I chose the word “intentional” as my one word for this year. It acts as a sort of touchstone, a word I can return to again and again when I need to make decisions, when my calendar spirals out of control, or my life feels untamed. I didn’t want to choose it. As one friend pointed out, it sounds like the broccoli of word choices. Good for you, but no fun when your mother forces you to swallow it down. I realized “intentional” chose me when, despite all of my to-do lists and scheduled plans, I felt as if I spent every day treading water. The things I wanted to accomplish and the goals I aspired to, fell somewhere just out of reach, a finger’s breadth beyond the mad rush to the grocery store for the one forgotten item or the “last” load of laundry before lights out. Now that I have kids, I realize there isn’t ever a last load. Life ticks along at a solid clip, and I need to re-evaluate what stays and what needs to go. I think you know on which list the laundry landed.
I have a few non-negotiables on my mental checklist of what constitutes a successful day. Spending a few minutes in prayer is one, and running is the other. My morning routine is this: eat, pray, run. Even when I resolve to be intentional, these practices, like the laundry, must stay. In addition to my one word, prayer is my other touchstone—the one I feel for every morning in the cold creep of sunrise. Four days a week, a run follows shortly thereafter. For years, I told myself I face the daily grind on the treadmill because I like to eat ice cream. I also like to fit in a swimsuit after eating said ice cream. But, over time, multiple races, and many injuries, I realize running has become a prayer too. It’s the wordless thanks for a body that retains the physical capacity for movement. It is a muscles in motion, lung searing, bodily capacity for joy.
I didn’t always feel this way. For a long time, it truly was about the ice cream and the swimsuit. I didn’t realize how I relied on my daily run to keep me sane and grateful until I started to experience injuries along the way. I tend to run through the niggly ones, the nagging pains and the stiff joints. But, for the better part of last year, I struggled to run past the sharp pain shooting down the back of my right leg. I gave it a solid effort, managing to participate in a 200-mile relay race a friend roped me into running. After the race, when I’d hung my finisher medal in the closet and returned to a non-training schedule, the pain kept me awake at night. I shuffled into the bathroom for Advil in the wee hours, thinking of how few miles I could get away with running come morning light. Too many sleepless nights finally sent me to the doctor, who shook his head when I told him how long I had continued to run through this obvious weakness. At the end of last year, this led me to thrice weekly visit to a physical therapist.
I entered 2014 injured, frustrated, and trying to “live intentionally”, while physical therapy sucked up many of my free hours during the week. And still, I couldn’t give up the running. I snuck in a few miles before my sessions, answering the therapist’s pointed questions with a vague response. After weeks of seemingly little progress, they came right out and told me to STOP THE RUNNING. So I stopped this necessity, this cellular prayer, and watched my physical touchstone turn to dust in my hands. Despite the therapy and this abrupt physical rest, my body never fully recovered.
Around the time the pain started, I quit attending my weekly session of Pilates. We moved, I lost track of time, and running didn’t require equipment or an instructor. I didn’t know it at the time, but this signaled my body’s right-sided rebellion. I have scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and Pilates helped keep everything strong and tight, more uniformly aligned. I missed the sessions, and my physical therapist recommended I start training again. I didn’t want to add another thing to my schedule, another to-do, however good for me. But, I wanted to run, to race, to feel the freedom of my feet pounding out songs on the running trail. I thought living with intention meant subtracting things from my schedule, and now, here I was adding something else.
The first time I visited the pilates instructor, I told her about my problem and my modest goal: get back into running shape. She took one look at my tight hip-flexors and curved back, and she set me to work. “ You are very strong,” she said, and I repeated it like a mantra in my head. We started at the basics, and within a few weeks, I felt some of my flexibility returning. I felt stronger, mostly because my instructor said so, and I slowly re-introduced my body back to running. Before I went off exercise cold-turkey, I’d accumulated an impressive weekly mileage, the kind of mileage one throws out in conversation and people gasp a little and say, “you mean in actual miles?” I confess—I became a bit mileage proud. This year, I had to start at the very beginning. And no matter how lyrical Maria Von Trapp makes it sound, it didn’t feel like a very good place to start.
I returned to the basics: strengthening and lengthening my muscles through Pilates and later, an incremental and excruciatingly slow return to regular running. I threw off my mileage goals, and set a simple one. Just run. No pressure, no race training, no pushing past the pain. I ran for the simple pleasure of reaching my hand out to feel for my touchstone. This is the same way that I pray. No pressure, no twenty point checklist, no outrageous expectations. I reach out for the things that ground me, the non-negotiables of my day, and I strip them back to their simplest form.
Living intentionally teaches me to hold everything up to the light and examine it for its true value. Some things will remain: prayer, pilates, running, and the ever-present laundry. Everything else is ice cream on top.