To this point, I’ve never really been afraid of running. For years as a force of habit I’ve carried, and once used, a travel-size can of pink mace. The risk that something bad could happen to me out there on my own has always been dwarfed by the rewards I know wait for me from the run. Female experience poured into the #yesallwomen tag reminds me I’m lucky, statistical abnormality lucky, that I’ve only ever had close calls. It’s a resounding echo that the something circulating in my subconscious alone on a trail has likely occurred to every other female runner at some point, probably since cavemen were lumbering around clubbing cave ladies as a matter of courtship.
It’s a warm spring day, and this should be the furthest thing from my mind, and most of my energy is channeled into being positively elated that she wants to come running. With me. I find her a singlet she can wear and anxiously wait for her to lace up, like it’s Christmas morning and I too, am eleven. Through what should be my untarnished excitement and pride though, is that thing. That flicker in my subconscious.
We head out the door and she keeps up, telling us about school, her friends, and my heart is so full it hurts. We eventually talk about running as we pace ourselves for a steep hill, my parental exuberance increasingly colored by that flicker, that pink mace in the basket by the door. I say something boilerplate like, running is pretty cool, huh kiddo? Trying to think of a way to approachably introduce the idea of being careful, of thinking through a route before going out alone, of not running alone at night, of being aware always, especially when listening to music.
All the things I don’t want to tell her, but that I know I have to. Seeds I’d rather not plant, but that must grow anyway.
We huff and puff up the hill, stopping to walk near the top. You understand? I wheeze. She nods, hands on her hips, cheeks red. Have I been overly cautious in caveating running like this for her already? In putting what amounts to a giant asterisk on the whole idea of it? Running is awesome*isn’t it? My heart hurting from an entirely different type of sensation by the time we crest the hill. My friend chimes in something comforting and nonchalant like, It’s always a good idea to run with a friend, as though this too has its asterisk.
Don’t’ worry about it, I tell myself, as if the more I repeat it the more truth it will absorb. It’s fine, she’s a smart kid, I haven’t damaged her, my legs suddenly itching to sprint to escape that thing flickering behind my temples. What happens if she loves running? What if I’m the reason something bad happens to her? I catch myself hoping maybe it won’t take. Maybe she’ll love soccer or karate – something safer where there are usually lots of witnesses. I watch her determinedly pick up her feet again, flushed and smiling as we move into the downhill immediately, intensely ashamed of my train of thought.
She is picking up speed, pacing me down the block, blond hair flailing into a wake behind her. What happens if she doesn’t? What happens if she misses pushing the boundaries of her world, discovering that sometimes the journey is at least as rewarding as the destination, or that appreciation trumps anticipation, or that being in the outdoors every day makes you happy, or something just as important only she will understand?
My shirt baggy around her and sporting a grin that goes on for days, we exchange a secret handshake. Flicker or not, I hope she will love running the way I do. Or soccer, or karate, or whatever else she may discover that triggers this feeling. Right here.
I hope she’ll learn that good things are worth working hard for. There will be times they may seem and feel un-doable, but that progress is important, even if it means starting by having a conversation you’re angry or resentful at needing to have in the first place. By planting seeds whose roots may be unsightly, but that grow into something brave and beautiful.
I hope she’ll learn that being comfortable with the hardship you put yourself through in order to run will give her the strength to identify and fight the abuse other people, and the world, can put you through. I stop to watch her running for home the way only young people seem able to, most of all hoping running might help teach her that pain and discomfort are vehicles for change, and that without them, better things remain farther away.
What the consequences of it might be, I can never know. I only know that still, and always, I hope she grows up to be a runner who loves running. Who won’t be afraid to let it expand her container.