“The world comes at me with its busyness…” lamented Mary Oliver, perfectly encapsulating a need to step aside. To exist without striving.1
“It might be a little silly,” admits Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) in his meditative memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “I find spending an hour or two a day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring.”
As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.
Like Murakami, I am a runner. A lover of aloneness. I regularly explain my introversion by saying it is not a function of shyness, but rather I am most comfortable being alone.
Aloneness brings space, a dark indigo incognito of space into which you fall gently and swiftly, the kind that is as vital to existence. More than mere solitude, it is avoiding the world’s busyness. Rilke urged us to “go into ourselves” and he was right.
For decades, Murakami has found a comforting void while running five miles a day, every single day. When I Talk About Running… is a memoir of Murakami as a runner, and by extension, as a writer.
Best to learn from my mistakes and put that lesson into practice the next time around… This may be the reason, while I’m training for the New York Marathon – I’m also writing this. Bit by bit I’m remembering things that took place when I was a beginning runner more than twenty years ago. Retracing my memories, rereading the simple journal I kept (I’m never able to keep a regular diary for very long, but I’ve faithfully kept up my runner’s journal) and reworking them into essay form, helps me consider the path I’ve taken and rediscover the feelings I had back then. I do this to both admonish and encourage myself. It’s also intended as a wake-up call for the motivation that, somewhere alone the line, went dormant.
Long-distance running suits my personality, though, and of all the habits I’ve acquired over my lifetime I’d have to say this one has been the most helpful, the most meaningful. Running without a break for more than two decades has also made me stronger, both physically and emotionally.
The culmination of small, consistent actions every day – things grown piece by piece – forms something meaningful. Murakami admits that existing within a void creates a parallel track of focus that ultimately supports his day to day doings.
I’m the kind of person who has to experience something physically actually touch something, before I have a clear sense of it. No matter what it is, unless I see it with my own eyes I’m not convinced. … Only when I’m given an actual burden and my muscles start to groan (and sometimes scream) does my comprehension meter shoot upward and I’m finally able to grasp something. Needless to say it takes quite a bit of time, plus effort, to go through each stage, step by step, and arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes it takes too long, and by the time I’m convinced it’s already too late. But what’re you going to do? That’s the kind of person I am.
Echoing Dani Shapiro’s sage writing advice to “sit down and stay there” Murakami figures running has shaped his writing life: “sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story.”
French philosopher Simone Weil urged that when we empty ourselves, when we purge the concept of “I”, we allow for entrance of something else. Weil was speaking of God but it could just as well be inspiration, clarity or “thoughts drifting like clouds”.
Or it could be nothing.
When I Talk About Running moves by with a nice syncopation, one measured by footsteps, tapping keystrokes, thoughts being formed. But there is also meandering, Murakami picks up thoughts, plays with them for a bit, and then sets them down in pursuit of he knows not what. 2
It’s been a while since I’ve run the streets of Tokyo, which in September is still sweltering. the lingering heat of the summer in the city is something else. I silently run, my whole body seaty. I can feel even my cap steadily getting soaked. The sweat is part of my clear shadow as it drips onto the ground. The drops of sweat hit the pavement and immediately evaporate.
Accompany Murakami’s superb self-witnessing with Stephen Fry’s delight in the pause of poetry, Juni’ichiro Tanizaki’s praise of hidden pleasures, or my own study of that niggling feeling that something, someone will come at you with its busyness.
Murakami wrote this book when he was a Harvard Fellow and he ran daily alongside the Charles River. I lived in Boston too and was also training for a marathon. Chances are high that the great Japanese author and myself were in the same space at the same time. Each wondering about the other?
Or both thinking about exactly nothing in particular and enjoying emptiness of mind.
No matter what, though, I keep up my running. Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit just because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.
Murakami wrote “When I Talk About Running” in his late fifties, he is in his seventies now. I imagine him running.