seems ancient, and then when you are not as young, you marvel at how it doesn't seem to age.
Sure, the French state spends a lot on keeping the capital pretty, but the place is also vivified by fresh waves of people in search of some spark, some evolved version of themselves. Most will find the insight they’re looking for, then lose it, as we all do. But the lesson is, you can always loop back. The old trees and the young queens will still be there.
As always, if you love It’s Not Just You, forward to a friend, and if you’re not a subscriber, or sign up for free here:
Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder And Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark, and The Power of Feeling Small, by Julia Baird,TEDx Sydney.
The Hidden Brain podcast: Reframing Our Reality Stanford psychologist Alia Crum says that our perceptions are always filtered through our mindsets which shape our reactions to physical and psychological stressors in profound ways.
London Delights: Wisdom from an overheated island where the cathedrals are blessedly cool, the art is hot, and musical irony abounds.
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