Raw Grace & Cigarettes

ice cream

I went for a run the other day. It was a warm day. I was on a gravel backroad, one that hadn’t been plowed too thoroughly. The sun had transformed the remnants of snow into several inches of slush. Running on slush is like trying to use a treadmill that’s moving-not only backwards-but also out on each side: my feet flailed and my hands waved in numerous directions trying to keep balance. It was not my most eloquent moment; I must’ve looked something like a moose galloping while on crack.

With such a gait I constantly looked over my shoulder, worried not so much that a car coming from behind might plow me over, but more so that the driver might witness me in such a buffoonic state. If I heard a car coming, I’d slow down to a controlled and dignified stroll, tipping an imaginary hat to passer-byes and whistling a fine tune. This instead of appearing rabid.

I grew up quietly. I suppose that is an apt way of putting it. In that I think my childhood flew under the radar for any grand humiliation of my own ego. I was benched in high school football. I lost my bid for student body president. But these were just dents in the armor, so to speak. My pride was bruised, at worse. But I was always able to regain composure, adopt a facade of propriety, before the car came up behind me.

But if marriage is anything its the voice of reality calling ‘bullSHEET!’ on our facades of humility. It’s the car driving up on me slowly, quietly, so I don’t notice until its too late. And then the driver smirks as he goes by.

My wife and I are in a hectic season of life, working while also full-time students. We survive on ritual, keeping ourselves sane with our own nightly routine; it consists of a small cup of frozen yogurt and watching our favorite TV show (I’m not saying it’s Gilmore Girls, I’m just saying that if it was… then Lorelai is really starting to piss me off). It’s liturgies like this that fuels our life together, silly as they may seem.

But the other night we had a fight. It takes two to tango but sometimes one partner takes the lead. And on this particular night I had two left feet and was going out of my way to stomp them on my wife’s toes. We’d had a miscommunication, you see. And I’d responded with stubbornness, anger even, retreating to a corner of our apartment whence I muttered and fumed. It was as if I was smoking an emotional cigarette. Every breath added to the stench in the room.

My wife tried to make peace:

“Can we move on? I’m sorry. Please? I’ll get out the ice cream. You set up Gilmore Girls Band of Brothers.”

I acted like I didn’t hear. She said ‘peace?’ and my ego said ‘never surrender!’ I’d been caught off guard with my armor lying at my feet, but now I had it on I wasn’t about to withhold any blows.

When she tried for a third time, I swung my blade. I walked into the bathroom and started brushing my teeth. Such abrasion was like popping some Milk Duds in the face of a priest holding the Eucharist. No ice cream tonight; my armor’s staying on.

But there are moments of raw grace in life. These are not so much our pride breaking down as it is Grace entering the conversation, stepping between the knights, catching one sword in each hand, and- as if we were five- telling us to stop.

Then Grace looks at me: “Quit being an ass.”

Thus I recalled that day running in the slush. I imagined hearing a car coming behind me. As it passed the driver smirked at me, my pride flailing like an inflatable wavy hands character. But this time, I look back at the driver and say: “Screw you! I know I look like an oaf. But I’m trying.” He smirks again and drives on. But I feel lighter; he’s dragging my facade behind the car.

I finished rinsing and returned to our family room. She was curled up on the couch.

“I just want our night back,” she said.

I kissed her on the forehead then took dessert out of the freezer, remnants of toothpaste on my tongue.

And the ice cream-toothpaste mixture tasted how a moose on crack looks: bloody ridiculous. But sometimes repentance does. And there’s a lesson in that, I believe. Raw grace is hard to swallow; the final puff on an emotional cigaret leaves a morbid taste.

But she set her head on my shoulder. And her grace began to remove my armor. Slowly.

The night was ours. Again.

But for $@#!’s-sake, Lorelai…

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Wonder

Running has always been an escape for me. I’m currently not nearly as much of a runner as I used to be, but I still try to push myself. I would like to pause for a moment and assure my readers that this, by no means, insinuates that I am a good runner. Over the years, it’s been pointed out to me that my form could certainly use some work (“it’s like Flubber on wheels” one track coach commented). Furthermore, whenever I push myself beyond my comfort level, my breathing takes on a panicked pattern, and I have a tendency to spit into the wind, thus right back into my own contorted face. Combine that with a head of hair that inevitably goes “poof!” by the first mile marker, and I can assure you that at the completion of most of my workouts my image resembles less of a Lance Armstrong in running shoes and more of a misfit white boy who drools habitually and stuck a fork in an outlet right before collapsing in a panting heap on the ground. It’s disheartening really.

The point is: I run because I love to run. I have very little going for me in the running world and the day it becomes anything short of rewarding and personally enjoyable, I will probably stop. Yes, I am aware this makes me a freak. I’m also a boy named Bryn, so this is a running theme (pun!).

So I’ve begun running again. The other day, I woke up early on an overcast but unseasonably warm November morning to begin a 14-mile training run (Training for what, you ask? Well, follow my blog religiously for the next six months, and you’ll find out! Click subscribe now!). I set out in running shoes, shorts and a light pullover, and by the first mile I was already sweating.

From my house in Southwest Harbor, I set off down Seal Cove Road. About three miles outside of town, this street enters Acadia National Park and turns into a gravel road that leads to a network of similar roads all through the most remote sections of the park. In the winter, gates at either end of this road are closed and the route is completely abandoned…except for me. Few things excite me more than an empty gravel running path through the heart of otherwise untouched wilderness.

I passed the closed gate and kept running into the heart of the park. About four miles from home I reached an intersection with a right hand turn onto another branch of the road. I usually go straight; in fact, I had never turned at this point before. But something got a hold of me this morning, and I decided, what the heck, why not?

The path answered my question shortly after I made this decision when it immediately angled up hill. The next quarter-mile or so was a steady up-hill gait, and by the time the path had flattened out, the sound of my breathing resembled a whoopee cushion, and several spots of spit had ended their boomerang flight on my face. I kept jogging and the road remained flat, giving me a chance to catch my breath.

And that’s when I passed a trailhead. It wasn’t much but on the side of the gravel road was a small wooden sign next to an overgrown trail, which read “Mansell Mountain” above a right facing arrow.

I’d never hiked around Mansell Mountain and honestly couldn’t remember ever hearing much about it. The prospect of running up it that morning was tempting, but I needed to focus on my mileage. So I kept running.

About a mile up the road, though, I saw another trailhead. I stopped at the sign:

“Razorback Trail Head leading to Mansell Mountain” the sign read.

Now this just wasn’t fair. Razorback Trail? What a masochistically enticing name! Here before me was a path that lead to an unknown peak along a trail that promised the ability to slice objects (such as, say, lost runners) to shreds.

Furthermore, this was the second trail marker I’d passed in the last ten minutes, which obviously meant that God really wanted me to go up this mountain today. Please don’t question my logic on this one.

And so I turned and took off down the trail. I skirted a muddy path and splashed water up onto my legs. The trail steepened as a light drizzle began and the mud gave way to portions of open rock face. I quickly came to understand why this trail was called “The Razorback”. Several portions were narrow, spiked sections of rock, barely wide enough to walk across, with a four to five foot drop-off on either side. These portions were particularly slippery. I had to slow to somewhat of a speed walk for fear of losing my footing. Being in road shoes didn’t help either; I felt much as though I were running along a tile floor in fleece socks.

The tree line opened up and behind me I could see the section of the park I’d been running in, as well as Southwest Harbor off in the distance. Mansell Mountain appeared to be up to my north, with a valley and another peak (the name of which I also didn’t know) on my left. A mysterious fog settled above the trees between these two mountains. It was like I’d stepped from my house that morning, and just a few small steps later found myself in a world that was right under my nose, and yet completely unknown.

JRR Tolkien said (via Bilbo Baggins) that it’s a dangerous business stepping outside one’s door because you never know where you might be swept off too. As I continued running, I couldn’t help but wonder where I was, wonder where Mansell Mountain topped off, wonder how I’d never explored this section of the park before, wonder if “he died on the Razorback” would be a cool enough eulogy, and in general, just wonder at the wonder of it all. I wasn’t quite sure where I was, and really didn’t know where I was going. It was great.

Suddenly the trail flattened out and a small mound of rocks marked the top of Mansell Mountain, elevation 979 feet. I hit the pause button on my stopwatch and stood staring at the sign for a moment. I was covered in sweat, so a single gust of wind on the exposed rock sent shivers down my spine.  I took a quick glance around  but was hit with another chill, so I decided it best to start running again.

I hope I never lose my sense of wonder at the world because with it comes a sense of peace and understanding that I can’t quite explain. It propels me into a creation that is so vast, so magnificent, and so beautiful that I find myself with a comprehension that some things just can’t be comprehended. It’s only with this wonder, only with this fascination with all that lies outside my door, that I find peace in playing a small role in something quite large and wonderful itself.

I returned down the trail the way I’d come, much more slowly than the way up for fear of slipping while going full speed. That’s when I noticed what I hadn’t in my final push: a small but distinct trail leading to the right of my homeward route. I glanced at its muddy tracks, twisting and turning into the foliage and out of view.

I couldn’t help but wonder where it might lead.